Not the Girls We Think They Are: On unattractive female characters in fiction

Jane Eyre (2011)

Jane Eyre (2011)

“She isn’t ugly enough.”

This was my friend’s comment on the actress playing Tris Prior in the movie Divergent as we stood in line to buy tickets.

“She wouldn’t be my type if I were into girls,” I replied, thinking I’d missed the punch line of a joke and trying to compensate with humour of my own.

“No,” my friend insisted.  “People are complaining about the actress being too pretty because in the book Tris is supposed to be ugly.  Remember?”

We’d both read the book.  My friend enjoyed it more than I did, and as a result seemed to remember certain details better than me as well.

But now that she mentioned it, I did recall something about Tris considering herself unattractive, or in the very least, plain, and that she was sure her male crush would dislike her because of it.

It’s not uncommon in books with female protagonists – particularly those marketed towards female readers, like Romance or paranormal/dystopian YA – for said protagonist to deem herself unpretty

I understand why authors do this, the message they’re TRYING to convey:

  • That looks aren’t all that matters in relationships
  • That society is too preoccupied with the physical appearance of woman, to the point of causing insecurity for many or most
  • That women who don’t fall within the narrow range of what mainstream western society considers “pretty” deserve to be represented in fiction as well
  • That pretty girls aren’t the only ones either desiring or obtaining love and adventure in real life.

But are these ugly girls of fiction actually achieving any of these goals?  I’m not so certain, for a few key reasons:

1) They still focus on mainstream appearance

Most ugly girls with popular fiction still subscribe to notions of mainstream beauty; they just don’t happen to possess that beauty themselves given which their complaints to that effect make.

And while it’s true, they often come to accept themselves as they are by then end of the story, this acceptance often comes through an alternate form of mainstream validation, i.e. a boy who acknowledges her positive attributes or otherwise accepts her in spite of her insecurities, which then seem to magically disappear.

2)  They don’t usually sound that ugly

Particularly in YA fiction, none of these so-called ugly girls ever strike me as quite that unattractive.

They’re often defined as “plain” or having one or two troublesome features, like frizzy hair, wide hips, or larger than average nose.

“Plain” is not ugly, but rather a matter of style that can be changed with the help of a fashionista friend or a subscription to Michelle Phan’s YouTube channel.

I do get the point that attractive people can feel insecure about their appearance too.  But how much of that is attributable to the very practice in storytelling of having attractive people think they’re not?

And what does say to people who aren’t mainstream pretty? (“If-SHE’S-ugly-there’s-no-hope-for-me”.)

Furthermore, not making a character definitively unattractive in this case seems like something of a bait and switch to me – like the author wants to be able say she’s unattractive, yet not have to attend to the real life consequences this should logically produce for the character.

3) They still fit within the broad societal categories of attractiveness

Anne Hathaway as a "too pretty" Emma Morley in One Day (2011).

Anne Hathaway as a “too pretty” Emma Morley in One Day (2011).

As a follow up to # 2, a lot of the ugly girls we encounter in fiction still have a lot going for them by being white, slim, and able-bodied, three of the dominant determinants of attractiveness in mainstream society.

Emma Morley from David Nicholls’ One Day – while apparently not attractive enough to have been played by Anne Hathaway in the movie according to some – is a pale, bespectacled girl with mousy brown hair.

Marina from Cristin Terrill’s All Our Yesterdays is wealthy, well-dressed, and also white.

Tris, we’re told in Divergent, has fair hair.  That, in addition to being white and slender holds, considerable clout in a society where both the under-representation of ethnic diversity by mainstream media and the colonial exportation of western beauty standards has led to the belief held by many that white and blonde is the epitome of attractiveness.

4) Does it even have anything to do with the story?

I would argue that the book Bridget Jones’s Diary is a good example of the female protagonist’s unattractive appearance being central to the plot.

While not described as ugly per se, we’re regularly informed of Bridget’s weight and overeating, as well as other such vices as smoking, drinking, and falling for unsuitable men, her quest to overcome all of these being the whole point of the story.

In a lot of other books, however, the protagonist’s appearance isn’t really the point at all.

In Divergent, Tris is busy ascending the fighting ranks to survive her initiation into the Dauntless faction.  She’s also trying to figure out what being divergent is all about, and how to use it achieve her goals.

Why does what she thinks she looks like even matter when so many other things more relevant to story could’ve motivated her insecurity about the boy she likes?

