Despite my long-time fascination with the concept of “ugliness” (everyone writes about beauty; almost no one writes or talks or thinks about ugliness), I haven’t been paying much attention to the TV show Ugly Betty, which may be why I found this article on the show moving to England so interesting.
Among the things I didn’t know:
Ugly Betty is based on a hit 1999 Colombian soap opera, and has been sold to more than 70 countries, many of which have made their own versions.
Each country has modified the show to suit their cultural ideas of what constitutes ugly. In Germany, for example, the actress playing Betty had to wear a 50lb fatsuit.
However, all nations seem to agree that thick glasses and a mouthful of metal are markers of universal hideousness.
In India, Betty is so popular she featured on stamps.
Journalist Tess Simpson doesn’t only talk about the show: she also provides an excellent brief overview of the history of the ugly woman in literature (from Jane Eyre via Jo March to Bridget Jones).
She’s a bit more confused when it comes to social reactions to beauty:
In real life, few of us naturally warm to stunning women (ie rivals); similarly, impossibly beautiful characters on screen do not generally appeal to us. It has not always been this way. For centuries, beauty has been identified with goodness until the two have become almost synonymous. In Biblical times, imperfections such as hare lips were seen as punishment for sinfulness.
Today, that kind of prejudice is felt in the pressure on women who don’t conform to our ideas of beauty to ‘fix’ whatever is out of kilter, be it their teeth, their nose or the size of their breasts.
This seems internally contradictory: if we aren’t drawn to beautiful women, where would the pressure to “fix whatever is out of kilter” come from? And isn’t the “ugliness as punishment for sinfulness” concept reflected in the persistent contemporary description of eating too much as “sinful”?
Simpson gets back on track when she talks about the trend of “uglifying” beautiful actresses (she mentions Charlize Theron and Cameron Diaz; I always think of Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth) and also about our deep cultural expectation that Ugly Betty and her ilk will suddenly transform from Ugly Duckling into Swan, which apparently at least the U.S. Betty shows no signs of doing.
But the most telling sentence in the whole article is the last one: “Who knows, glasses and a mouthful of metal braces could yet be the next big fashion must-have for 2007.” Here Simpson is simply wrong. The signs of “ugliness” may vary from culture to culture, and decade to decade, but one thing is sure: Whatever our complex cultural attraction to ugly duckling characters may be (sympathy for what they represent, recognition for what we see in ourselves, hope for the transformation into swan, and so much more), it is not about wanting to look that way ourselves, and especially not about being willing to make an effort to look that way.
And even if it were, the fashion houses and designers who control these things would hardly play along.