Thursday, May 13, 2010

'Glee' lies to girls about beauty

The latest episode of the TV show Glee includes a painful scene that would seem bizarre were it not so common in American TV and cinema.

There are two characters in the scene. Quinn, who looks like this:

And Mercedes, who looks like this:

The girls confide in one another on the adolescent pressures they feel to look physically attractive. Quinn explains how pregnancy has given her a better attitude towards eating to be healthy, rather than just to be thin. Mercedes, who had been trying to crash diet to join the cheerleading team, sees her point:

Mercedes: I’m so embarrased, this isn’t me. How did I become this person?
Quinn: You are beautiful. You know that.

Sorry? The jaw-droppingly hot girl has just told the fat, ugly girl that she's beautiful, even though she is not. Later in the show Mercedes sings the Christina Aguilera song Beautiful:

You are beautiful no matter what they say
Words can't bring you down
You are beautiful in every single way
Yes, words can't bring you down

Aguilera's music video for Beautiful features a freak parade of ugliness: dangerously skinny girl, bald tranvestite (possible reject from Silence of the Lambs), sullen goth and weedy little dude flexing his muscles. She assures them that they are, indeed, beautiful.

A quick reminder what Aguilera herself looks like:

Odd, so she works hard to look like that, yet thinks that everyone else gets beauty for free.

Beautiful celebrities often push these messages, suggesting that beauty should play no role in one's romantic attraction to another - or that everyone, however physically repulsive, is actually beautful. In the movie Shallow Hal, the lead character is hypnotised to see womens' inner beauty only, and falls in love with a grossly obese woman. The film shows the woman as Hal sees her - Gwyneth Paltrow - and how she really is - Paltrow in a fat suit. (Heaven forbid they employ an actual fat person.) To tell us that inner beauty is more important than physical beauty, they employed a woman who looks like this:

How hard they struggle to deny the animal nature of sexual desire. Remember why we evolved sexuality in the first place: most of us are hot-wired to desire traits in the opposite sex that imply healthy offspring will grow from sexual relations. That rules out pus-oozing, grossly disproportionate bodies barely capable of supporting their own weight, let alone rearing a child. If you are reading this, and you actually do look like that, here is an honest message:

Yes, you are so ugly you make adults uncomfortable and little children sob. So what? Your ugliness will decrease the likelihood that you have sexual or romantic relations, and the likelihood you end up on TV. It won't bother the rest of your life much, so carry on being ugly and do lots of great and worthwhile things. Romance and sex isn't everything.

Many of the beautiful celebrities seem to think that the inability to attract sexual partners is the worst fate imaginable. So lost in their own shallow obsession with being desired, they presume that being undesirable must be nightmarish indeed.

Their message, particularly to girls, is that beauty is absolutely crucial and a life is worthless without being able to easily attract sexual partners. If someone finds it difficult to attract partners, it must be because others are too shallow to see the inner beauty. What a horrific and baffling message for young people to decode. Yes you need to be beautiful. Yes there are clear standards for beauty, considering the celebrities who sincerely promise that everyone is gorgeous are all somehow slim and sexy themselves. But no, you can't admit that some people are better looking than others.


Still, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are people with all kinds of odd fetishes, like the men who choose obese women, so there may be someone for everyone - but stereotypical ugliness does worsen the odds, as a quick comparison between the number of Google searches for the Glee actors confirms. Here we see the searches for Quinn (Diana Agron) and Mercedes (Amber Reilly).

Equal? Nah, of course not. Blonde beauty Diana Agron attracts far, far more searches than Amber Reilly. "You're beautiful", Quinn should have said. "Metaphorically speaking."


  1. One man's trash is another man's treasure, or sommit like that :p

    Compelling read and thoroughly honest..... I like your honesty.

    Can I ask, do you think big women cannot be pretty?

