The value of ugliness

Gwendoline Christie as Brienne in <i>Game of Thrones</i>.

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.

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.

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.

26 comments

  • The whole show is cast wrong; Briene is not ugly, Daenerys Targaryen is not skinny, Jon Snow is too old, Tyrion doesn't have mismatched eyes.

    Commenter
    Julie
    Date and time
    April 03, 2013, 11:18AM
    • I thought the same for all of them, but then they acted absolutely brilliantly and won me over. I'd not trade Peter Dinklage for anything, and I can understand how they might not want to show Daenarys as a skinny 13-14 year-old girl (if I remember right) when she's repeatedly raped by the guy she eventually falls in love with...

      A little gutless, maybe, but worth it when they got it so right (though I am still baffled at the gratuitous boobage going on. There was a helpin' helping of sex in the books - adding naked scenes for no apparent reason was just kinda creepy, IMO...)

      Commenter
      Magpie
      Date and time
      April 03, 2013, 11:55AM
    • Briene is Hollywood ugly, which is to say not at all ugly by real world standards. Daenerys & Jon were cast based on the fact they will age one year at a time with each series, not according to what is convenient for the script writers - barring some form of time machine, reality was never going to allow anything different. As for the Imp, Peter Tinklage plays him perfectly... at least according to the author of the books.

      Commenter
      Roja
      Location
      Westeros
      Date and time
      April 03, 2013, 12:53PM
    • Totally agree that Christie is not ugly. However, I understand they raised many of the characters ages for the series so the sex scenes didn't border on child pornography.

      Commenter
      Ellie
      Date and time
      April 03, 2013, 1:57PM
    • Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder but television, films and the media in general have a lot to be blamed for,. Always praising beautiful women, putting a use by date on looks but what's the point of a beautiful woman if see has the personality of indoor plant and knows she is beautiful. Give me a woman who might not be beautiful in the classic sort of way but has a inner glow of beauty with a fantastic smile, a great sense of humour and a kindness that would melt your heart. It's true I'm a romantic at heart but having a 17 year old daughter who lives in this mans world and is judged on her appearance on a daily basis by an unfair world. I hope and pray one day the world will change.

      Commenter
      Mark of Adelaide
      Date and time
      April 04, 2013, 8:01AM
  • Ugliness, n.: A gift of the gods to certain women, entailing virtue without humility.

    Ambrose Bierce for the win!

    Commenter
    El Diablo
    Location
    Melb
    Date and time
    April 03, 2013, 11:32AM
    • Something I have been pondering recently is that we need balance in our decision making, too much weight is given to "relationships" and not enough to cold hard analytics.

      Its easier with relationships. People have opinions/assessments of others based on relationships, part of which involves attraction cause that's just nature and there is nothing wrong with that. In the workplace, I'm sure people have easily accessible data in their minds about who they "like" as opposed to an individual's latest performance measures.

      Look at Brienne, nature kicks in and the first performance measure is attractiveness, quickly and easily assessed in an instant. Who knows what her latest bout scores are, or whether she is noble, has integrity and strength of character. To make those assessments takes time and is more difficult.

      Commenter
      Melbournite
      Date and time
      April 03, 2013, 11:38AM
      • Alright, I'm - whatever it's called now. Autism Spectrum, or something. So I miss social things a lot. But of course we weird folk get to have super-powers to overcome our general failure-to-understand-when-to-stop-doing-X-ishness. My super power is that I can look at most women (GOD I love that women exist in the world - this place would suck epic arse without 'em) and I can see something in there that someone will fall in love with. That's not to say it's 100% - there are people I get nothing from - but other people's perception of beauty is a constant source of bafflement to me (along with a fair range of other social goings-on that seem designed by humans to confuse and torment each other. You people are weird).

        Brienne, the character, is bad ARSE. That's already a huge point in her favour. You get, in the books, that even Jaime (a fool in love if ever there was one) finally starts to come around to seeing her as she really is, just as she starts to see past his (only skin deep?) evil bastardry, and I really won't be surprised if they totally fall for each other if she survives (OMG SPOILER).

        So the actress seriously disappointed me when I saw her. Hang on, I was saying, she's supposed to be ugly as hell! I was fairly gob-smacked when everyone assured me she was, at least, unattractive. Really? God damn. There I was thinking how hot she was in armour.

        Is an ugly person ugly if someone thinks they're beautiful?

        Is it a vote? Does a deity decide? Is there a template somewhere?

        Shouldn't we all just like who we like and not who we don't? Ah well. People make no sense.

        You guys know that, right?

        Commenter
        Magpie
        Date and time
        April 03, 2013, 11:39AM
        • Like so many things in life, the casting of Brienne in the show can be explained by a Simpsons quote. This one from when beloved Moe Szyslak auditions for the role of Dr Tad Winslow on the hit soap 'It Never Ends'.

          'I wanted Mary Ann on "Gilligan's Island" ugly, not Cornelius on "Planet of the Apes" ugly! TV ugly, not ... ugly-ugly'.

          When the average level of attractiveness among actors tends to be well above the average level of attractiveness of the general population, even a person cast in an 'ugly' role would sit anywhere between average and above average attractiveness among us simple non-TV folk.

          TV ugly - ugly that is suitable for television.

          Commenter
          Markus
          Location
          Canberra
          Date and time
          April 03, 2013, 12:44PM
      • George R R Martin isn't exactly the go-to guy when you want a balanced portrayal of women and femininity. There's a nice discussion of that at the bottom of this page:

        http://www.cracked.com/article_19785_5-ways-modern-men-are-trained-to-hate-women_p2.html

        My favourite part:

        ' "When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest ..."

        That's written from the woman's point of view. Yes, when a male writes a female, he assumes that she spends every moment thinking about the size of her breasts and what they are doing. "Janet walked her boobs across the city square. 'I can see them staring at my boobs,' she thought, boobily." He assumes that women are thinking of themselves the same way we think of them. '

        Commenter
        Red Pony
        Date and time
        April 03, 2013, 12:11PM

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