People often try to reclaim words that have a lengthy history of negative connotations and turn them into something positive. It has happened with the N word in African American circles, the word "bitch" and even the C word in feminist circles. I think it's an uphill battle outside of these small circles where everyone is on board with the reclamation. There is an unlikely entrant into this phenomenon. It's not an academic or an activist -- it's ABC. Yes, the television network that airs this season's hit "Ugly Betty."
I watched the first two episodes of "Ugly Betty," and thought it was cute, but it didn't make the short list of shows that I regularly tune into. But like Dove, ABC has decided that promoting "real beauty" or "inner beauty" is both a great way to market their show and hopefully have a positive impact on girls' self esteem. They have teamed up with Girls Inc. (an organization I love) to launch a new public service campaign called "Be Ugly '07." Here are the campaign highlights from reported in USA Today:
- Singer/songwriter Jason Mraz has composed an original song, The Beauty in Ugly, which can be heard at BeUgly07.com Dec. 30.
- Hundreds of Betty look-alikes will be in Times Square and Walt Disney World in Orlando on New Year's Eve handing out Ugly Betty masks. On Jan. 1, look-alikes will distribute masks at the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif.
- On Jan. 8, Ferrera, at a Cosmo Girl event (she's on the February cover, out Jan. 2) in New York, will unveil a T-shirt to raise money for Girls Inc., a non-profit group that promotes educational programs to help young women be strong and smart.
The question is can "ugly" be the new "real beauty"? Is the word too loaded with judgment to be redeemed? And what does it mean in the context of the show? We've all seen America Ferrera in magazines and even in her earlier roles like "Real Women Have Curves" and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." She is an incredibly attractive person, both inside and out. But on "Ugly Betty," they literally bend over backwards to make her look like a frumpy mismatched fashion disaster - the polar opposite of what society defines as "pretty." Is the fact that her character doesn't seem to notice a sign of true inner beauty or just an utter lack of awareness of how she is perceived by others? Then there is the problem of the character herself -- at least in the first two episodes. A Ypulse reader wrote me when the show premiered complaining,
"I watched it [the premiere] because of all of the talk of inner beauty, and was really disappointed in the actual product. The character saves the day for her boss with her fabulous idea, and then lets him take the credit. And it wasn't one of those 'ooh you acknowledge my credit and you owe me' moments, it was a 'here's my idea, just take it -- I'm so very submissive' moment."
Even Girls Inc. recognizes the power (and danger) in trying to reclaim "ugly." According to USA Today, Girls Inc. president Joyce Roche says "We hope that people go beyond the headline of ugly...I wish there would have been another way of saying it, but at least it will get the dialogue going."