  2. To me, this is one of your more broken arguments. The core thesis I agree with: that humans are evolutionarily geared to look for physical beauty in others -- symmetry, certain proportions, signs of health in the skin and hair and so on, signs of success in bearing or supporting children. Societies discriminate in favor of the tall, the cute, ones with good posture. Good mental character, "inner beauty" if you will, is obviously desirable... but is not interchangeable with physical beauty, and the media are consistently sending mixed messages about the matter.

    That's all well and good, but you seem to have a secondary thesis that "fat is ugly." Yet cultures exist where Rubenesque women actually are seen as more desirable. Contemporary African-American and some Arabic cultures, I've read. Yes, I too prefer a woman to be lithe, but I also would like to raise the question of when a body becomes "disproportional." I mean, the human ideal hips-to-waist ratio has been measured, so I see no reason why specific cultures can't have their ideal girth-to-height ratios discovered.

    I'm also wondering whether a given obese body is still beautiful to you without the pus, or whether you assume that all obese people start to ooze pus, or whether you only count as "ugly through obesity" those people whose rolls of fat have caused them to develop open, suppurating sores.

    On a finer point, the Mercedes picture you show isn't ugly at all! I wouldn't search for her image for sexual gratification, but she's got well-cared-for and carefully-presented skin, teeth, hair, and clothes. (To me the colors and lighting, in the pictures you've chosen, present her much better than the ghastly red-and-white-and-gray motif the cheerleader suffers from.) In brief, by any standard other than that of weight, Quinn was perfectly correct.

    Perhaps that's the real danger of the show's message. "It's okay to be overweight," the show seems to be trying to say, but the unspoken part continues, "but only if you spend time and money carefully maintaining your hair and clothing and makeup, whitening your teeth, and so on to the standards of the modern fashion industry." Isn't that at least as horrifying as a mixed message about whether it's OK to be overweight or not?

  3. Dani - how big? It seems obvious that the most obese people, people so overweight they can't move and need others to wash and feed them, are going to be attractive only to a tiny, tiny number of others. As to someone who is just a little overweight (like most adults in our cultures), hell yes they can be attractive. But I don't think we need to think very hard about this. We can see beauty and its effects all around us, and we act on it ourselves.

    My argument is very simple: physical attractiveness heavily influences our desire towards potential sexual/romantic partners. It is not the only thing - personality, wealth, fame and authority influence this too.

    But it is clear that some people are better looking than others. No need to deny it. There is nothing shallow about desiring the desirable!

    People don't have this hang-up about other desires. You don't see people arguing that vomit-and-brocilli is as tasty as vanilla icecream. A TINY number of people might prefer the former, but almost everyone prefers the latter. The same is true for beauty.

    Anyway it's not something seriously ugly people need to worry about much, since it doesn't take away from the many other cool things they can do with their lives.

  4. Confanity, I'm surprised you see a "secondary thesis" regarding fat.

    I find it interesting, and confusing, that various cultures disagree on some aspects of beauty. E.g. paleness used to be popular in European countries (and still is in South Asia and Japan) but today many people prefer tan. Why? It seems strange that this natural animal desire could be influenced by culture.

    However this article is not meant to discuss what aspects of beauty are universal to all cultures, but rather those we take for granted in our own. The Google chart I post at the end is interesting, I think. While it's plausible that the disproportionate results are related to their different acting careers or some unrelated thing, it seems useful that the girl I call pretty attracts far more searches than the girl I call ugly.

    In Glee itself Quinn is presented as a pretty girl, Mercedes is not. In reality the actor for Quinn gets far more Google searches than the actor for Mercedes. Let's stop tip-toeing around it, Diana Agron is better looking for the majority of viewers in our culture than Amber Reilly.

    Something I was going to add, but chose to leave out, is that none of the Glee characters are really ugly, they are all "TV ugly". The pus-oozing mutilated monsters I mention aren't present! This shows the dishonesty of the show. It tells viewers that everyone is beautiful, while carefully excluding anyone with offensive ugliness.

    As for those with "pus-oozing, grossly disproportionate bodies" - I did not say fat! We all know we prefer some bodies to others, and in a given culture there is a fair bit of consensus on which bodies are most attractive.

