When Things Get Ugly

The slipperiness of ugliness is the interesting thing about it; ugliness is a transitory marker that contains the possibility to be both harmful and enabling.

In the early ’00s, the tapered jeans that seemed so ugly in the ’80s and early ’90s made a strong comeback. Then, in the late ’00s, “ugly glasses” became a popular fashion trend. Every year, “ugly Christmas sweaters” make the rounds at holiday parties. Yet some things, like wearing socks with sandals, may perhaps always be ugly.

Few people would actually want to be called ugly by others, nor would one want to feel ugly. The slipperiness of ugliness is the interesting thing about it; ugliness is a transitory marker that contains the possibility to be both harmful and enabling.

Ugliness has a difficult to pin down legacy. Historically, anything marked as “ugly” was something “to be feared or dreaded”. Eventually, it came to be associated with aesthetics and so represented that which was seen as the opposite of beauty. But the meaning of ugliness, as Gretchen E. Henderson points out in her new book Ugliness: A Cultural History, has shifted over time, and has come to be the unfixable host of a range of feelings, embodiments, sensations, and aesthetic possibilities.

In Ugliness Henderson, a writer and a lecturer in English at Georgetown University, recognizes and aims to make sense of the polysemic nature and functions of ugliness in culture. Throughout this book, she follows around what she calls the “gesture” of ugliness, or the way that ugliness is directed onto people, places and things at various cultural points. Exploring the unruly history of ugliness, Henderson aims to “locate patterns of cultural behavior and representation” where the meaning of ugliness both “solidifies and shifts”.

Presently, ugliness is neither certain nor definite. It’s a marker that refuses to settle on any one particular target. “Ugly”, Henderson says, is a term for and marker of anything that provokes discomfort and dis-ease within us. In its most common sense, ugliness suggests that which is neither beautiful nor aesthetically pleasing, though it often comes to stand in for feelings and sensations such as disgust and horror that are provoked by the disturbing things that surround us. The far reach and broad range of possibilities for ugliness means that almost anything, in a given context, can be ugly.

With this understanding in mind, Ugliness: A Cultural History functions as a sort of cultural catalogue of ugliness. Henderson draws on the expansive and fidgety nature of ugliness in order to track its numerous and overlapping manifestations in Western culture both historically and contemporarily. This approach is what, in particular, distinguishes Henderson’s work from other work on ugliness.

In philosophy and visual studies, for example, ugliness has typically been theorized as an aesthetic category that stands in opposition to beauty. Theorists working in contemporary art history as well as in critical and feminist theory have recently come to recognize and theorize ugliness as a identifier that operates beyond aesthetics. Ugliness is now recognized and theorized as a capacious and expansive marker directed not solely at appearance but at also at senses, spaces, and ways of being.

An extensive vocabulary of terms and identifiers now describes the range of what is or can be perceived or understood as ugly. Any thing, person, space that is ugly might also be disgusting, dirty, abject, monstrous, revolting, or grotesque. This assemblage of terms, for Henderson, “suggests different possibilities in different cultural contexts”.

Henderson aligns her work with this theoretical trajectory. In Ugliness, she moves beyond merely analyzing ugliness as an aesthetic category. While she does take up art and artistic practice, she also focuses on bodies, body practices, cultural practices, historical events, sights, smells, and sounds.

Henderson’s work here is part of a growing trend in cultural studies and critical theory that multiplies the ways and contexts in which ugliness may be theorized and understood. This expanded and expansive understanding of ugliness allows Henderson to position ugliness as not merely a perception or aesthetic quality but also as an ontological criterion and an existential measure that is fundamental to human nature in the West.

Henderson begins her survey of ugliness with a etymological exploration that identifies the roots of ugliness in ancient Greece. She then presents for consideration a collection of figures who were positioned as ugly in their respective cultures and historical moments. She discusses Julia Pastrana (1834-1860) and artworks portraying “ugly” figures such as Quentin Matsys’s work The Ugly Dutchess. The supposed ugliness of many of Henderson’s figures, such as the French artist ORLAN (1947-) and Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman (1789–1815) have been discussed in depth in theoretical and popular texts, but Henderson takes up other, lesser-known figures alongside them.

Together, Henderson says, these figures represent those who “hover around binary classifications while defying them”. Those who have been labeled as ugly, she suggests, have also been marked by many additional and associated labels. Henderson collects these figures together to show how and in what ways ugliness proliferates across time and space, which demonstrates the shifting role of culture in determining who and what can be ugly.

From there, Henderson moves on to what she calls “ugly groups”. In gathering together the “cultural practices that have shifted around ‘ugly’ groups”, Henderson compares the range and function of ugliness in different periods and places. She brings together well-known historical occurrences such as the social isolation and ostracizing of ex-WWI servicemen with facial disfigurement, theories of race and racialization from the 18th century, and race-based segregation of public facilities. Such an assemblage, she says, shows how and in what ways ugliness both originates from and perpetuates cultural practices. The result has been the long-standing marginalization, colonization, and commercialization of bodies marked as ugly as well as the legislation of bodies that have been understood to be ugly.