Being skilled or special doesn’t preclude anxiety about looks in either men or women.  But it does sometimes feel like it’s included deliberately with female characters to keep them in their place and prevent them from seeming too powerful and proud.

She’s the chosen one; she’s got mad skills that are the envy of her peers, both male and female; everyone is depending on her to save the day.  But she thinks she’s ugly, so she’s not all that.

Garbage.

That’s my opinion of that.

~

Why can’t a female protagonist just be?  A better way to subvert our looks-focused society through fiction – if not through a frank examination of the impacts of beauty privilege or how adherence to the beauty myth can diminish the quality of a person’s life – is by not making an issue of female characters’ level of attractiveness at all.

By not even commenting on it if unnecessary.

Women already receive enough messages about physical appearance – both subtle ones and those that are more blatant – in visual media.  A great way counteract this is through print media – through fiction.

If not by being part of the solution, than by not further contributing to the problem.

What are your thoughts on how female characters’ appearance is portrayed in fiction (both attractive and unattractive characters)?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1 and #2)

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20 thoughts on “Not the Girls We Think They Are: On unattractive female characters in fiction

  1. You’re at your best here when discussing gender issues. Interesting stuff.

    I have little experience reading YA fiction, so I’m not sure that adult characters would be depicted as having the same anxieties. I read a lot of mysteries, which tend to have types (e.g., the roguish cousin who flies in from overseas for the funeral, the attention-hogging, alcoholic actress with a faded career, etc), and they seldom dig into motivations that don’t pertain to whoever was murdered. I’m thinking through the novels I’ve read over the years (75% of my reading is non-fic) and the writers whose work I’ve got a pretty good handle on (Nick Hornby, Vonnegut, Elmore Leonard, Stephen King off the top of my head) and I feel like Hornby and King have done a pretty good job of writing multididimensional female characters without empahsizing appearance. Vonnegut, as brilliant as he was, doesn’t seem to understand women or even try. Elmore Leonard, as much as I think his prose flawless, doesn’t seem to delve all that deep into motivation. His books are very visual, to the point that they block you out of the character’s mind like a movie does.

    Since my WiP is exclusively female POV, I’m curious to hear your take on these issues when the time comes.

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    • Why thank you, sir!

      I find that this anxiety about appearance in genres that target adult female readers too (e.g. Romance, Women’s Fiction), particularly those with a romantic subplot. It really irritates me sometimes, because it feels like the defeat reason female characters are insecure about relationships with men. Personally, I’ve been insecure about lots of other things: being unemployed, being less worldly, being more granola, being black. You’d think that in written stories where we can’t actually see anything (unlike visual media) we could finally get away from imposing beauty ideals on women, but that’s sadly not always the case.

      When I finally get to read your WIP, I’ll definitely do so through a feminist lens (not that you’re obligated to write a feminist tale; that’s just how I roll).

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      • I probably haven’t read too many books with romance as the story core. I’ve read a few books written by men specifically targeted at women and typically found the female characters to be one-dimensional, their entire existences revolving around their relationships with men (lots of crying). But those books tend to be from a male standpoint so we never really get to see what the woman is thinking. I guess my point in all this is that, given my personal reading experience and the particular (and peculiar) selection of books I’ve chosen, my biggest complaint about female characters is lack of dimension. I’ve also read more books by men than by women, which obviously has something to do with that. Your reading list and mine is unlikely to have much overlap.

        Regarding my WiP: If published and successful enough to warrant discussion by people who talk about books, it will probably be evaluated through a feminist lens. I don’t know how it couldn’t be. So have at it!

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  2. I recall Jane Eyre. She did not strike me as particularly physically attractive, but she sure had a story to tell. I think when writing YA, describing the character is enough…to go on to say things like “unattractive” might be a bad thing as girls who identify might feel even worse. Also, in YA, I would hope they have other redeeming qualities for true beauty lies within. Sometimes, most times really, if a female character is too perfect, I really can’t relate to her and may even resent her. I loved Helen Valentina’s protagonist in The Seed. She was unique and sensuous despite her flaws.

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    • As I was saying to Eric, you’d think that in written stories where we can’t actually see anything (unlike visual media) we could finally get away from imposing beauty ideals on women, but that’s sadly not always the case. Especially in YA, I’m not in favour of anything that presents real life situations in damaging ways (the reason I hated Divergent was because of the author’s treatment of Tris’s near-rape). Most young girls are already insecure enough about their appearance thanks to mainstream media; the last thing they need is for it to be reinforced in the books they read for enjoyment.

