Pot-bellied, slack-jawed, dead-eyed bigmouth,
Office job, nine to five, two kids, detached house,
Dumpy wife with too much makeup, badly dyed hair,
An impatient child strapped into a pushchair,
They’re spending time with the kids like all good families do,
Looking through the glass at the apes at the zoo,
And they gawp at the sight of gorillas at play,
Or chimps or bonobos lounging all day,
They stick their pug noses up against the glass,
And point and make faces before turning their backs,
They waddle away with their gormless expressions,
A gorilla doing nothing doesn’t warrant their attention,
So they leave in the hope of finding something funny,
A baby orangutan with a daddy and a mummy,
And they’ll marvel at how the apes are like Man,
Except less advanced, with no house or Megane,
They haven’t evolved to make phones or computers,
They don’t have to deal with speed cameras or commuters,
Their brains are too small to sign up for a mortgage,
Or work a dull job just so they can afford it,
An ape could not handle the reality of taxes,
He just plays all day, or sits around and relaxes,
And it dawns on the man with no hair and no hope,
That his evolution has been naught but a joke,
While he’s fed the lie that he’s more advanced,
He’d trade in his job if given half the chance,
To live in the wild and throw off his chains,
And banish all thoughts of mankind from his brain,
He’s as much of a slave as the beast behind bars,
Except he owns a suit and a five-seater car,
He’d give up his cash and his phone to be free,
To return to nature and live in the trees,
But then his wife says that it’s time to leave,
There’s dinner to make, then the soaps on TV,
So he drives them back home in a sad, subdued state,
To live as a man – the worst of the great apes.
Pot-bellied, slack-jawed, dead-eyed bigmouth,
Ugly folk are horribly under-represented in modern literature. So many new books are filled with characters who are tall and beautiful, and their appearance is often considered equally important as their other attributes, such as their bravery or intelligence. This is especially true when it comes to women. Writing for Buzzfeed, author Erika Johansen has eloquently noted how, especially in the fantasy genre, women are only included if they are beautiful. Using the character of Katniss Everdeen as an example, Johansen writes: “As much as I loved The Hunger Games, I was also sad that even a small measure of Katniss’ success demanded that, in addition to being tough and smart, she also look good on stage in a dress.”
The transition from page to screen only serves to emphasise this point further. While an author can describe a character in great detail, unless it is specifically stated, the reader is often left to decide for themselves whether a character is beautiful. On the screen, however, there can be no such ambiguity. Perhaps I am too cynical, but I think there can be little doubt that Jennifer Lawrence landed the role of Katniss as much for her beauty as for her acting ability. Hollywood knows that beautiful protagonists appeal to a wider audience, and the producers were never going to cast an ordinary, unremarkable face as the hero of such a potential moneymaker. Just like a million TV shows and films before it, The Hunger Games was only going to work if the female protagonist was pretty.
Every now and then, however, there is a heroine who breaks this mould. Hermione Granger is a good example of this. In the Harry Potter books, particularly the earlier ones, Hermione is depicted as a plain, bushy-haired girl, whose standout characteristics are her intelligence and courage, not her beauty. Of course, fans of the films who have never read the books would never know this. In the films, Hermione is played by Emma Watson, her elfin features and all round gorgeousness in stark opposition to the dowdy Hermione of Rowling’s novels. In fact, Rowling herself has said that Watson is too pretty for the role of Hermione. Warner Brothers’ Hermione possesses all of the admirable qualities of Rowling’s original, but the need to make her beautiful shows that in Hollywood, intelligence and courage are worthless if you’re ugly.
One could argue that as Watson was cast when she was very young, the producers didn’t know she would grow up to be such a beautiful swan. I find this highly unlikely – even as a child, Watson was no ugly duckling. I remember being a pre-teen still in primary school when my classmates and I would happily admit to having a crush on her. She was always going to be stunning – and the producers knew it.
Of course, we should not let Watson’s beauty take away from Hermione’s many admirable traits, all of which are on show in the films, but I cannot help but feel that casting a short, dumpy girl to play the young witch would have been a much more progressive move. In a time when positive female role models to make young girls feel good about their appearance are thin on the ground, Hermione was a missed opportunity. You will notice that neither Harry nor Ron underwent the same makeover in their transition from books to film. Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint are both inoffensively average-looking blokes (though I’m sure many disagree), yet the producers made an exception for Hermione. They understood that while it’s OK for a male to be plain or average-looking, those cursed with breasts and a menstrual cycle have to be gorgeous – no exceptions.
It’s a sad state of affairs when beauty is considered as important, or more important, than the many traits that make a hero. Heroes should come in all shapes and sizes, be both beautiful and ugly, and not have this undermine their heroic deeds. I challenge you to name a handful of literary female protagonists who do not conform to our standards of beauty. Then try counting the men – the results speak for themselves.