Henderson eventually moves away from bodies and people, and focuses her final chapter on “ugly senses” such as sound and sight. Here, she discusses how “ugliness interrupts perceptions and reworks the space between subject and object”. This examination of ugly senses and sensations demonstrates how ugliness is embodied, specifically because it is negotiated through our senses. Identifying and writing about ugly sounds, such as the music of Bikini Kill, Henderson identifies how “ugliness pulls larger social forces into its garish aesthetic gravity”.

In this way, we can come understand ugliness as a position from which marginalized individuals can contest, counteract, and expand their social locations and possibilities. Although she gestures toward the politicization of ugliness, the text’s function as a cultural survey prevents Henderson from offering a sustained engagement with the great political potential of ugliness. Still, this consideration of how ugliness is “divided into sensory categories” allows us to “consider how such engagements… connect us with a wider degenerating and regenerating world”.

However, ugliness has not exclusively functioned as a pejorative marker to more readily justify the discrimination and oppression of non-normative bodies and ways of being. In recent years, Henderson points out, ugliness as been reclaimed and repurposed as a “communal rallying cry to confront social fears”. Even though ugliness cannot be a unifier, due to its “shifting modifications”, reclamations of ugliness proliferate. From Ugly Dolls to anti-bullying campaigns, ugliness has been repossessed and transformed from a site of marginalization to a site of empowerment. When considered alongside the typical pejorative uses of ugliness, such appropriations, Henderson says, reveal that “cultural potency [of ugliness] to both fuse and diffuse demeaning behaviours”.

The scope of Henderson’s work in Ugliness is far-reaching so as to parallel the reach of ugliness itself. Her engagement with ugliness is one that transcends an exploration of the obvious trajectory that, oftentimes, exclusively links ugliness with its representation in art and aesthetics. Henderson works through ugliness as it manifests itself in popular culture, politics, history, as well as art.

The greatest strength of Ugliness is the way that it demonstrates how ugliness has historically and contemporarily “cut across lines of race, class, gender, disability, age and other categories of difference, where a feared person is simplified, groups as ‘ugly’ in the midst of social tensions”. Crucially, throughout the text, Henderson remains aware and vigilant of the implications repeating a pattern in which particular individuals, behaviors, practices and ways of being are inscribed as ugly.

One of Henderson’s key objectives in Ugliness is to demonstrate how it is “played our in practice”. To this end, she draws on a range of historical events as diverse as Thanksgiving, the internment of Japanese-Americans and –Canadians, and the Clarks’ studies on self-perception and race. While many of these instances are certainly deplorable and easily connected with the classifications of human being based on racist assumptions, Henderson is vague about how exactly these function as instances of ugliness. She thus leaves unexamined how exactly these examples are jointly meaningful vis-à-vis ugliness.

The consequence of the resistance to “settle” on ugliness is a restless text in which anything that is aesthetically non-normative, historically problematic, or culturally troubling — such as the Abu Grahib photos, which Henderson discusses at some length — become ugly, even if they were never described or understood in that way. At the same time, Henderson overlooks fashion, which has maintained a long-standing association with ugliness.

Throughout, Ugliness neglects to connect many of its examples together in a meaningful way, except to say that they are all examples of ugliness as a “cultural practice”. There are so many examples taken up so fleetingly that it’s not clear how all of these examples, things, people, and practices make sense with each other or hang together. This means that Ugliness functions more like a dictionary or glossary of ugliness than a useful analysis or argument of the function of ugliness in Western culture.

Trying to show the expansiveness of ugliness turns out to be the greatest shortcoming of Ugliness. In identifying the vastness of ugliness, Henderson becomes unable to settle on ugliness in a way that gets us closer to understandings its effects. The text ends with a peculiar and misdirected “meditation” on what Henderson calls “ugly writing” that aims to explain her stylistic approach in the text. Curiously, though, this is a book that is not ugly at all, given that it’s nicely bound, grammatically and syntactically coherent, and properly referenced. Consequently, this epilogue seems to function solely to explain away the text’s meandering and restless nature.

Engaging ugliness beyond the realm of art and aesthetics and into the realm of sound, sight, and embodiment, Ugliness: A Cultural History makes a valuable contribution to the contemporary study of ugliness and its myriad functions in Western culture. Henderson traces how ugliness moves “beyond ‘ugly’ anomalous individuals and resistant ugly groups to break down borders through ‘ugly’ senses that place all human beings into an equal camp”.

Although at times incoherent in offering a sustained critical analysis of the multiple meanings of ugliness, Henderson’s work ultimately demonstrates that ugliness is far more than an aesthetic category. Instead, ugliness operates relationally between people, things, spaces, bodies and modes of being, and that it continually negotiates different meanings and challenges its own stasis. It is ugliness, as much as beauty, that makes us human.

RATING 5 / 10