      I’m with you about too-perfect characters; no one likes a Mary Sue, as evidenced by the very existence of the term “Mary Sue/Gary Stu”. A good character needs a good balance of assets and flaws. I just really dislike it when “thinks she’s ugly” is made out to be an asset.

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  3. I must admit to being a bit confused Janna. Are you saying that appearance and physical characteristics are irrelevant to the story? In which case why describe the character at all. Surely you have to accept the reality that the concept of physical attractiveness is real? Maybe I’m just not understanding.

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    • I’m not saying that appearance and physical characteristics are irrelevant to the story (at least not is this particular post, although, to some degree, it could be argued).

      Rather, I’m saying that the practice of having a female character judge her appearance to lacking can be harmful when it doesn’t play a meaningful role in the story. I don’t know how much Romance, Women’s Fiction, YA, or other genres typically marketed towards women you read, Roy, but female characters viewing their appearance negatively is quite common. The point I’m making is that if an author does this as an attempt to keep characters from being too beautiful (as they tend to be in visual media), having a character think “I’m so ugly” without fully exploring the implications of that within the story does little to address the rampant preoccupation on women’s appearance in real life.

      What I’m saying is that if a female’s character’s ugliness (alleged or genuine) isn’t relevant to the plot, it’s more helpful to real life women to not even mention it at all.

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      • OK, new day, I think I’m getting there. I think I’m agreeing with all that, to a large extent anyway. Such treatment of a female character reinforces the ‘accepted’ definitions of attractiveness. Of course that is wrong, but maybe it ain’t gonna change anytime soon.

        But hey, men don’t just read crime and violence 🙂 I’m wondering now how prevalent this treatment of characters really is, though you’ve given three good examples. I’ve read most if not all of Maeve Binchy’s books. Sure, her women are usually young and white, but I don’t recall any that you’d call isolated by wonky looks. The last book I read was by another Irish chick-litser Cathy Kelly. Again a range of female characters and a good exploration of the generation gaps between mothers and daughters. But no ugly ones there either. Tom Woolf’s ‘I am Charlotte Simmons’ is one of the most powerful books I’ve read, dealing with a small-town beauty queen thrown into semi-feral college life. Her good looks and intelligence were no match for her naivety.

        My own protagonist Tess ‘examines herself critically in the mirror’ anxious to please her boyfriend. It’s irrelevant completely to the story but that’s just what happens in real life.

        Good article, nice debating points!

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      • …it ain’t gonna change anytime soon.
        Beauty standards are devised and reinforced over generations. But they definitely won’t change unless we of the media (i.e. storytellers) don’t create a new narrative around the idea of beauty, for the media is where most people are exposed to new ideas of what’s important and worthwhile.

        And now I’m off to find me a Maeve Binchey book. 🙂

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  4. I’ve never really thought that deeply into it, but you bring up some interesting points. It makes me think of the Not Another Teen Movie franchise where the “ugly” character is really just a pretty girl, with glasses (and/or maybe braces) and her hair in a ponytail. So from that point of view, it’s almost laughable because I think we all know even on a subconscious level that the protagonist is usually attractive and the only “ugly” people in fiction (books, tv, etc.) are the bad guys/girls. Even then they’re usually “sexy” in their own way (maybe they have a perfectly placed scar or dark hair…*gasp*).

    I read in a writing book before (forgot which one) that readers like for their protagonists to be attractive (but the villains don’t have to be). So in that case, if this is true, maybe the onus falls more on the public/society. Because our ideals seem to dictate fiction (at least commercial fiction).

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    • Thanks for the comment, Candace. I’d never really thought about it either until that incident with my friend at the theater, which then made me go “Hmmm”.

      I really dislike it when being bad or evil is conflated with not being conventionally attractive, because not everyone fits into that narrow societal definition of “pretty” – probably not even most people when you account for every aspect of “pretty” (i.e. size, race, presentation), and even “pretty” girls get their appearance harped upon in mainstream media.

      I read in a writing book before (The Key by James N. Frey) that one of the defining characteristic of the Hero (a la Hero’s Journey) is that s/he is sexually appealing, which is basically the same thing you read. I think onus is on both the public and the media, simultaneously, for the media is where most people are exposed to new ideas of what’s important and worthwhile, which in turn dictates what the public goes on to both demand from the media and create by way of new media.

