“Beauty can be considered neutral, sir. It is not the same as nice or good.” –Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals
Despite a few years walking around with a mouth full of metal (including, no kidding, headgear), my jaw naturally shifts to the right in a fashion that can only be described as “wonky,” and this pulls my lower lip off-center. My eyes, while present, are small, and the bulb and wings of my nose are large. The weight I have gained over the years settles in my cheeks. I am a normal looking person.
I don’t have any particular problem with the concept of beauty standards. There are features and combinations of features that are considered attractive, and they change by culture and time period. Some people are born beautiful, and good for them. Some people put in effort to present themselves as beautiful, and good for them too.
If something is beautiful, it is pleasing to observe–nothing more. And there can be value in that. What is tiring is when physical beauty is conflated with culturally valuable characteristics that have nothing to do with aesthetics.
One of the earliest and most persistent messages we receive is that “beauty” means “good.” We learn that to be beautiful is to be confident, to be kind, to be desirable–beauty is not just a positive quality, but is visual shorthand for those qualities. When we talk about inner beauty, we’re not referring to an elegant twist of small intestine or a particularly striking patellar tendon–we are referring to a good person.
If to have beauty is to have worth, what happens when you aren’t beautiful? If “beauty” means “good,” then “ugly” means “bad” and “plain” means “nothing.”
But the symmetric property of “beauty = good” is used in narratives all the time. Even though we have expanded our repertoire beyond the beautifully boring damsels in distress, we’re now faced with an infestation of Strong Female Characters, who are still, to a woman, beautiful. Female characters are consistently presented in terms of their beauty–either they already are beautiful or they become beautiful. Even if we don’t get an extensive physical description, the default (when casting, at least) is beauty.
It seems to be particularly prevalent in fantasy. Of the seven female characters I can remember from the first Dragonlance trilogy, we are explicitly told that SIX of them are exceptionally beautiful, with FOUR of them leaving characters speechless in their presence. And their beauty is supposed to be what makes them interesting.
Of course there are exceptions, but these exceptions prove the rule. And even then, we will be specifically told about a female character’s relative attractiveness. It will be a thing. That seventh female character? She’s a gully dwarf, and her ugliness is played for laughs.
I am surrounded by beautiful women, and it makes me tired. Thank the gods for Glenda Sugarbean.
Glenda is everything I have ever wanted in a female character. She is clever and determined and flawed. She is a product of her environment and an agent of change within it. When she realizes that her defining positive quality–her kindness–was hurting Juliet instead of helping her, Glenda faces the truth and changes for the better. She is empathetic and a little manipulative and real.
She is also the most relatably written normal-looking female character I have ever encountered.
Glenda knows that people are treated differently based on attractiveness. Her appearance affects what she can do; while perfectly “pleasant,”Glenda is simply not pretty enough to work the Day Kitchen, and when she does venture above stairs to wait on the wizards, she is noticeably out of place.
On top of this, she is friends with Juliet, whose beauty is, simply, stunning. Juliet becomes the Disc’s first super model, and she does it wearing a false beard.
In the hands of a less capable author, this would be a natural point of conflict between them. But Glenda is never jealous, never sorry for herself. Some people look like Juliet, and some people don’t. That’s life.
Glenda’s appearance matters, but it is never treated as a joke. Her secret love of romance novels is played against her unflappable practicality, not against her traditionally unromantic features. She has trouble finding clothes that fit right, but what woman doesn’t?
And most meaningfully to me, Glenda’s evolution as a character is not accompanied by a physical transformation. She and Nutt become romantically involved, but Glenda is desirable because of her character, not because of some hidden trove of beauty that is uncovered because Love.
I can barely describe what a pleasure it was to read this book and follow this character. To see myself in a character, and to watch as she grew into a better version of herself, was a joy.
Thank you, Terry Pratchett, from the bottom of this OK-looking woman’s heart. It may not be beautiful, but it doesn’t have to be.