There is an abundance of beautiful heroines. Especially when they are not the main character, seen through the eyes of a man as a prize, sometimes as a prize with an ounce of agency and intelligence, but a prize nonetheless (that agency and intelligence only make her more alluring). In Evgenia Citkowitz’s Ether, the main woman is a stunning young actress; the man who she ends up with is an unattractive older academic, whose physical description screams “disgusting” but who possesses charms through his personality and intellect. The novel mocks this trope in a way (the balding and physically repulsive, condescending older academic with the younger, exceedingly beautiful, bright but not as smart, woman) — in my opinion, not enough. I am not a fan of the “it’s so sexist that it’s actually kind of feminist, right?” sort of thing.
But really, from what I’ve been reading lately, everything is about beautiful women, even within feminist or women’s writing. Clarissa Dalloway is beautiful. Maria Wyeth is beautiful. The women in Clarice Lispector’s short stories are often quite beautiful. When they are not beautiful, they are plain (with potential for beauty, obviously!), but so far it is rare to find The Hour of the Star-levels of ugliness. Esther Greenwood sees herself as ugly (often in racialized terms), but she has her admirers. Alice in The Vet’s Daughter is never described as beautiful, but never seems to be verging on ugly or even grotesque (again, she has her admirers). Where are the women who are repulsive?
There are a few ugly heroines. Isabelle-Marie in Marie-Claire Blais’ Mad Shadows is ugly, and her mother grows grotesque as she becomes disfigured by infection. Macabéa in The Hour of the Star is supposedly ugly, but the narrator is unreliable and cruel. The second Mrs. de Winter is exceedingly plain, but one has to wonder if it’s only in comparison to the exceedingly beautiful first Mrs. de Winter. But more often than not you get the “My looks aren’t bad, but they aren’t great… but they are mine and I accept them” sort of feel to women in fiction. What of women who are so ugly that they cannot accept their looks, or only accept how ugly they are rather than the “I may not be a great beauty but I am fine!” line of thought!
I have been thinking of this for two reasons. First, I found out that George Eliot was ugly. She was described as horse-faced, and her father thought her lack of looks would mean she wouldn’t find a husband. But there is still a reluctance to admit it! In an article from the New Yorker, a number of descriptions for Eliot’s looks are collected: “It must be a terrible sorrow to be young and unattractive: to look in the mirror and see a sallow unhealthy face, with a yellowish skin, straight nose, and mouse-colored hair,” “next to no feminine beauty or charm,” “magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous,” “exceedingly plain, with her aggressive jaw and her evasive blue eyes,” with a few horse comparisons. Yet the author seems to refuse to name the ugliness. Instead it gets called Eliot’s “less than conventionally beautiful appearance,” or “her looks, both of which presented a challenge to acceptable norms” (this isn’t ugliness, it’s just non-normative, a challenge, a rebellion), “alleged ugliness” (was she really ugly?), and finally the rather soft descriptors of “uncomely appearance” and “wasn’t good-looking.” None of this describes the harsh reality of “ugly.” To obsess over her ugliness is comparable to obsessing over defending her “beauty” which was simply “unconventional” — what is most important is her writing. Was Evelyn Waugh ugly? Was Henry James ugly? Yes, but no one cares. Was George Eliot ugly? Yes and either we seem to find it somehow remarkable, since women are not allowed to be ugly, or we disavow the ugliness.
My second reason for thinking of ugliness in women was Ash Wednesday (Larry Peerce, 1973), the film in which a somewhat bloated and wrinkled Elizabeth Taylor gets full-body plastic surgery to impress her distant husband (Peter Fonda). But the premise is that Elizabeth Taylor with some sagging skin around her eyes and neck is ugly, despite the fact that she is still Elizabeth Taylor, and therefore one of the most beautiful women to live. The film concludes that really regardless of her appearance, it was her husband, not her and her fading looks, which was breaking up the marriage — but it still takes great pains to show us the grotesqueness of a pre-surgery Taylor, the grotesqueness of the surgery itself (plenty of gore!), and the grotesqueness of the recovery, in order to contrast with her beauty and perfection (in elegant hair, a new wardrobe, and perfect makeup).
Ugliness is proposed in order to glorify beauty, in one of the world’s most beautiful women. Which is almost… offensive? The idea that a puffy, jowly Liz Taylor with her head pushed back into her neck to create a double chin from the right angle is in any way ugly is absurd, and I think we all know that. In a way it reminds me of Funny Face being premised on the idea that Audrey Hepburn is weird-looking, when she was, and still is, an acclaimed beauty.
So can we ever get ugly women in fiction, who aren’t monstrous villains, or actually just beautiful, or not wearing any makeup, or a little bit plain but some man will find her truly attractive very soon? The problem is that it probably doesn’t matter, because either we will render the ugly woman monstrous and mock her and strip her of her humanity and reduce her to a failed femininity as “femininity” and “ugliness” are not compatible. Or we will deny she was ever ugly and protest because we know that “femininity” and “ugliness” are not compatible, and we know ugliness is one of the worst possible insults to a woman, whose beauty is praise above all else, and we will not afford her the position of “ugly woman.” While ugliness was a part of George Eliot (it’s credited with why she even got an education, and it’s remarked upon by significant historical figures who knew her) we either deny it or mock her. But her ugliness should be accepted. In the same way that you can’t google “Clarice Lispector” without reading “looked like Marlene Dietrich.” Lispector was stunning, and Eliot was hideous. We don’t need to make appearance take precidence over work. But I also don’t see the need to deny Eliot’s ugliness, especially when we are so starved for ugly women.
In this manner we will never get the psychology of the woman who is repulsive.