Gwendoline Christie as Brienne in Game of Thrones. Photo: Supplied
"Beauty, they called her ... mocking. The hair beneath the visor was a squirrel's nest of dirty straw, and her face ... Brienne's eyes were large and very blue, a young girl's eyes, trusting and guileless, but the rest ... her features were broad and coarse, her teeth prominent and crooked, her mouth too wide, her lips so plump they seemed swollen. A thousand freckles speckled her cheeks and brow, and her nose had been broken more than once. Pity filled Catelyn's heart. Is there any creature on earth as unfortunate as an ugly woman?"
That's how George R. R. Martin introduces the brave warrior Brienne of Tarth in his book A Clash Of Kings. There's no question that Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne on HBO's Game Of Thrones adaptation, is far from that description. Though she could be described as, in my grandfather's favoured turn of phrase, "a handsome woman", she is far from ugly.
When it comes to her paperback equivalent, however, there has been much debate online as to just how ugly Brienne actually is – thanks mostly to the various fanart interpretations of the character – and, funnily enough, whether anyone is prepared to let her be ugly.
Kali Ciesemier's take on Brienne at kalidraws.blogspot.com.au.
Noelle Stevenson, an artist who regularly creates witty cartoons based on fantasy epics such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, wrote eloquently in response to people who'd accused her of being mean in depicting Brienne as Martin had intended.
"Why would you even need to rationalise how she's secretly hot and is just being unfairly judged?" she wrote. "It's certainly not relevant to the story. Why does the twist ending have to be 'she was beautiful all along'? Why can't we just let her be brave and strong and awesome and loyal and determined and kind and ugly? Even if you are well-intentioned and mean it to be a sort of 'everyone is beautiful' message, it still kind of feeds back into a culture where a person – and specifically a woman – has to be physically beautiful to be valuable."
It would be easy to shrug and say "So what, it's just a book", but it's a compelling indication of how uncomfortable we are with accepting that, despite what self-image ad campaigns have told us for the past few decades, not everybody is beautiful. And, it seems, even more uncomfortable accepting that that's okay.
Noelle's take on Brienne at gingerhaze.tumblr.com.
A discussion on Radio National's The Body Sphere this past weekend made a salient point when the host and guests explored the notion that, for women, beauty is considered an indicator of professional ability.
They opened with a memorable pop cultural moment, Susan Boyle's audition for Britain's Got Talent. (If you don't remember it, here it is.) When Boyle took the stage, accompanied by the producers' choice of oom-pah-pah music, the mood of the audience and judges seemed to say "How on earth could a woman who looks like this have any talent?"
Speaking on RN, social theorist Professor Anthony Elliott reckoned that the rise of aesthetic plastic surgery indicated a cultural mindset that sees youth and beauty as essential to success: "I've interviewed many middle-class professionals and senior professionals into late middle-age that have either been retrenched, or have been deeply troubled about how their older appearance is marring their opportunities at work, or limiting their opportunities, or completely closing down their opportunities. Through my research I found that more and more middle-class professionals and executives are turning to cosmetic surgery in an effort to retain or sometimes to acquire more youthful looks.”
(Elliott is not an outlier on that front; research has suggested that people assessed as ugly earn 10 to 15 per cent less than their more attractive counterparts.)
Both the RN discussion and the Brienne debate gave me pause to consider my own relationship with visual value. Some years ago, before I became a functional human being, I used to regularly Google myself. In addition to what people were saying about my work, I found it intriguing to see how a casual Google Image search represented me, visually speaking, and every time my reaction was the same: recoiling in horror at the fact that in amongst the professional and otherwise flattering photos, there was a single howlingly awful snap from a community radio event. In the shot, I seemed to have a lantern jaw, my haircut was appalling, and I was pulling one of those unfortunate mid-vowel grimaces. Ugly.
This was different to a "pulling an ugly face" photo; after all, the Hot Chicks/Ugly Faces meme demonstrated that women are permitted to look momentarily "ugly" if only to demonstrate that their natural, resting state is "beautiful". As this was a photo of me in my everyday environment looking uggers, someone who looked at it might assume that was my natural resting state and the other shots were just happy accidents.
Why, I wondered after a few dozen Googles revealed the same response in me, did I care so much about that one clanger of a headshot? Perhaps because, as the RN discussion suggested, I was worried that someone might see ugly-me and think I wasn't professionally capable. This was likely exacerbated by my having been called ugly during most of my school years (and occasionally beyond them), and the dread of any such bullies being provided with handy material for future attacks.
Eventually I realised how appalling this mindset was, stopped Googling myself, and committed to a "warts and all" selfie policy. (Yes, yes, a truly noble act; the Queen is rewarding me later this week.)
Discussions about ugliness are difficult, because in an era of visually-geared media where beauty is paramount, "ugly" is often a value judgment. But if I've learned anything from the adventures of brave Brienne Of Tarth (especially when compared to the obviously beautiful but inwardly rotten Cersei) and her online defenders, it's that an absence of beauty doesn't mean an absence of value. Far from it, in fact.