We talk a lot about the tendency of the entertainment industry to homogenize people, particularly women. If you don’t have the right height-to-weight proportions, your skin doesn’t fall in the approved shade range, or your features aren’t a particular kind of symmetrical, good luck finding work. But what we don’t talk about as often—because it doesn’t happen nearly as often—is what happens when Hollywood has to deal with characters, or with actual people, who are just not conventionally attractive.
In recent days, production stills for HBO’s fantasy series Game of Thrones have been circulating that include our first look at Brienne of Tarth. For folks not familiar with the franchise at all, or who haven’t read the books but have seen the first season, Brienne is a female knight. And not just any female knight: she’s an exceptionally clever and strong warrior. But she’s also the rare female character in popular culture who is unambiguously plain. I’m not talking about the standard Hollywood construction of the pretty-ugly girl who just needs to lose her glasses a la Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That or her unfortunate presentation like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. She’s not a character who is “unconventionally pretty” but who retains a certain core attractiveness that just needs to be recognized by the right, unsnobby people. Brienne isn’t someone who doesn’t know she’s pretty and requires a makeover to see herself clearly. She’s just not attractive. George R.R. Martin leaves essentially no wiggle room in the text for Hollywood to magically transform Brienne into a supermodel, and I appreciate that HBO didn’t try. As Brienne, Gwendoline Christie may not be quite as unattractive as Martin makes her out to be, but she looks powerful and dignified in a way that’s authentic to the book. It’ll be very interesting to see how much HBO’s adaptation includes the constant degradation, including persistent threats of rape, that Brienne faces both because she’s a female knight who is better than men at what she does, and because she’s an unattractive woman who has sexual desires.
It was fascinating to contrast that presentation with how The Voice treated Sarah Golden, a contestant who joined Cee Lo Green’s team in Monday night’s blind auditions. The show made a huge deal of Sarah’s anxieties about her appearance, and the chances she thinks she hasn’t gotten because of how she looks. In fact, the cutting stayed away from her face for so long, something they haven’t done with any other contestant, I was convinced the producers were going to reveal that she had some sort of disfiguring birthmark or major scarring. Instead, Golden turns out not to have any malformation or hideousness: she’s just a plain, non-supermodel, woman, one who might even come across as a cute butch lesbian (the show hasn’t told us anything about her sexual orientation) if that’s the way she’s coding herself. It was a bizarre attempt to gin up some drama that ended up acting as a reminder of an unfortunate truth: that if you’re not pretty, Hollywood and society are not always particularly kind.
There’s an obvious gender differential at work here: there are a lot more conventionally unattractive men who work regularly in Hollywood than conventionally plain women. And while Game of Thrones also has a male character, Tyrion Lannister, whose life is dramatically shaped by the fact that he doesn’t look like everyone thinks he’s supposed to, it’s the rare franchise that deals as much with looks-based discrimination against men and male body anxiety as much as it does women’s experiences of those issues. Perhaps Hollywood would be less fascinated in an anthropological way with the issues faced by women who don’t fit a very narrow mold if they didn’t do so much to form and strengthen that mold in the first place.