A friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article revealing the casting descriptions for female leads in various famous movies. So many great films were tarnished in one fell swoop. The director of 10 things I hate about you was looking for “pretty – but trying hard not to be”. Celine from Before Sunrise was described as “Strikingly attractive, she plays it down by wearing no makeup”. In Brooklyn, Saoise Ronan’s character was meant to be “open-faced pretty, without knowing it” and my favourite movie, The Princess Bride, was after a lead actress to fit the following description: “Buttercup is in her late teens; doesn’t care much about her clothes and hates brushing her long hair, so she isn’t as attractive as she might be, but she’s still probably the most beautiful woman in the world.”
I physically can’t roll my eyes back any further.
Why are women still held to this standard of “pretty, but she doesn’t know it”? Why has beauty coupled with complete a lack of self-confidence or self-awareness become the ultimate in what a woman should be? Why do One Direction sing that not knowing you’re beautiful means “that’s what makes you beautiful?” And why is “she’s really hot…but she knows it” such a putdown?
Because we’re meant to be beautiful, right? For centuries we’ve lived in a world where the pretty girls do better than the not-so pretty ones, where – for a long time, and even now – our looks were our currencies; that’s how we measure our worth to the world around us. I know someone who’s currently making a documentary about trans people, and they’re planning to go up to men in the street and show them photos of a hot girl and ask, “Would you date this girl? Would you date her if she was trans?” I’m not going to get into the somewhat simplistic nature of that question as it relates to transgender issues, but really? That’s the ultimate in being a woman? That’s how a transwoman should measure how “womanly” she is – by how hot she is to random dudes on the street?
It’s apparently an accepted thing that we are meant to be beautiful, and so we try to live up to that standard set for us by the media and the patriarchy and our own insecurities. We wear heels even though they hurt our feet. We straighten and curl and dye our hair. We get up extra early to do our makeup, just so we can pass for a “normal, human woman” in the office. And yet you’re telling me that all that effort should remain hidden? That, if you let on how hard it is to look this good, if you haven’t won some natural beauty lottery (which, by the way, is basically no woman ever) you might as well hadn’t bothered because knowing or trying to look good instantly makes you less attractive? How does that even work?
Because the problem with the “pretty but she doesn’t know it” girl or the “hot but she plays it down” girl is that she doesn’t exist. In The Princess Bride, Buttercup is played by the stunning Robin Wright, who – despite apparently hating doing her hair or wearing nice clothes – still has perfect hair and wears pretty dresses throughout the film. All of these actresses in these movies must have some knowledge about how attractive they are because, in the world of Hollywood movies, it’s highly unlikely they would have got the part otherwise. And yet casting them in the “unaware beauty” stereotype just feeds the low self-esteem of the women in the audience, who wish they could be like those characters and – the second they wish that – instantly make it impossible to do so because that shows a level of self-awareness and pride in their looks.
Let’s put a pin in the issue of whether women should be valued for their looks, or whether they should value themselves if they look good or not. That’s a discussion for another time. What interests me is that I know a lot of phenomenally beautiful females, who are all pretty in different ways. Some of them put a lot of effort into looking that good and some of them less-so, but the end result is all the same. They are all attractive, and it’s not fair to expect that from them and then shame them for trying to reach that expectation.
We have to retire the “pretty but she doesn’t know it girl”, because you are all strong, beautiful women and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with owning that fact. We have to stop seeing it as smugness to look in the mirror and think “I look alright today” and start seeing it as confidence. We have to stop hiding the effort we put in to appear “naturally pretty”, because the men in our lives will be in for a rude awakening somewhere down the line, and the women in our lives will be deceived into further insecurity about their own appearance. You are pretty. Know it. Own it. Because that’s what makes you beautiful.
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti