TCS Daily

The Ugly Truth

By Craig Winneker - November 4, 2002 12:00 AM

The media around the world have long been under attack for foisting unfair expectations of beauty and sexuality on "normal people". From sitcoms to shampoo ads, critics say, the message is clear: we are expected to be unrealistically gorgeous. The pressure leads to people to diet pills or plastic surgery or botox.

In Europe, where government is often the answer to every social ill, someone is calling for affirmative action. Yes, a Norwegian academic says there should be quotas for ugly people.

"Ugly people should be spotlighted in the media in the same way that the media wishes to emphasize persons from ethnic minorities," says Trond Andresen, a lecturer at the Norwegian Institute of Technology's Department of Engineering Cybernetics (where presumably he could build his own anti-Simone, an ugly version of the virtual movie starlet featured in a recent Al Pacino flick).

Andresen argues in a recent interview with the newspaper Bergens Tidende that the media discriminate against the ugly and emphasize beautiful people whenever possible. He blasts journalists, photographers and TV producers for concentrating on beautiful faces and bodies and accuses the press of favoring attractive interviewees.

This emphasis on appearance, he claims, is a serious social problem that makes young people insecure and increases their own dissatisfaction with how they look.

"If I were chosen for a TV debate I would obviously be assessed by viewers - not for what I had said, but for how I looked," he tells the paper, echoing an argument that perhaps originated with the Nixon-JFK debates of 1960. (By the way, judge for yourself how Andresen's looks would impress you.)

It seems true that, aside from politics, which is show business for ugly people, you don't see too many homely faces on TV. In the US, even the token "ugly" person in any sitcom or popular movie setting is good-looking - usually just a babe with glasses and a bun hairdo or plaid sweater. In the recent screen adaptation of Scooby Doo, for example, nerdy Velma - in contrast to her animated predecessor - is actually kinda hot.

This is not always the case in Europe, which has an endlessly fascinating patchwork of national television networks. True, there is Raiuno, the Italian state-owned channel, whose broadcasting day consists almost exclusively of variety and game shows that follow a certain formula: an older male babbles on incessantly in front of a line-up of stunning women in skimpy outfits. Sometimes a (usually ugly) singer will appear, but always in front of the Wall of Babes.

The BBC, however, is a haven for homely actors. The most popular show on the network, the long-running soap-opera EastEnders, is a veritable taxpayer-funded support program for ordinary-looking stars. Just about everybody on the show looks like someone you'd meet on a city bus or in a pub.

And on another hit BBC series, the amusing, Dilbert-like The Office, even the characters who are supposed to be the sexy ones in the office would require several pints of ale before one would fancy anything approaching a shag.

Here in Belgium, where I live, Flemish TV combines the best of both worlds. Some shows (including local versions of Survivor, Big Brother and Temptation Island complete with scantily-clad participants of both sexes) feature Beautiful People. Others are mass exhibitions of homeliness worthy of a Bruegel painting.

So is government action necessary to level the playing field? Don't put it past political leaders here.

Europe is so concerned about its ailing movie industry that the EU is helping to prop it up with serious subsidies. Lots of funding goes to helping European filmmakers so that they can compete against the Hollywood juggernaut. The French pay TV channel Canal+ is required to support struggling European filmmakers in a deal that allows it to compete with the state-owned networks. What does Canal+ show most of the time? Sports, porn and Schwarzenegger.

Part of the problem is that even European audiences have grown tired of, say, the traditional formula for a French movie: Grizzled, Worldly Middle-aged Man Helps Budding Young Woman Come of Age While Lots of Cigarettes are Smoked.

Sophisticated moviegoers here complain about the tripe coming out of Hollywood but they line up to see each new offering. Last year the French caught on, producing their own mega-hit of sorts with Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain. It featured the candy-colored escapades of an attractive young gamine who charms everyone she meets. In other words, it was - sacre bleu! - beautiful and happy.

Sorry, Professor Andresen.



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