    Why deny this with "everyone is beautiful"? We don't say "everyone is brilliant at accounting", "everyone is great at basketball". We know that some people are better than others in every sphere, but Glee and Christina Aguilera are uncomfortable admitting it, perhaps because they think attractiveness is all-important.

    I've been rejected by girls in the past where, had I been better-looking they would have said yes. It's no big deal! I'm not demanding my money back from life :P Just shrug and carry on, do other things and work on the appearance in so far as one can.

  5. I think it is incredibly small-minded of you to think that just because someone is beautiful, he/she is incapable of honestly thinking that others – even others who don’t look like him/her (gasp!) – are actually beautiful, pretty, attractive, etc. Do you honestly think that Christina Aguilera considers only those who fit into her type of look are beautiful? I think you are assuming a lot there. Also, you are confusing fantasy (celebrities, television, etc.) with reality.

    While there may be more Google searches for the popular beauty type of the cheerleader, the other girl has her fair share of searches as well. To say that this makes the cheerleader pretty and the other girl ugly makes no sense at all. To even call the other girl “ugly” from the start is bold and insulting; that is YOUR opinion, and while others may share that opinion it doesn’t make it fact as you seem to think it does. To be honest, you sound like a pre-pubescent boy who immediately labels anyone overweight as “fat and ugly.” I think many men would disagree with you and consider the Mercedes character beautiful. Do you honestly think it’s impossible for the cheerleader to believe that Mercedes is beautiful? Women typically want whatever they don’t have; skinny girls admire a larger woman’s curves; girls with straight hair envy those with curly hair, while the curly-haired girls who despise their own hair want the opposite. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for the cheerleader to admire and even envy certain physical traits that Mercedes possesses.

    There are plenty of people who would be considered “ugly” (by your standards) who have fallen in love and enjoy fulfilling relationships. They don’t need to settle for “lots of great and worthwhile things” to occupy their time. The idea that people who are overweight or don’t look like Gwenyth Paltrow have to accept that they have little chance at finding a romantic relationship is propsterous and completely ignorant.

  6. I disagree, Clare. It's not relative, everyone isn't equally attractive any more than everyone is equally good at science or music or sports.

    An Olympic athlete would not tell me: "You're fast". Because he is indeed fast and I am not.

    Some people are fortunate to be better looking than others. Everyone isn't beautiful. When Glee and Aguilera insist otherwise it creates bizarre expectations. We don't need conventionally attractive people - successful to some extent because of their beauty - to deny that they are any more beautiful than anyone else. This is obviously dishonest. Paltrow would not have been given that role in Shallow Hal were she ugly. How hypocritical to give an attractive woman this role, in part because of her attractiveness, and then deny that attractiveness matters!

    Note that I said ugliness will decrease - not eliminate - the likelihood of someone attracting sexual partners. Again this is obvious, it has happened to me; being rejected because of my appearance. Were I better looking those rejections would not have happened. If I looked absolutely gorgeous all this would far easier for me.

    How insincere and patronising to have gorgeous people tell conventionally ugly people that they will find love, while they instead date and marry other attractive people. Note that Aguilera isn't married to a skinny guy, or a spotty guy, or an obese guy.

    She says everyone is beautiful, but then turns down conventionally-ugly people in favour of her conventionally-handsome husband.

    Enough of this dishonesty.

  7. To compare someone's ability at science or math to beauty is where you are going wrong. You are comparing fact with opinion/preception.

    If you gave a science test to ten people, you could judge them based on their scores because either you know science or you do not. It has nothing to do with preception. However, if you put Mercedes' picture in front of ten men, and asked them all if they thought she was pretty or not, I'd be willing to bet there'd be mixed reactions. Everyone has different tastes and while I agree that certain standards for beauty are more accepted than others, it still largely varies depending on who you ask.

