The Myth of the Ugly Duckling

She's so a-dork-able!

Last year I wrote a blog post detailing my biggest television pet peeves because TV shows are filled with conventions that are used and reused until they drive their audiences nuts. Repetition is part of popular culture.  There’s even an entire website devoted to annoying, overused TV tropes. Sure, we must accept the easy shorthand of the TV trope if we are going to watch TV, but ever since I started seeing ads for Zooey Deschanel’s new comedy, New Girl , I’ve been thinking a lot about one particular trope that I’ve always hated. It goes by many names, but for the purposes of this post, let’s call it “the myth of the ugly duckling.” You all read “The Ugly Duckling” when you were a kid, right? First published in 1843 (thanks Wikipedia!), Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story is about an unattractive baby duck who is abused by all who meet him until finally, one glorious day, he realizes that he is actually a beautiful swan! Here’s how Andersen’s story concludes:

He had been persecuted and despised for his ugliness, and now he heard them say he was the most beautiful of all the birds. Even the elder-tree bent down its bows into the water before him, and the sun shone warm and bright. Then he rustled his feathers, curved his slender neck, and cried joyfully, from the depths of his heart, “I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly duckling.”

 The lessons in this classic tale are clear: If people bully you based on something you cannot control, such as the fact that you are “ugly,” don’t worry. Eventually, you will be accepted by a group of much better looking people. These people will embrace you and love you based on something else you cannot control, the fact that you are now “beautiful” and look just like them. Good for you, little duck!

Obviously, this message of “beauty as transcendence” is problematic and highly damaging to the psyches of young children and insecure adults alike. But that’s not why I dislike the myth of the ugly duckling. I dislike it, and its many iterations in popular culture, because the ugly duckling is not “ugly.” I mean, have you seen a baby duck (or a baby swan) before? Let me refresh your memory:

Hag!

You weirdos need a makeover.

Kitten: "You dorks are both getting wedgies." Ducks: "Noooooooo!!!!"

Cygnet (aka, baby swan). For Kara.

And that’s pretty much the problem I have with the myth of the ugly duckling when it is translated into a film or TV show. It’s simply untrue. Don’t tell me someone is ugly when they are so clearly NOT ugly. My first exposure to this myth, as applied to women, occurred when I was about 6-years-old and watching my favorite channel, MTV:

Thank goodness “Goody Two Shoes” was in heavy rotation in 1982; it communicates so many important lessons about beauty, sexuality, and male-female relationships. The most important lesson Mr. Ant taught me is that women who wear suits, buns, and glasses are highly unattractive. Even when they are so clearly hot. This was upsetting to me because at the time I wore a large pair of glasses, quite similar to the pair worn by the woman featured in the video, and I often wore my hair pulled back. Also, I did not drink or smoke. “Shit,” my 6-year-old self noted, “I’m ugly!”

I wore the same glasses.

But not to worry. According to this video, it is easy to capture the attention of the wily Adam Ant. All you need to do is shake your bun out and remove those giant glases. Viola! Ant Ant is totally going to screw your brains out in that hotel room while his horny butler watches through the keyhole. I should also note this video’s plot, about an uptight looking woman who appears to be interviewing Adam Ant, and then decides to let her hair down (literally) and make sweet love to the rockstar, has very little to do with the song’s lyrics. The lyrics themselves (you can read them here), seem to be a critique of image and stardom and of the very transformation the woman makes. But my 6-year-old self was not listening to the lyrics. I was watching the video. And taking copious mental notes.

Rawr.

Fast forward a few years to one of my all-time favorite films, The Breakfast Club (1985, John Hughes). I did not see this film in the theater, but by the time I was in junior high it seemed to be playing on TBS every single Saturday afternoon. Like most kids of my generation, everything I thought I knew about being a teenager came from this film (or some other John Hughes film). Some of the film’s many lessons include: bad boys are sexy, girls who don’t like to make out are prudes, Claire is a “fat girl’s name,” detention is wicked awesome, and, most importantly, if you want cute boys like Emilio Estevez to think you are pretty, stop being so weird and interesting and let the popular girl give you a make over. Ally Sheedy, I am talking to you.

The Ugly Duckling...

...is really a Swan!

Even as an insecure preteen I noted with dismay that the pre-makeover Allison was actually very, very pretty. After all, she’s played by Ally Sheedy! Ally Sheedy is a fox!  Her “make over” doesn’t alter her appearance in any kind of radical way, much as the removal of a bun and glasses doesn’t change much about the goody two shoes in the Adam Ant video. Both of these women were beautiful from the start and the only people who insisted on their physical unattractiveness were the creators of these texts. In other words, almost every ugly duckling I have encountered, dating all the way back to Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, have never truly been “ugly.” Their ugliness is an artifice I have been asked to believe so that the beautiful, swanlike transformation that inevitably follows can happen. Time and again, beautiful women are cast in the role of the “awkward,” “drab,” “dorky,” or “ugly” girl. And all it takes to make them “ugly” is a pair of glasses, a disinterest in fashion, or a quirky hobby.

At this point you might be thinking: so what? Who cares if film and TV audiences are repeatedly asked to view highly attractive women as “ugly”? I guess my problem with all of this is that in these films and television shows I am told, over and over, that certain key signifiers make attractive women into unattractive or undesirable women. These signifiers include but are not limited to:

Being a tomboy and an awesome drummer:

Some Kind of Wonderful's Mary Stuart Masterson

Being poor:

Pretty in Pink's Molly Ringwald

Being Aaron Spelling’s daughter:

Saved by the Bell's Tori Spelling

Wanting to be an artist:

She's All That's Rachel Leigh Cook

Having musical talent that far outstrips that of your peers:

Glee's Lea Michele

Being smart and wearing glasses:

One Day's Anne Hathaway

In every case, the decision to be studious or artistic or slightly different from everyone else transforms a woman who would normally have more suitors than an alley cat in heat into a lonely spinster. So the message is: ugly women are screwed. And pretty women who value something other than being pretty are screwed. And if you are ugly and you like to read? Well, start collecting cats and Hummel figurines now because you have a lonely life ahead of you, spinster.

DORK.

And that is why I could not bring myself to watch the premiere of New Girl. I just could not stand the way that Zooey Deschanel’s character, Jess, was repeatedly described as being “dorky” and “awkward” in press releases and in early reviews. I don’t care how big her glasses are or how often she bursts into song at inopportune times. Zooey Deschanel is not a “dork.” She’s hot. Can a woman who is that beautiful really and truly be a “dork”?Now I’m not saying that hot chicks don’t get dumped, as Deschanel’s character does in the show’s premiere. And I’m not saying that hot chicks don’t find themselves feeling awkward or acting the fool. I am sure they do. But it’s hard to buy a woman like Zooey Deschanel as a true awkward dork.  You know who plays good dorks? Kristen Wiig. Someone else? Charlyne Yi. I believe her.

Yi gives good dork.

Just not another hot chick in glasses.

It’s time for film and TV to get a new trope. Make a character a social outcast because she’s a bully or because she’s too judgmental. Not because she wears glasses or reads books or carries a big purse. After all, you need a big purse to carry all those books. And you need glasses to read those books. Just sayin.

UPDATE on “Is GLEE Racist/Heterosexist/Ableist?”

Have the writers for Glee been reading this blog? No, of course they haven’t. But I was still very pleased to see that Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) got her big solo — West Side Story‘s “Tonight” — in last week’s episode, “Preggers.” There was a lot of talk about how Rachel (Lea Michele) has a better voice and really should have the solo, but Tina sang it nonetheless. A small victory for the show’s non-white characters.

glee42

And, of course, a lot of the episode was devoted to Kurt (Chris Colfer) and his strained relationship with his heteronormative father. I’m glad Kurt was a featured player and for the most part, I thought his story arc was intelligently rendered. Though, was it really necessary for Kurt to shimmy effeminately before making his game-winning kick? I’m still not sold on the show’s need to turn Kurt into Mr. Roper’s vision of the homosexual in every episode. However, the final scene between Kurt and his father, Burt (Mike O’Malley), when we learn that Kurt’s mother has been dead for many years and that Kurt’s father has always known that he was gay was very moving. I imagined these two men figuring out how to negotiate their complicated relationship in the absence of the mediating mother/wife figure and I did get a little weepy.

stanley_roper

One final note about “Preggers”: every time Sandy (Stephen Tobolowsky) appears on screen in a pair of pastel pants and a turtle-stitched belt, I laugh out loud. The show should get a costuming Emmy based on this character alone.

glee37

Is GLEE Racist/Heterosexist/Ableist?