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  5. It’s interesting that this doesn’t often occur where a male character is concerned (not that I’ve read, anyway). Male characters seem to have insecurities about ‘not being one of the guys’ in YA books and now that I’ve said that I can’t give you a specific example. I think the ‘attractive factor’ should only be used where is fundamental to the story (Elephant man?) or, as you said, Bridget Jones (insecurities overeating, etc.)

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    • Books are often snake pits of reinforced gender stereotypes for both women and men – stereotypes which are already ingrained in us to the point that we can’t recognize our own contribution in perpetuating those them. I always enjoy it when I come across a book that portrays characters in unconventional ways, or otherwise gives them more complex motivations than “the way women are/the way men are”.

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  6. As usual, I’m with you on this. I think making a female character ugly just to give her an insecurity and nothing more is pretty lazy storytelling. I mean, pretty much *all* young women are insecure about their looks.

    Characters are beautiful or ugly because of the things they do and say. That’s what a writer should focus on. I’m a bit put off by the bullet list of physical traits often plopped down when a book begins or new character enters. Characters gazing into mirrors. Tucking loose strands of long, dark (or curly, red; or wavy, blond; or whatever–because it really doesn’t matter!) behind their ears. It just always feels so cheap, so lazy, and I’ll often put a book down for this.

    Not to mention, male characters are never doing this stuff in fiction.

    If a character’s physical attributes are important to the story, by all means, the author should weave them in. Note: WEAVE them. Drop ’em in out of context and I’ll be rolling my eyes so hard. A good example is Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax character. I don’t remember how (which means it was probably done well), but the reader knows Sirantha’s hair is long. Later, she’s forced to cut it, which is hard for her. This trait matters. It makes sense to be there. Or if it’s a love story, and the hero is struck by the heroine’s messy curls, then yeah, put it in. Show it through his POV. We can sympathize with a hero who’s admiring his lady. Everyone loves to be admired; everyone loves to admire someone they love.

    So yeah. Description is important only when it’s important. Get to the story already.

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    • I want to put that on a plague: “Description is important only when it’s important.” In my WIP, it is important – the fact that the heroine looks like a female version of her father plays a significant role in the plot – however you can be sure there is no mirror-gazing and hair strand-twirling.

      Because novels aren’t visual, it’s definitely true that characters are beautiful or ugly based on what they say and do. This also makes it possible for them to be first one than the other in turns (thereby adding complexity to their roles).

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  7. I like to weave in descriptions of the characters – by the other characters. Then you have the external – what the character observes (there’s one set of choices), and the internal – what the character thinks about the other character. Then there are a couple of places where one of my characters actually say something about another character’s appearance (both main and secondary characters have their say), so the reader gets to choose, especially when the descriptions are at odds.

    The reader decides who to believe – and builds up a mental image of the character that may or may not agree with mine. That way I can give all sides of a characteristic – slim, thin, skinny, scrawny – and let the layers build up.

    It’s a useful technique when a character is getting too pretty OR too ugly. Too smart or too stupid…

    You can call hair dishwater-blonde or pale champagne – the reader gets the general idea, and the attitude. I haven’t used it that way yet, but one character’s changing views of another can also signal a change in their relationship without being heavy-handed about it. And women can glamor up or glamor down with makeup, hairdos, and dress; men can change their external appearance quite a lot.

    I saw Kathy Bates in Misery – and was blown away by a photoshoot she did for a women’s magazine looking stunning. Then you can add in the steps a person does or does not take when preparing to meet another person. I love the little touches.

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    • This is a useful technique, Alicia, to describe characters how they see themselves and how others see them. The result will be very true to life, for few of us perceive ourselves the way others do (usually we’re harder on ourselves). Ultimately, it is the reader who gets to decide what a character looks like, so it’s good to give him/her lots to draw from, and to keep the character humble (i.e not too pretty, ugly, etc.) at the same time.

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  8. Maybe you’ll end up writing science fiction with a female character who never thought once about her appearance or at least tried to look ok to the world. 🙂 I read travelogues and have read those by cycling women. Believe me, most of the time, they aren’t thinking about looking lovely. They’re just trying to crank the pedals with pannier weight to get to their next destination before it’s too dark/cold.

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