    I think it's also a huge assumption to think that you've been rejected based solely on your looks, and that you would have certainly been accepted if you were whatever you consider "gorgeous."

    By the way, Christina's husband is not considered conventionally handsome by any stretch. In fact, there have been numerous articles over the years questioning why she chose him; when they met, he was an intern at a record label (my sister worked with him), and many in the press think of him as "ugly" even. Feel free to do a look around online, you'll find plenty of evidence to this. You may find this impossible to believe, but she actually fell in love with this plain, average guy who didn't have money or a nice car. Imagine that.

  8. For your reading pleasure:

  9. Again it feels like we're tip-toeing around the truth here.

    Yes there will be debate about who is beautiful and who is not. Just as there would be debate about what constitutes good food or good music. There would be a huge number of people who broadly agree on certain criteria for beauty, food or music and then ever-dwindling numbers deviating from that.

    If two restaurants open, one serving cold, greasy, burnt food and the other serving delicious food, a few people might prefer the former, the majority will go for the latter. The former might get customers, the latter certainly will.

    Both restaurants can improve their luck by working on their food, by making the service friendly and competent, etc. Just as people born with different bodies can improve their luck with attracting sexual partners by working on their appearance, cultivating a nice personality, attracting admiration for other things they do in life, and so on.

    Do you really believe everyone is equally beautiful? If everyone is beautiful, why does anyone bother with improving their appearance?

    Aguilera and the Glee actors work hard to look as they do. Why? Because they know deep down that physical attractiveness does matter in certain ways. When they then deny it, they're lying. Disgusting behaviour!

    Ask yourself, would the guys who asked you out over the course of your life still have done so if you looked really bad?

    I don't see why we should deny what is completely obvious, deny the evolutionary purpose of sexual attraction in the first place.

  10. Wikipedia has an interesting article on physical attractiveness. Both men and women tend to find certain traits attractive. As I mentioned in the article, these are broadly based around ability to create healthy offspring. Someone who looks incapable of having or raising healthy children will tend to have difficulty attracting a mate.

    There are exceptional minorities, of course. (Homosexuals are sexually attracted to people with whom they cannot have children, for example.)

    But this means that, everywhere in the world, some people will have a competitive advantage over their rivals in looking for a mate.

    So, no, scientifically speaking, everyone is not of equal beauty, where beauty means sexual attractiveness.

  11. I think your point is lost in this piece, which is obviously influenced by your insecurities and anger stemming from your own experiences. Perhaps had you approached this in a more personal manner and addressed your own experiences with beauty, dating, rejection, etc. (rather than with celebrities and television shows) you would have conveyed the message more accurately; the way it is written it just comes off as little more than blanket statements and all-encompassing assumptions on a subject that has many facets. That's all I have to say about it...

  12. Well for me it is this:

    We all know some people are better looking than others. However some entertainment media lie to us about this, pretending that the whole thing is relative, while cynically handing the limelight to conventionally gorgeous people. It is very easy to see through this dishonesty but because it is socially uncomfortable to admit the truth, the lie is repeated. Worse, it is presented as being a good moral message when, in fact, it is obvious nonsense.

    I think this is a shame, and should be exposed as the fraud it is!

  13. Just typed a thousand words, hit "Preview," and it wiped it all. Fuck Blogger. -_-

  14. Bugger! Thanks everyone for your comments anyway!

  15. I don't mean to butt in on your little back and forth here guys. But I would have to agree with the main point of the article, ie when it comes to perceptions of beauty, media in general is dishonest. Clare, you said that some thin women are jealous (if that's not too strong a word) of curvy women and vice versa and so Quinn may very well find Mercedes to be beautiful. However, Mercedes is not curvy, she is round. She is unhealthily over weight. Even if the writers of the show are being honest with themselves and their audience, and really believe that to look like this is beautiful, and even go so far as to encourage this look, then there is still a problem because it is just unhealthy to be this big. I am not saying people who look like her should not be on TV. If they are trying to tell us she is beautiful when they know she is not, then we are being patronised because we are being told what they think we want to hear. On the other hand, if they really believe she is beautiful (unlikely) then they are promoting what can only be an unhealthy lifestyle. It's not like they don't do this anyway. Being a wisp is also unhealthy. (Which is the one positive of the new Hunky Dorys ad campaign. Those girls are at least athletic. But that's another story.)

