Four decades of feminism later I am reading the comedian Angela Barnes’ blog. “I am ugly, and I am proud,” she writes. She goes on to say: “The fact is I don’t see people in magazines who look like me. I don’t see people like me playing the romantic lead or having a romantic life.”
At the top of the blog is a picture of Barnes. And the thing is, she isn’t ugly. Neither is she beautiful. She’s normal looking. She’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, just like lots of women you see every day in real life.
It made me think of this year’s Wimbledon ladies’ final between Sabine Lisicki and Marion Bartoli. When Bartoli won, the BBC commentator John Inverdale infamously said, “Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker, you’re never going to be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight’?”
The first thing I thought was: this woman has just won a tennis tournament! And she’s being judged on her looks! And then I thought: but Bartoli is attractive. Sure, she’s not at the very highest point on the scale – she doesn’t look like a top model. But she’s pretty. And, in any case, why should it matter? She’s a top athlete. Surely that’s what counts.
A sports commentator refers to a pretty woman as “not a looker”. A normal-looking woman thinks she’s ugly. Why?
Because, even though the world is full of normal and pretty women, the world we see – the world of television, films, magazines and websites – is full of women who are top-of-the-scale beauties.
And right now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the situation is more extreme than ever. If you’re a woman, a huge proportion of your role models are beautiful. So if you’re normal looking, you feel ugly. And if you’re merely pretty, men feel free to comment on how un-beautiful you are.
As a normal-looking man, I find myself in a completely different position. Being normal makes me feel, well, normal. Absolutely fine. As if the way I look is not an issue. That’s because it’s not an issue.
As a normal-looking man, I’m in good company. Sure, some male actors and celebrities are very good looking. Brad Pitt. George Clooney. Russell Brand.
But many of Hollywood’s leading men, like me, look like the sort of blokes you see every day, in real life. Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Bruce Willis, Jack Black, Seth Rogen, Martin Freeman, Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Brendan Fraser… In fact, you might almost say that most leading men are normal-looking blokes.
It’s true of television, too. Bryan Cranston, who plays the lead in Breaking Bad – he’s a normal. James Gandolfini – he was a normal. And chubby too. Kevin Whately – normal. Ben Miller – normal. TV cops all look normal. Ray Winstone looks normal. Tim Roth looks normal. They portray people who are interesting for what they do, not what they look like.
Oh, and think of sitcoms. The Big Bang Theory features four normal-looking blokes and a stunningly beautiful woman. New Girl is about two normal blokes, a guy who’s quite good looking, and two women who are… yes, strikingly beautiful.
When I watch the news, on whatever channel, it’s presented by the classic partnership of an ordinary-looking guy and a gorgeous woman. After the news, I watch the weather. Male weather presenters look like standard males. Female weather presenters look like models.
Footballers look normal. Footballers’ wives and girlfriends look stunning. Daytime television presenters: men look like Phillip Schofield; women look like Holly Willoughby.
A typical Saturday-night judges’ panel consists of two types of people – middle-aged blokes and young, stunning women. Sometimes a normal-looking or ageing woman slips through the net – but then, like Arlene Phillips, her days are soon numbered.
Countdown had an attractive woman and an ageing bloke; when the attractive woman began to show signs of ageing, she was axed – replaced by a woman who was, of course, strikingly beautiful.
Who presents historical documentaries? Guys like David Starkey. Normals. And what happened when a normal-looking woman, Mary Beard, presented a series about the ancient world? She was mocked for not being attractive enough.
In a recent interview Dustin Hoffman, another normal, made a revealing comment. Remember when he dressed up as a woman in Tootsie? “I went home and started crying,” he said. Why?
“Because I think I am an interesting woman when I look at myself on screen. And I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character. Because she doesn’t fulfil physically the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have in order to ask them out… I have been brainwashed.”