11:30 am EST, February 20, 2015

Fat and ugly? ‘The DUFF’ and Hollywood’s harmful beauty standards

As excited as I want to be that another YA novel has been adapted into a movie, I can’t help but feel disappointed in The DUFF before even seeing it because it seems to be just another movie that promotes harmful beauty standards.

The title The DUFF (and the significance that label is supposed to have on the events of the film) doesn’t match up with Mae Whitman, the face of the movie. “DUFF” stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend,” qualities that Whitman does not possess whatsoever. In our review of the film, our critic points out that the film “does little to dispel the notion that Mae Whitman could be perceived as the ugly and fat one.” It’s this disparity that feeds into Hollywood’s unhealthy and problematic definition of beauty.

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The film industry refuses to portray beauty as anything but their largely unattainable standard. We’re constantly bombarded with “pretty people” rather than real people who are beautiful in atypical ways. Regardless of how feminist and pro-body image a book like The DUFF may be, Hollywood always keeps to its tradition of perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards.

When I was younger, I absolutely loved She’s All That. In the movie, Freddie Prinze Jr.’s character bets that he can take an ugly, unpopular girl at school and make her the prom queen. Even at a young age, I never understood why Rachael Leigh Cook was cast as the unpopular one. There was nothing average about her. Putting her in baggy overalls (a wardrobe choice that’s actually repeated with Whitman’s character in The DUFF), glasses, and a ponytail didn’t make her ugly. At least, I didn’t think it did. But what did I know at 10 years old?

She's All That Rachael Leigh Cook

Years later, Not Another Teen Movie made fun of how the “ugly” girl in the movies is never really ugly. While it poked holes in quite a few movies and tropes, it was the most harsh on that one, and for good reason. No, Not Another Teen Movie isn’t the greatest movie ever, but I’ve always been grateful to it for pointing out this problem in a major way.

It’s too bad that Hollywood didn’t really take notice, seeing as the problem has persisted. For instance, Anne Hathaway was too pretty for the role of Mia in The Princess Diaries, but hey, frizzy hair and glasses totally made her ugly, right? Also, there has recently been some drama surrounding the casting of Cara Delevingne as Paper Towns‘s Margo. Though the character is supposed to be attractive and curvy with a few body issues, Delevigne is, quite literally, a model.

The DUFF is just another movie that perpetuates Hollywood’s ridiculous idea of beauty. The film’s title calls for someone who’s both ugly and fat (or, at least, who could potentially be perceived as such). Neither quality describes a single girl in Hollywood today because Hollywood would never allow it, as movies like The Princess Diaries and She’s All That have shown us.

Though I (sadly) never really thought that Hollywood would cast an average teenage girl in this film, I still can’t believe Mae Whitman plays the main character, Bianca. Whitman is a beautiful girl. She’s unconventionally pretty at worst. Casting Whitman as a character whose storyline involves making peace with her body is extremely problematic. With Whitman as the “DUFF,” the movie subtly presents that her level of perceived beauty is on some sort of threshold of being considered ugly.

The DUFF Mae Whitman

If this is true, then average-looking girls and women are far below Hollywood’s beauty threshold. Therefore, Whitman’s character overcoming the label and the stereotype doesn’t have the same kind of impact or victorious feeling at the end of the story for those of us who are average-looking or atypically beautiful. Yes, people who are of a perceived equal or higher status of Whitman’s beauty are absolved of insecurities over being a “DUFF.” However, the majority of young women, who are below this new threshold, are absolved of nothing and given even more reason to dislike their appearance.

Moreover, in order to take attention away from her hard-to-hide good looks, the movie’s trailer tries to play her up as a misfit. There’s a scene at the end of one of the trailer where Whitman is talking to Robbie Amell and busts out a monster voice that she used to do when she was younger. I would have no problem with her character busting out that voice if it wasn’t used as a tool of humiliation for her and enjoyment for Amell.

Just think what would have happened if an average-looking, unknown actress would have been cast for the part. If The DUFF is meant to give confidence to girls and defy labels like “The DUFF,” it would have been a more powerful move to cast someone whose appearance a lot of girls can relate to. Girls would then have an easier time putting themselves in Bianca’s place. The film could have made a statement and become more than just another YA adaptation. But no, film executives have learned from a very one-sided experience that pretty faces sell movies, so they never seek to deviate from that formula because it (seemingly) works.

The DUFF track scene

This problem of casting classically beautiful actresses as a “frumpy” or “ugly” girl isn’t an isolated incident. I’m just hoping that casting Whitman turns out to be just a small misstep for this movie and that it actually conveys a strong message of body positivity and self-love instead of following in the footsteps of similar movies that have come before it. That would be a really interesting 180 from what the trailers and promotional material have shown us. I really do hope so, but, after reading Goodreads members’ opinions on them and the fact that the movie seems like more of a high school drama than synopses of the book led me to believe, I’m not so sure.

I have not read The DUFF, so I can’t argue on behalf of or against the book, but it does seem like a book that’s right up my alley. I don’t have too much of a problem with the book’s premise, but I do, however, have a problem with Hollywood and its portrayal of beauty (in young adult adaptations in particular).

While Whitman is very talented and deserves every role she earns, casting her in The DUFF perpetuates an impossible and flawed beauty standard that we should be beyond by now. If movies want to help girls gain confidence in their appearance and break out from hurtful stereotypes, I’m all for it. However, I just wish they’d think before they cast. This cycle of casting beautiful people in “ugly” roles is disappointing and potentially harmful.

‘The DUFF’ is in cinemas in the United States now.

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