    Also I think it is quite cynical to make this topic personal. Clare, why can't people talk about something like beauty without being accused of being insecure or even angry?

  16. Thanks for the comment David. I guess producers of Glee are trying to do the right thing by challenging the idea that girls need to look a certain way to be attractive. Some of the cheerleaders in this show talk about eating extremely unhealthy diets just to look good; presumably Glee want to say that girls need not develop eating disorders to look good.

    However in doing this they are reinforcing the idea that LOOKING GOOD is more important than anything else.

    Instead of encouraging girls to simply eat healthily and live healthy lifestyles, regardless of how it makes them look, they say – absurdly – that everyone is beautiful. Beauty, therefore is free, and everyone has it without having to try at all.

    We know this is not true. Anyone who takes a moment to choose what clothes to wear, or what haircut to get, is trying to apply a universal (or at least culture-wide) set of beauty criteria to themselves. We all know that some things look better than others, and we act on this to make ourselves look better. If Quinn’s character really believed that everyone was beautiful in equal measure she would cut her hair short for convenience sake and never, ever waste time or money on makeup again.

    So Glee is explicitly saying one thing, and implicitly implying the opposite. This bothers me because it is dishonest.

  17. Clare said: 'Perhaps had you approached this in a more personal manner and addressed your own experiences with beauty, dating, rejection, etc. (rather than with celebrities and television shows) you would have conveyed the message more accurately...'

    I think shane has approached this subject from an objective manner and so has exposed the truth; it is a very sensitive subject and politically incorrect to discuss it openly. Hense the defensive replies.
    Clare you seem to have approached the subject from a sensitive and personal perspective and your judgement has been clouded as a result. Whether u like it or not, shane is simply saying the truth, the truth we all instinctively know and act on subconciously at the very least. K.

  18. indeed david, it irritates me when all women are classed either skinny or curvy.

    raquel welsh was curvy. mercedez is 'round' as u rightly say.

    skinny is generally no more attractive than round. Look at the most attractive models: are they skinny? no. let me finish before uproar ensues. Most catwalk models I have seen are indeed skinny - its off putting. The most attractive are still very slim, but tend to still have curves, eg. doutzen kroes, adriana lima, heidi klum: very slim, but retaining feminine curves.

    The same thing applies for men. most women prefer slim but masculin guys: not fat slobs, and often not extremly skinny effeminates. they're are exceptions of course and for many reasons; but shanes point remains true. even if people don't like it. K.

  19. I'm not so naive that I would just applaud a post like this simply because it addresses an issue that is taboo or politically-incorrect. And of course not all women are classified as curvy or thin, nor are they as "attractive" or "fat slobs." To make such sweeping statements on the complex issue of sexual attraction is just plain irresponsible. And it's my feeling that this post reeks of a deeper, personal issue - it reads like an angry rant.

  20. I disagree Clare. I think you simply find the truth too distasteful to swallow.
    Shane doesn't sound angry to me, nor does david. You do.
    my own writing style however does tend to rub people up the wrong way. haha!
    anyway I've work to do, but I might later check how this discussion proceeds. K.

  21. Simply put: some people are ugly; some people are beautiful and most of us are somewhere inbetween. Whats so controversial about that? K.

  22. I wonder how one defines what is attractive. Surely based on this article I would assume the definition we are working on is based purely on physical attributes. However I would contend there is more to what is or is not attractive that goes much deeper than just physical attributes. Sometimes a person can be physically conventionally unattractive and yet they have an essence that makes them very attractive, a charisma or a charm so to speak. Sometimes people personal attributes and character is so obvious in a person's face and demeanour that actual physical characteristics are not so important. And sometimes this is beautiful. Be this a program on television or real life we are talking about, when someone tells someone else they are beautiful they perhaps are talking about more than their physical beauty, just a thought.

