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03/25/2014 09:25 EDT | Updated 05/25/2014 05:59 EDT

Heroines of Literature and Film, You Don't Have to Be Pretty!

"I'm not trying to be self-deprecating," I say, "I just don't get it. I'm younger. I'm not pretty. I --"

He laughs, a deep laugh that sounds like it came from deep inside him, and touches his lips to my temple.

"Don't pretend," I say breathily. "You know I'm not. I'm not ugly, but I am certainly not pretty."

"Fine. You're not pretty. So?" He kisses my cheek. "I like how you look. You're deadly smart. You're brave. And even though you found out about Marcus ..." His voice softens. "You aren't giving me that look. Like I'm a kicked puppy or something."

"Well," I say. "You're not."

- Veronica Roth, Divergent

This handful of sentences, spoken by Divergent's protagonists Tris and Four, might be some of the most revolutionary words ever written in a young adult novel. In fact, they're pretty incredible no matter what the genre. These words may not look like much, but trust me, they're actually pretty mind-blowing when you really think about them.

Let's just take a moment to digest what's being said here, shall we?

Tris, Divergent's heroine and current YA dystopia "It Girl," has just kissed the boy she likes. He's a few years older than her -- in fact, he's her instructor -- and, although it's been clear throughout the book that she has a total lady-boner for him, she didn't think she stood a chance. Throughout the book she and others consistently describe her as homely, skinny and flat-chested; she herself says, "I am not pretty -- my eyes are too big and my nose is too long," and one of her antagonists, catching a glimpse of her naked, crows "She's practically a child!" Among her peers, she either fades into the background or else becomes a target because of her apparent helplessness and vulnerability. In short, she's a real Plain Jane.

Having the female protagonist of a young adult novel believe that she's ordinary-looking, uninteresting and unnoticeable is nothing new. In fact, it's a trope that's been pretty widely covered throughout the genre -- from Katniss Everdeen, to Bella Swan, to Hermione Granger, to Mia Thermopolis, it seems like just about every heroine needs some convincing to realize how beautiful they are.

Because, of course, they are beautiful -- though often the character requires a makeover before she herself and the world around her (except, of course, for that One Special Boy Who Always Knew) realize her true beauty. Think of the scene when Katniss first arrives in the Capitol, when they shave off her body hair, tame her eyebrows and slather her with makeup. Or the part in The Princess Diaries when Mia takes off her glasses, straightens her hair and poof, she's a babe! Or else Hermione's appearance at the Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when she puts on a fancy dress, bewitches her frizzy hair into submission and suddenly gets everyone's attention. The message that we get over and over is that beauty, even hidden beauty, is somehow part and parcel of being an exceptional, successful young woman. And of course every girl longs to be pretty, right?

But not Tris.

Tris is pretty matter-of-fact about not being beautiful; she mentions it once or twice, but it's not pivotal to her character. She doesn't seem to give her appearance all that much though, probably because she has other, more pressing concerns like her own survival. She does get a makeover of a sort, but not one that especially improves or feminizes her appearance. Being pretty is not a priority for Tris and, amazingly, her prettiness is not a priority for her love interest either. Look at the words he uses to explain why he likes her - smart and brave. These attributes are the reasons that he wants to be with her, not her appearance. Of course he finds her physically attractive - he does say that he likes how she looks, after all - but that's not her main appeal for him. He's more drawn to her because of what she does rather than how she looks. And that is pretty amazing. Having a plain, ordinary-looking female protagonist whose looks don't, at some point over the course the book or movie, wind up being "fixed" is something I have actually never seen before.

When we talk about women's appearance, we often get hung up on the idea that all women deserve to feel beautiful. Many initiatives meant to empower women hinge on the concept that all women are beautiful in their own way. The message is that though we might not all be super model material, each of us has our own special brand of prettiness. This is thought to be helpful in deconstructing the beauty ideals that our society for women - the idea that "pretty" only comes in a package that's tall, white, skinny and blond - and is often embraced as part of feminist ideology. But while I know that the intentions behind this message are good, I can't help but feel that it's not a very healthy thing for young girls to be hearing.

The problem is that when we promote this idea that all women are beautiful, what we are really doing is emphasizing that it is important for women to be physically attractive. We are telling girls that, as females, the way that they look is a huge part of who they are - that we expect prettiness from them, and that we expect them to want it. Even if we don't mean to, we are still attaching a high value to physical appearance. And that's messed up.

Now, don't get me wrong - I'm all for people feeling good about themselves and being comfortable in their own skin. I want everyone to be happy with how they look. But I don't want girls believing that feeling pretty is equal to or more important than feeling smart, competent or powerful. I also don't want them to think that not feeling beautiful or not putting a premium on their own beauty means that there's something flawed or unfeminine about them. Instead of living in a world where every woman struggles on a daily basis to find something attractive about herself, I would rather live in one where women are told that it's fine not to care about how they look.

I know that this has been said before, but it bears repeating:

Girls, you don't have to be pretty. Your sex does not place you under any obligation to feel beautiful. You are so much more than your appearance.

We never say that all men deserve to feel beautiful. We never say that each man is beautiful in his own way. We don't have huge campaigns aimed at young boys trying to convince them that they're attractive, probably because we very rarely correlate a man's worth with his appearance. The problem is that a woman's value in this world is still very much attached to her appearance, and telling her that she should or deserves to feel beautiful does more to promote that than negate it. Telling women that they "deserve" to feel pretty plays right in to the idea that prettiness should be important to them. And having books and movies aimed at young women where every female protagonist turns out to be beautiful (whereas many of the antagonists are described in much less flattering terms) reinforces the message that beauty has some kind of morality attached to it, and that all heroines are somehow pretty.

Can we please change the script here? Instead of saying that all women deserve to feel beautiful, can we instead say that all women deserve to feel smart? How about all women deserve to feel respected? Or all women deserve to feel capable? Let's tell women that they are something, anything, other than pretty. Because seriously, we deserve to be so much more than just pretty.

Divergent-roof-jumping-scene

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