Not a Pretty Girl: How Women Are Fighting Pop Culture’s Tyranny of Attractiveness

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In the darkly comic Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd, our murderous hero, having finally gotten within razor-swinging distance of his mortal enemy, pauses before he avenges several decades of wrongs to sing a rapturous duet called “Pretty Women” with the villain. That is the power of female beauty: it can bring together psychotic rivals, inspire them to put aside their differences and agree that, yeah, good-looking chicks are the best.

That is a principle upon which popular culture has functioned for centuries. Men get to be heroes and villains, fools and cowards, old and young. Women get to be objects, whether of attraction or derision. As Sondheim put it in a different song, this one sung by a world-weary woman, “First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp/ Then someone’s mother, then you’re camp.”

In the decades since Follies and scholar Laura Mulvey’s coining of the term “the male gaze” in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” some women have demanded – and received – attention on their own terms. Missy “Eat It Like a Vulture” Elliott, Ani “Not a Pretty Girl” DiFranco, and Liz “Fuck and Run” Phair; Sarah Silverman and Margaret Cho; Sheila Heti and Zadie Smith. These and other female artists have fought for the ability to appear – and to create characters that are – dynamic and flawed, even “unlikeable.” Still, their art has often remained on the fringes. The vast majority of women in the public eye have accepted the notion that their first responsibility is to remain appealing to men.

Abbi and Ilana of Broad City, along with Lena Dunham’s character Hannah on Girls, have helped expand our understanding of what women can appear to be onscreen: they are rougher, bawdier, and in some cases chubbier than, say, Mary Tyler Moore was, but they’re all still indisputably cute. Liz Lemon of 30 Rock got teased for her dowdy wardrobe and “lesbian” shoes, yet voice of the patriarchy Jack Donaghy once said to her, “In certain lights, you’re an eight! Using East Coast, over-35 standards, excluding Miami.” Even characters written to be homely, like Hermione Granger, Ugly Betty’s Betty Suarez, and Game of Thrones’ Brienne of Tarth, ended up being played by Emma Watson, America Ferrera, and Gwendoline Christie.

For at least a century, the media has made clear that the worst thing you can call a woman isn’t dumb or even fat – it’s unattractive. The situation is so dire it can make you wonder: Can a woman be called unfuckable and survive? At last, we’re getting an answer, as a diverse array of impressive women seem to have decided that they refuse to continue living in fear of being called ugly. They are drawing attention to the fear instead, and even sometimes turning it into the butt of the joke.

Amy Schumer’s scathing, episode-long indictment of beauty culture, modeled after 12 Angry Men, in which a jury of her peers debated whether she was sufficiently hot to be on television, went beyond viral to the pages of the New York Times. Other must-watch episodes have shown her without makeup for comic (and shock) effect, and meeting a cheerfully foul-mouthed group of Hollywood actresses having a “Last Fuckable Day” celebration.

In a more oblique way, Schumer also addresses the issue in her feature film writing-and-acting debut Trainwreck, which is what you might call an anti-vanity project. Schumer stars as Amy, a hard-drinking, hilarious New York writer who enjoys one-night stands. This makes her a little bit like Carrie from Sex and the City, but whereas Carrie is a Size 2 control freak who is dismayed to hear that people think she views men as disposable, Amy would probably embrace the idea; she has no illusions that she is “nice.” She treats men like flesh-and-blood sex toys – or, at least, she does until she meets paradigm-shifting sports medicine mensch Aaron Conners.

Sarah Hepola’s revelatory debut memoir Blackout tells a similar story: hedonistic, boozy blonde falls into bed after bed. When she gets drunk, she gets mean, and Hepola is unstinting in the way she describes acting badly toward friends, acquaintances, boyfriends, strangers, and even her beloved cat. Here she is describing her hunger: “I was all mouth. I want Taco Bell now. I want cigarettes now. I want Mateo now.” Good girls don’t demand junk food and vices and sex. Good girls know beauty is more than symmetry and skin tone; it’s as much about acting appealing as it is looking appealing. It’s what I’ve called the tyranny of the flattering, and Hepola shrugs that off like a tight coat.

Memoir teachers everywhere tell students they must be hardest on themselves, but few writers manage to reveal their own ugliness while simultaneously avoiding falling into the tar pits of self-pity. Hepola manages it. She isn’t trying to shock us, though her book is one part gross to four parts engrossing; she is merely painting an honest Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Drunk. And then, without the help of either Prince Charming or Jesus, she saves herself, for no other reason than because it’s time.

Other pop cultural phenomena from this year give me hope that 2015 will be remembered as a watershed moment for feminism, for women in media being treated as real, flawed people, rather than pretty girls. Take, for instance, the much-lauded new series UnREAL on – of all stations – Lifetime, recently praised on Slate as “the first antihero show that is created by women, stars women, and at times brutally satirizes women.” And as The Hairpin recently noted, some women in the spotlight have stopped shaving their armpits, in thrillingly flagrant disregard for the male gaze.

But perhaps the most encouraging example of all is Netflix’s prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black. The show has always been remarkable for its diversity in terms of cast members’ race, age, size, gender identity, and sexual orientation. And its most recent season seems less concerned than ever with whether male audience members find its khaki-clad protagonists a turn-on.

Over Season 3, when certain inmates doll themselves up to get attention, they are using sex appeal to cheat, steal, manipulate, and, in one heinous case, get an innocent man attacked. Otherwise – with the exception of Sophia, who runs a beauty parlor now that, as she once put it, “I finally am who I am supposed to be” – our heroes are often indifferent to their appearances, focused instead on a) survival, b) revenge, and c) the heartbreaking question of how one can parent from prison.

Beauty is valuable, even vital, but it cannot be demanded of anyone, and certainly not of half the population. Women are not national parks; we cannot expect them to remain forever groomed for our visual pleasure. Especially when, as movies like the recent crowd-pleaser Magic Mike XXL make clear, there are plenty of men out there willing to shoulder their share of the burden of being hot for a living.

In OITNB and several other mainstream cultural properties, we are able to track society’s progress in real time, as female writers and characters increasingly define themselves through their human struggles, not their specifically feminine ones. The more we build on those examples – and allow even women in the public eye to benefit from the freedom they make possible – the richer our culture will be.