    Also I would also like to put forward the idea of subjectivity. Beauty is subjective. What is attractive is subjective. And isn't it wonderful that it is or this world would be so very boring. The media tries to put forward a normalised image of what is attractive. And consciously when asked who is attractive people often hide under stock names like "Brad Pitt" or "Angelina Jolie". True attraction however is far more complex. We are moulded by our environment, our upbringing and of course our genetics have a part to play.

    Personally I don't think that Shane is angry or anything. I just feel that perhaps he is looking at a narrower definition of attractiveness.

  23. Thanks for the comment! Well there are a few points to make.

    First, note that Quinn tells Mercedes that she is "beautiful", in the context of physical attractiveness (remember, they were discussing dieting to get onto the cheerleading squad). Not cool, talented, generous, intelligent, imaginative or anything else, but beautiful.

    So SHE is the one connecting attractiveness to physical appearance. She could have complimented Mercedes's personality, voice, etc. but instead she went for physical attractiveness.

    Now it seems obvious to me that physical attractivness is just one of several characteristics that attract people to one another sexually. A beautiful person with an obnoxious personality can become less attractive. A plain person with an amazing personality can become more attractive.

    Other things can affect it too. Great wealth seems to increase the attractiveness of some people, as well as fame. Beauty is only one aspect of it.

    ...But a fairly important aspect. It amazes me that our culture can accept that homosexual people have no control over the sex they find desirable, but hetreosexuals who desire people based on physical chacteristics are considered shallow. Most of us are biologically wired to desire attributes that indicate a successful child will come from sexual union.

    So this is the other part - beauty is only a little subjective. There have been lots of studies (see the wikipedia link I posted in the comments above) showing widespread consensus on what attributes are most sexually desirable.

    Personally I don't find Paltrow or Aguilera particulary attractive - this is the subjective bit! But I recognise that many others will.

    Let's not get carried away with socially-comfortable subjectivity; we all know that some people are better-looking than others for the vast majority of people. Just as most people accept that Da Vinci and Van Gogh are better artists than some random person who picks up a pencil. Art is "subjective" too - I love music that few can enjoy - but not many argue that everyone who paints does so with equal skill.

    Likewise we don't all get beauty for free.

    I keep referring back to biology. Some films portray love as something mystical, subjective and inexplicable. Usually they pick really hot people to act in these films. Because the producers understand our biologically and socially-determined desires, and tries to satisfy them... while denying they exist. It's an ugly mixed message to give young people. Humbug!

  24. Ah lets detract from an argument by calling it socially "comfortable" subjectivity. Sounds like a stock phrase from a text book. Perception is a wonderful thing and yes it is subjective. In fact everything we percieve is tainted by us the moment we percieve it. I did not argue that people were not more or less or equally attractive. I merely pointed out that it is a subjective experience.

    A bizarre comment around homosexuality however. In fact plenty of people can and do question homosexuality. Attraction and sexuality are complex issues. To narrow it down to gender or looks is to not do the subject justice.

  25. "I did not argue that people were not more or less or equally attractive."

    Good! That is the argument made by Glee and others: that everyone is beautiful, which we know is dishonest. Some people are better-looking than others, for almost all observers. A few people do like extremes that seem ugly to the rest of us (as I pointed out in the post) but the vast majority of people like members of the opposite sex that appear healthy enough to reproduce successfully.

    The homosexuality thing is simply that one can't control who one is sexually attracted to. There's no reason to feel ashamed because you like healthy young people, and not, say, very old people with infectious skin diseases. We can't control it. Nothing shallow about it.

    It would be shallow to judge people ONLY by their appearance. Oddly enough, Glee does this by emphasising Mercedes's "beauty" instead of her other positive traits. Glee seems to think being attractive is more important than anything else - a sad and shallow message.


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