What if everyone was beautiful? No, I don’t mean inner beauty, prettiness that shines from the inside out. I mean, wide eyes, perfect noses, proportionate bodies, and symmetrical faces. The same approximate height, weight, skin color? Could making everyone look the same even the social and economic playing fields?
But human variety is important—it would be boring for everyone to be conventionally pretty, you say.
Well, what if we upped the stakes? What if making everyone beautiful could help stop bullying or eliminate eating disorders? What if it eradicated racism, prejudice, or even brought an end to all war and conflict?
Would it be worth it then?
Young adult (YA) author Scott Westerfeld spins these possibilities, and more, into his novel Uglies. In so doing, he follows in the tradition of other science fiction/speculative fiction writers who use settings on different planets or in future dystopian Earths to examine sociopolitical problems in our present day lives. African American sci-fi legend Octavia Butler used many of her short stories and novels to examine race, gender, power, and slavery; similarly, The Handmaid’s Tale novelist Margaret Atwood imagined sexism taken to the extremes of reproductive terrorism in her novel—a world where women are literally reduced to being walking wombs.
In Uglies, Westerfeld seems to be undertaking a similar project but with body image politics. His novel is set in a futuristic world where everyone on their 16th birthday undergoes an extreme makeover, the super-duper plastic surgery edition. Until they have this bone-crunching, face-rearranging operation, teens are “uglies” and have to live in (the slightly unimaginatively named) “Uglytown” watching the glamorous post-surgical “pretties” across the river in high tech “New Prettytown” leading wonderful lives of (competition-less, racism-less, prejudice-less, aggression-less) happiness and endless partying.
In a sense, Westerfeld’s dystopian world is teen reality writ large—the feeling of being on the outside looking in, waiting for your life to start, wishing one could be ‘like everyone else.’ And in that sense, the novel is about learning to be ‘happy with oneself,’ and embracing one’s autonomy rather than following the herd.
At the beginning of the novel, Westerfeld’s 16-year-old protagonist, Tally, can’t wait to turn pretty. But when her new friend Shay runs away, she faces a serious choice: to either join her friend in a rag-tag community of people who have chosen to remain “ugly forever,” or turn in these rebels to the authorities in exchange for her coveted operation.
During the course of her time with the rebels, Tally not only learns to distinguish “inner” from “outer” beauty (with the help, ‘natch, of a romantic, rebellious boy), but she grows strong, independent, and comfortable with her body and in the wilderness. It’s at this point that I realized that Westerfeld’s novel was making some commentaries about civilization and nature as well as beauty and ugliness.
Uglies begins with the question, apparently asked by a Chinese beauty contestant named Yang Yuan who had entered a contest after extensive plastic surgery: “Is it not good to make society full of beautiful people?” And Westerfeld’s answer, as you can probably guess, seems to be no. Westerfeld gives his world’s standardized beauty a secret, sinister underside. Along with homogenous looks comes homogenous behavior. “Pretties” are disconnected from their roots and ancestors as well as their own free will; they are technologically controlled sheep, if beautiful ones.
Beauty is inextricable from tyranny in the world of Uglies; if being “pretty” is a product of a homogenizing technological world-view, then being free is directly rooted in an idealized, rural, nature. These dichotomies—homogeneity/tyranny/technology versus individuality/freedom/nature—are frustratingly simple in many respects. As feminist scholar Donna Haraway suggests in her groundbreaking The Cyborg Manifesto, none of us are entirely ‘natural.’ Yet simultaneously, Uglies clearly is examining complex questions regarding civilization and humanity, including philosopher Michel Foucault’s idea of biopower—the notion that the modern state controls, disciplines, and subjugates populations no longer through gangs of marauding thugs or public pillorings, but rather through a medical gaze that defines (and creates) notions of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ bodies, regulating our biological workings and thereby our social behaviors.
Uglies takes the messages of body image movements—such as the ones here on Adios, Barbie—to young people in a fast-paced novel with compelling situations and characters. His novel makes some clear critiques of current day society suggesting that our beauty product and plastic surgery obsessed culture is as oppressive as any imagined future technocracy. We seem to be convinced that we live in “Uglytown” waiting for that one magical pill/dress/makeup/social circle/product to take us over the river to that imagined place where the lights sparkle all night long.
So is, as this novel imagines, beauty itself dangerous? If we believe the words of poet Archibald MacLeish (whose poem “Beauty,” Westerfeld also quotes), perhaps so:
Beauty is that Medusa’s head
Which men go armed to seek and sever.
It is most deadly when most dead.
And dead will stare and sting forever.
Or can we find some relationship with beauty that doesn’t oppress, doesn’t homogenize, doesn’t commodify or commercialize? Or is that just a fantasy as imaginary as the world of Uglies?
No novel can provide these answers—that we have to do for ourselves—but Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies certainly helps raise many of the right questions.