Think of your favorite female protagonist. How is she described? The majority of main characters are vaguely described, because it allows for readers to project themselves onto the character. It’s an effective marketing strategy that allows for better book consumption. Readers enjoy imagining themselves as the heroes of the stories they’re reading and publishers want to make money. However, I feel as if the modern female protagonist has become a little to focused, and it’s for a very obvious reason: Hollywood Hates Ugly.
Ugly isn’t marketable. The desire for an appeasing, perfect package is a widespread phenomenon (one that I too am guilty of). It creates a vicious set of ideals though. There is an increase in self-consciousness, both male and female. Mirror, mirror-A summary of research findings on body image brings in various sociological information about America’s obsession with aesthetics. When speaking specifically to female beauty standards it is obvious that they [beauty standards] have “in fact become harder and harder to attain…The current media ideal of thinness for women is achievable by less than 5% of the female population.”
I’ll be honest. I see a lot of ugly men in Hollywood. Steve Buscemi, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rowan Atkinson, Paul Giamatti, that dude from The Walking Dead, Matt Smith, Iggy Pop, DJ Qualls, and John C. Reilly. None of these men fit the Hollywood concept of beauty (at least to me). For all intents and purposes, they’re ugly. When it comes to women I don’t see the same trends. The majority of them are conventionally beautiful; and that’s the problem. 15 year-old author Helena Coggan classifies YA heroines specifically as “the ducklings. They are: 1) the ugly duckling who becomes acceptable to society; 2) the naive duckling who knows nothing about her world; and 3) the antisocial duckling, who is not socially able.” I find this definition fitting. Within YA specifically these three kinds of protagonists are common. For example:
- Ugly Ducklings: Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, Jo March from Little Women, Cinder from Then Lunar Chronicles, Mia Thermopolis from The Princess Diaries, Ella from Ella Enchanted
- Naive Ducklings: Laura from Little House on the Prairie, Tris from Divergent, Lucy Pevensie from Chronicles of Narnia, Alice from Alice in Wonderland
- Antisocial Ducklings: Cathy from Fangirl, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Bella from Twilight, Matilda from Matilda
If you’re ugly in a book you typically get a make-over (a la Mia Thermopolis and Katniss). There are few characters in literature that remain physically ugly throughout their narrative, and their story is rarely very happy. Jane Eyre is one, so is Mary Bennet. Both are plain women with hard lives and little happiness. You can make the argument that Katniss becomes ugly again after taking down the capitol, scars and burns and trauma and all, but in the public psyche she’s Jennifer Lawrence. She isn’t marred and hurt and broken.
If you aren’t plain you have a redemption arch that makes you more desirable to readers and the other characters (like Hermione after the troll in the bathroom, like Jo March after getting married). You become kinder, gentler, mother-like, romantically involved. This isn’t something that is attractive to all readers. When I ask where are the ugly women what I’m really asking is where are the complicated women? Where are the women who hurt people, but also care for them? Where are the women who are morally grey? Where are the beautiful women who want a successful career and to sleep around? Where are the ugly women who want unconditional love and find it without changing? Where are the women who unapologetically never let anyone tell them how to fit a mold? I want selfish, loud, unrelenting women. I was selfless, quiet, door mats who develop on their own.
I want YA women to be complicated, because their readers are complicated too.