Readers, think about it: when's the last time somebody really unattractive became famous? Newt Gingrich? He's been around awhile. John Belushi? He's been dead for decades.
It may be hard to believe, but in the early Nineteen-Thirties, comic actress Marie Dressler, already over sixty and with the face of an English Bulldog, was THE number one Hollywood box office attraction, which she remained until her death at sixty-five. Watch an old movie of hers like Min and Bill or Dinner at Eight and you'll immediately understand why. She was a powerhouse.
Do you remember Margaret Hamilton? No beauty, she. But Hamilton was one of the most beloved character actresses in Hollywood history, due primarily to her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. (Parenthetically, isn't it spooky that she looks like the fraternal twin of co-star, scarecrow Ray Bolger, who was equally lacking in the looks department and even more popular than she, despite it?)
Both movies and television used to be teeming with, frankly, funny-looking women: Martha Raye (pictured up top), Ann B. Davis, Alice Pearce, Thelma Ritter, Kay Ballard, Imogene Coca, Alice Ghostley -- the list goes on and on. Even some huge stars like Carol Burnett started out playing ugly ducklings and goofballs.
|Alice Pearce as Gladys Kravitz on "Bewitched"|
|Alice Ghostley (Another "Betwitched" alum)|
|The young Carol Burnett|
These actresses made a name for themselves based on their looks as surely as Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly did. But these were women (primarily though not exclusively) who were not afraid to take their middle-of-the-road (or worse) looks to exaggerated extremes for comic effect. They looked like people we really knew and we loved them for it. Perhaps we didn't project our romantic fantasies on them, but they made us laugh and they made us cry.
To some extent, this has been true for men as well. So many beloved stars like Jimmy Durante, William Demarest, Jackie Gleason, and W.C. Fields were either fat, old, bald, or some combination thereof, and it made no difference. Like a beloved uncle or grandfather, we took these funny-looking men to heart. And they weren't all comics: think Edward G. Robinson or Charles Laughton.
|William Demarest, Uncle Charlie on "My Three Sons"|
It seems like today, we're surrounded by pretty faces. Our media-saturated environment rarely makes room for the unattractive. Even when an actor or actress becomes famous as a fat person -- think Jennifer Hudson, Ricky Lake, Star Jones -- they quickly drop weight faster than a high school wrestler. Even Oprah has exploited her own weight problems to become the living embodiment of the Cinderella fantasy, albeit with quite a few bumps along the road (and she's exploited those too).
Television shows like Extreme Makeover and The Swan have been fixated on turning people with so-called physical flaws into pageant contestants. As a culture, we seem to have few problems with extremes of economic inequality, but if a poor girl has a weak chin, by God, she deserves a chance in life! (At least to look gorgeous at her high school reunion)
Of course, many funny-looking female comics have played right into this make-over obsession, becoming poster-children for radical plastic surgery: Phyllis Diller, Roseanne Barr, Kathy Griffin, Totie Fields (and the winner is...Joan Rivers!). It's remarkable when you think about it. Women comics may make a career out of knocking their looks, but given half a chance, off to the cosmetic surgeon they go. Thoughts?
|Remember when Roseanne Barr looked like this?|
It's different for men, of course, though, obviously looks matter. Still, there's plenty of room for a jowly Donald Trump or an octogenarian Regis Philbin on prime time.
Its easier for men for one reason, I believe. Heterosexual men are biologically hard-wired to seek out women who display the (youthful) traits associated with beauty, among them soft skin, thick hair, perky breasts, and shapely butts. (This is all about sex and propagation, folks.) While some historical eras have embraced heavier female bodies, the fixation on youthful women transcends culture, geography, and historic time. Old women may be venerated, but they aren't desired like young women are.
Why else could Andy Rooney age naturally on 60 Minutes when Barbara Walters is expected to look eternally fifty-something-ish on every news show she appears on? (She's eighty-two.)
Even female politicians like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann are made over and expected to be knockouts. Where's the female equivalent of the Basset Hound-faced Ron Paul, I ask?
I don't read a lot of blogs, but Sally McGraw's Already Pretty is one of my favorites. Sometimes reading it, however, I'm struck by how hard it seems to be for so many women to feel good about their bodies and the way they look in general. Young men may be obsessed with building muscles or comparing their sexual endowments, but men have nothing like Already Pretty (can you imagine a blog called Already Handsome?), or the scores of womens beauty and fitness magazines, diet books, and the like.
Perhaps it's time we restored our appreciation for the homely among us. Maybe they have something to teach to us about self-acceptance, putting our looks in perspective, and having the last laugh.
In closing, do you agree that we seem to have less tolerance for unattractive people these days? Is it harder today for someone who's not pretty or handsome than it was, say, a few generations ago? Are we the same, but the media environment has changed?
If you're from a country other than the United States, are things different where you live, or would you say that beauty, and trying to look beautiful, is as much a cultural obsession there as it is here?
Does the same double standard between men and women exist?