Ugly Betty: Finally the Americans realise that ugly is beautiful

The Americans have always called the British ugly - bad teeth, bad hair, etc. But Betty Ugly shows that now the Americans, who have always embraced "beautiful people", show that they can also respect ugly people.

The Times

January 08, 2007

We've always done ugly. After all, we do it so well

Helen Rumbelow

The plain truth is, Betty is in a great British tradition

America Ferrera as Ugly Betty. British comedies are famous for featuring ugly people, but not Yank comedies....until now

My friends sometimes ask me if they’re missing something when rising politicians are talked up for their devastating good looks (David Cameron is the latest example). In the flesh, is this or that MP as hot as they are made out to be? My first answer is always “no” and then, after a pause to consider other MPs, “well, it’s all relative”. I am not being unkind. This is the British politician’s secret strength.

I was reminded of this on Friday night when watching Ugly Betty, the US television series that has become an unlikely hit. Betty, the Ugly Duckling, is a dumpy, frumpy Mexican-American, who, with her greater integrity, defeats the vicious beauties at a New York fashion magazine.

Why its popularity? Because, I think, that in the character of Betty, America is discovering what Britain has known all along: ugly is good, we trust ugly. For decades Britain has played the unsightly country cousin to its more image-obsessed ally; our drab soap operas glorifying ugly, where glossy Hollywood shows sing positive hymns to cosmetic surgery. As any visitor to America knows, we are the butt of their jokes about bad teeth and hair. I say, let’s flip that greasy forelock out of our pallid faces, and start smiling.

To show why, examine what the New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell called the “Warren Harding Error”. As a senator in the 1910s, Harding was pretty so-so, but boy, was he gorgeous. Think Gregory Peck, in a waistcoat. Himbo Harding so looked like a leader he became one, but unfortunately “our best-looking President” also “turned out to be our stupidest and most incompetent”, wrote Gladwell. The Warren Harding Error is what happens when appearances cloud our better judgment.

Fair enough, but why single out Harding? If you lined up US presidents of the past few decades and squared them up against their British counterparts it would look like an episode of Beauty and the Geek. In America’s parade you have pretty boy JFK, the silver fox Gerald Ford, former matinee idol Ronald Reagan, and ’ole blue eyes Bill Clinton. Britain’s line, well, from Macmillan on they look like a team of lady pensioner golfers waiting to tee off, only with less manly jaws.

This would be embarrassing if it didn’t reflect so well on us. For is it possible that the Warren Harding Error did not stop with Warren Harding? By limiting potential candidates to people who look like they’ll make a good president they may have passed over some exceptional leaders. The same goes for appointments in other fields in a society that sets great store by appearance.

I don’t mean to be smug, because it is possible Britain has gone to the opposite extreme. We rejoice in the masses of the average and plain, such as our “pale and interesting” indie bands that are one of our main cultural exports. But we may be suspicious of beauty. Yes, there are countless studies proving that attractive people are more likely to get a job, get promoted, and even to get off in a court case. But I think what they mean by attractive is a mixture of grooming and inoffensiveness, that you are not so freaky-looking as to frighten the horses. Consider some of the most successful individuals in British life. There are few oil paintings among them: Alan Sugar, with his face like a current bun? The crumpled-bed that is Bob Geldof? Steve “steak tartare” McClaren? Do an inventory of the highest status people in your workplace and I think you’ll agree ugly is no bar to success, but beauty may be.

Why? Well, let’s take our very own Warren Harding, Tony Blair. I compare him with Harding not because he is our most disastrous leader, far from it, but he is probably our most attractive in recent times (the competition, as I mentioned above, is not stiff).

Perhaps his “Bambi” prettiness helped to woo the electorate, but it has also cost him dear. We think the good-looking lack moral fibre, having had things too easy. We think a leader who, like Blair, was featured as Torso of the Week in Heat magazine lacks substance.

We also suspect — however irrationally — that they are somehow deceiving us with their appearance. Of course, Blair has done enough to earn his association with spin, but imagine for a moment how different things would seem if he had the face of Gordon Brown. Do you think the mud — that Blair deceives us with spin — would so easily stick to Brown’s craggy features? It is said that politics is showbusiness for ugly people, but that is not the half of it.

Showbusiness is for people too attractive to succeed in public life. Not the least of Robert Kilroy-Silk’s weaknesses is that he looks too smooth to be trusted. Ben Bradshaw, the Environment Minister, is, I think, taken less seriously than he should be because of his chiselled charm. The perfect level of attractiveness for a British politician is . . not very attractive.

Somewhere possibly a little above John Prescott, certainly below Blair, although things are changing as young voters put a more American-style emphasis on image. Given all this, it is good to see America embrace some great British values by taking Ugly Betty to its heart. I worry though, that they have totally missed the point. Ugly Betty is only so-called because she is “Hollywood” ugly, that is, a pretty actress in glasses and braces. I fear a makeover is in the offing. Sigh.
Last edited by Blackleaf; Jan 8th, 2007 at 03:01 PM..
ya know, the whole idea that Ugly Betty is somehow rewriting the standards for society pisses me right off.

Am I the only one who sees that she's not really ugly? American tv's tradition of putting glasses and bad clothes on a pretty girl, in this case adding some braces too, and trying to pretend they're ugly, is highly annoying. Dress her in typical clothes, take off the bad wig and false braces, and she's a gorgeous girl. Let's see them do a tv show about a burn victim or someone born with a cleft pallette or a show about someone who has horrible acne that can't be hidden with makeup. Or a tv show about starring someone who is truly fat (not the size 10 that Hollywood deems the 'fat friend' on their shows now adays). Roseanne is the last show I can think of that had a star who truly qualified as not possessing conventional beauty.
This show is not of United States origin.
Mexico, Columbia and Venezuela have shows along these lines, and we imported the idea.
Hence Ugly Betty's hispanic parents.
OK Payback Time!!!

I love the U.K. and it's wonderful brotherhood with the very lonely nation of the U.S.A.

I do not love their bias - which is generalized to the point of bursting at the seams.... the British press
are such bloody nags....and they nitpick to an addictive fault!

I think I'll start another rant about the Royals again.... bah

Tight Little Isle? HA It's really: Tight-Assed Little Isle!!!

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