Only three episodes have aired but I am already a huge fan of Glee. Hell, I was a huge fan 5 minutes into its premiere last spring. My enthusiasm for the program largely stems from my love of the American film musical: Glee is peppered with elaborate, often integrated, musical numbers. Even the show’s nondiegetic music is sung a capella. Sure, the musical television show has tried and failed to gain traction with American audiences, but Glee seems like it’s going to make it.

Glee's multiracial, multiethnic, multisexual cast

Glee's multiracial, multiethnic, multisexual cast

In the months following Glee‘s sneak preview/premiere back in May, however, some quiet rumblings began (also here and here). The show includes an African American female character, Mercedes (Amber Riley) who is … wait for it … overweight and sassy. The show also includes a homosexual character, Kurt (Chris Colfer), who loves Liza Minelli and obsesses over his fashion choices and a wheel-chair bound character, Artie (Kevin McHale) with thick, horn-rimmed glasses and sweater vests. Yes, these are a lot of stereotypes.

Mercedes and Kurt

Mercedes and Kurt

Of course, stereotypes are not inherently problematic, particularly when a show seems to revel in its stereotypes. For example, Glee is filled with numerous high school movie clichés, including snotty, blonde cheerleaders (Dianna Agron) and a squat, laconic football coach (Patrick Gallagher). But, the early complaints about Glee have been that its African American, Asian, homosexual, and handicapped characters have taken a backseat to the show’s white, heterosexual, able-bodied characters. Rachel (Lea Michele) and Finn (Cory Monteith) have received far more screen time, characterization and most importantly, solos, than any of the other young characters. For example, in the premiere episode’s “big number,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”, it is Rachel and Finn who not only monopolize the juiciest bits of the performance, but also turn the song into a romantic duet. I’m not sure that Artie, the parapalegic or Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), the Asian American character, have had more than 2 lines between them yet. And yet, these characters all over Glee‘s promotional images and in its trailers. As the blogger at Alas! A Blog put it “Diversity consists of real parts, not just tokenism.”

By including (and promoting) a diverse range of characters and then not utilizing them within the narrative or the musical numbers, the show seems to be saying that tokenism is enough. It’s a simulacrum of diversity. An all white cast would not be more politically savory but it would be more honest.

Rachel and Finn

Rachel and Finn

However, there are indications that the show will start allotting more screen time to some of its other perfomers. In the most recent episode, “Acafellas,” the primary narrative revolved around Will’s (Matthew Morrison) attempt to reclaim some of his lost confidence by starting up an all male a cappella quartet that performs 1990s era hip hop. This naturally leads to an a capella rendition of Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up.” Naturally.

The Acafellas conquer New Jack Swing

The Acafellas conquer New Jack Swing

But the show’s secondary storyline finally yielded some screen time to Mercedes and her somewhat inappropriate crush on Kurt. Kurt’s rejection provides the segue for one of the episode’s main musical performances, a sultry, dare I say “window busting,” rendition of Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows.” I was happy to see Mercedes have her moment in the spotlight because Amber Riley can really sing. And she looked pretty fierce in her black jumpsuit and fringed red jacket (even if such clothing is completely inappropriate for washing cars). The episode also featured a tender moment when Kurt finally vocalizes, for the first time, that he is gay. Glee often operates at one move away from reality, but this scene was both grounded and touching.

Fierce

Fierce

This most recent episode seems to indicate that the show will shift its storylines (and its solos) to different characters from time to time. I hope this is the case because, as I mentioned, I really like musicals. And a capella versions of “Poison.”

But what do you think? Is Glee going to be the kind of program that pays diversity a lot of lip service without actually putting it into practice? Or do we need to give this show more time to grow?