Ever notice how most heroines in novels just happen to also be devastatingly gorgeous? As if their long, flowing hair or sparkling eyes somehow make them more worthy of the title of heroine? Of course, given that so many classic popular novels about women were written about men, it kind of makes sense that literature would be so full of idealized versions of women that dude authors kind of wish they could hook up with.
It’d be nice if the occasional lady in literature was just, you know, a person, rather than some silk-skinned goddess or one of the other many adjectives that plague the women of literature who are just trying to go about their business of surviving whatever cruel plots the author has devised for them. I mean, there are plenty of male heroes in literature who get by with the looks of Cyrano de Bergerac, or Quasimodo, or Oscar Wao, or, more often than not, with no idea at all as to their general attractiveness. So, where are all the “ugly” ladies in literature?
Well, it just so happens that, despite movie makeovers that cast insanely gorgeous actresses as more mundanely-featured characters, there actually are a few “ugly” women in fiction. Honestly, most of these women aren’t even actually ugly — they’re just kind of normal, but they manage to be spared the flowery (and insanely racially biased) descriptions of their golden hair and soft milk white skin or whatever. These less-than-lovely ladies can teach us something about real beauty and real heroism.
Brienne of Tarth ( A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin)
Jaime Lannister spends a great deal of time telling us how ugly Brienne is, because he’s kind of a jerk.
“The light was so dim that Jaime could scarcely see her, though they stood a scant few feet apart. 'In this light she could almost be a beauty', he thought.” (Ouch, Jaime ...)
Her “unfeminine” appearance is marked by crooked teeth, broad shoulders, and a tall frame. But as the beautiful model/actress who plays Brienne in the show shows us, tall and broad so does not mean “ugly.” (Christie is hot, y’all). Besides, who cares what she looks like, anyway — that woman’s sword handles are the prettiest things in Westeros.
Jane Eyre ( Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte)
The original plain Jane. You all know the quote: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.”
Jane Eyre basically summed it all up. She made the case for the plain woman, because turns out normal-looking women are humans (and heroes) too! Who woulda thunk?!
Arya Stark ( A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin)
Hm. This whole ugly = badass thing is starting to look like a George R.R. Martin trend. Arya’s brand of “ugly” may not be so pronounced as Brienne’s, but anyone who manages to win a nickname like “horseface” isn’t going to be winning Miss Westeros anytime soon. Arya is also often mistaken for a boy, which I guess is supposed to be an indicator that she’s not "standard pretty" — but standard pretty is a bore, and gender norms are for sissies.
Celie ( The Color Purple by Alice Walker)
"I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I'm here."
What more is there to say? Maybe Celie is ugly. Maybe. But regardless, “I’m here," she says. Her life is valid on its own. She doesn’t have to be a great beauty for her story to count.
Anne Elliot ( Persuasion by Jane Austen)
“A few years before, Anne Elliot had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early; and as even in its height, her father had found little to admire in her, (so totally different were her delicate features and mild dark eyes from his own), there could be nothing in them, now that she was faded and thin, to excite his esteem.”
Anne Elliot may be Jane’s only main character who isn’t beautiful, even if she used to be. According to Victorian England standards, she’s an old maid. Yet, aside from Elizabeth Bennett (it's hard to compete for the affection of book-lovers against a book worm), Anne Elliot is probably the most beloved Austen character.
Eloise ( Eloise by Kay Thompson)
Apparently, author Kay Thompson wasn’t “a traditionally beautiful woman” herself. Maybe it was this beauty deviance that led her to create the pot-bellied, “circus-mime faced” heroine Eloise. As Thompson herself said of Eloise, she’s “not yet pretty, though she’s already a person.” And what a person! Thompson and Eloise may not have been “traditionally beautiful” but you can’t deny that you’d definitely want to be their best friend.
Shannon McFarland aka Daisy St. Patience aka Bubba Joan ( Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk)
Naturally, Chuck Palahniuk’s brand of “ugly” woman involves some grotesque violence. Our many-named heroine Shannon McFarland literally has her jaw shot off. Once a model, she can’t quite come to terms with now being so disfigured. “If I can't be beautiful, I want to be invisible,” she says. The premium on beauty is real, y’all.
Katniss Everdeen ( The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
Jennifer Lawrence is gorgeous. But Katniss Everdeen is ordinary, at best. The Capital used their magic to pretty her up, but, horribly starved in the beginning of the books and burned, scared, and heavily burdened by the end, there’s no way Katniss Everdeen is a beauty queen after all that. And you know what, who cares? When a whole country is burning and suffering and a symbol for resistance arises, who gives a crap if that symbol is pretty when she can lead the revolution?
Hermione Granger ( Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling)
You might not know it from the movies, but Hermione Granger is definitely not supposed to be as gorgeous as Emma Watson. In the novels, a great deal of attention is paid to Hermione’s “bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth,” which are apparently standard beauty deal-breakers.
“You’re joking Weasley!” said Malfoy, behind them. “You’re not telling me someone’s asked that to the ball? Not the long-molared Mudblood?”
But buck teeth or not, Hermione could care less about her looks. She spends the entire series saving lives and taking names with her beyond-stellar wizardry. With that kind of bossness, who would care about a pair of buck teeth?
Mary Bennett ( Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)
Mary Bennett is "the only plain one in the family." She’s probably no one’s favorite character, but you've got to admit, the girl knows what she wants. She has a sincere dedication to religion, and she probably plays the piano better than her dear sister Elizabeth. While her other, more beautiful sisters are out giggling and gaggling over guys, Mary Bennett’s got her own prerogative. You’ve got to respect that. Sure, maybe she's a little too serious, but with such vapid influences around her, it's probably her more homely look that allowed her to focus on something a little more important than boys.
Maybe there's more to Mary Bennett than meets the eye. Pamela Mingle certainly thought so when she made Mary Bennett the heroine of her own novel.
Pecola Breedlove ( The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison)
If there’s any character who can teach us about the dangers of beauty standards and “ugliness,” it’s Pecola Breedlove. She's not actually ugly, but almost everyone in her life calls her “ugly,” and poor Pecola takes it all to heart, staking all of her hope for happiness and success on her ability to attain beauty, a beauty marked by blue eyes and light skin.
Maybe it’s not that we need “ugly” heroines, so much that we just need heroines who represent the wide, incredibly diverse ways of being beautiful in the world. It’s not all fair white skin and long-flowing blonde hair. What we need are heroines, period. Just heroines. Lots of ‘em, who look different from each other, and whose heroism isn’t defined or typified by their looks. Wouldn’t that be something?
Images: Helen Sloan/Courtesy of HBO; Giphy; Tumblr/mandoomoonk; DiNovi Pictures; BBC Films