Attractive, sexy, leggy, blonde, beautiful, athletic… naked. Hollywood producer Ross Puttnam recently made headlines sharing, on a dedicated twitter account, the sexist one line descriptions of female lead characters in film scripts. Their tight jeans, stiletto heels, fit bodies and fuck-me-eyes are what defines them. Some of those characters, it turns out, have sense of humour, a functioning brain or a career but that description always comes after. If ever.
Women on screen are objectified, they exist primarily for the male gaze. It’s no big news. But now we know that it’s not only a matter of stereotyped casting choices, star power, glossy direction: too often in films they are actually conceived like that, their beauty the first and most relevant attribute from the written page.
The exceptions are rare. But very welcome.
Recently I was surprised to see on TV two exemplars of a species I thought extinct: the average looking woman (at least that’s what direction and cinematography want to make you think of them). A woman who hasn’t got shiny wavy hair, legs like a gazelle, flawless peachy skin and eyes like mountain lakes. You know, you might have seen some of those at work, in the subway, in cafes. I’ll admit it, at first I was upset, something didn’t feel right, my expectations were set on the beauty queen standard and it was strange to see this flawed creature claim centre stage.
But I realized you can get quickly used to that.
They are Rachel (interpreted by Shiri Appleby) in FX’s brilliant drama UnREAL and Carol (Kristen Schaal) in the post-apocalyptic sitcom The Last Man on Earth.
I’m not saying they’re ugly (who is, in Hollywood?). But direction and cinematography clearly don’t focus on their physical assets. And you can tell their description on the script didn’t mention legs, hair color or breasts size. Not because their legs are short but because there is so much more that matters. There are so many other reasons to watch them. They both have strong, peculiar, magnetic personalities that manage to make all the other characters gravitate around them. Not in a Snowhite-singing-with-the-forest-animals kind of way, though. They are flawed, full of idiosyncrasies and often plain annoying. They both have a death on their conscience! So these girls don’t even compensate their unremarkable aspect with a perfect, lovely temperament. To make matter worse, they are both also also poorly dressed: one in practical, unglamorous TV crew outfit, the other one showing an endless repertoire of kitsch and badly paired patterns (I admire Carol’s originality and self confidence but, after long consideration, I am convinced the end of civilization is not an excuse for those blouses ).
Still, each one of these ordinary looking gals has two guys falling madly in love with her. I need to add, in three cases out of four, incredibly handsome guys. Or, as a Hollywood script may say, if roles were reversed, hot studs with manly jaws, sexy biceps and eyes to die for.
And this is where Rachel and Carol raise the stakes of their challenge to Hollywood standards. They manage to subvert the attractiveness gap, that well established, frustrating trope in movies and TV series that has average looking guys dating beautiful women. This article on Vulture brilliantly traces bak its history. From Woody Allen’s comedies to Jude Apatow’s, the unattractive leading man gets the hot girl. It is especially common in sitcoms, think The Flinstones, Family Guy, The Honeymooners, Everybody loves Raymond, Seinfeld, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory…
Now, with Rachel and Carol, finally the plain gal gets the hot guy. For that, we have to thank show creators Marti Noxon, Sara Gertrude Shapiro (UnREAL) and Will Forte (The Last Man On Earth).
How refreshing is to see such kind of woman on TV.
How cool to realize she’s not just the wacky neighbor, the comic relief, the female protagonist’s mandatory less attractive sidekick: she’s one of the main characters (Carol did start as a quirky, annoying side character but slowly became the most important one beside the titular last man, without losing any of her eccentric ways).
How exhilarating to see many good looking men fall in love with her. Even if her appearance is not her strongest trait.
How empowering to watch her reject an extremely handsome guy who claim to love her: she can choose. Because She’s not the ugly duckling who finally found her only match or the lucky one who won the lottery, like a once in a lifetime miracle. Men just happen to like her. Even if.
And no, there is no montage with said girl plucking her eyebrow, getting a haircut and make-up, trying on sexy dresses and coming out at the end of the song transformed into your typical Hollywood babe. She’s just not a beauty queen. Get over it. I did. It felt good.