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"A bad time of it in this world": The construction of the "unattractive" woman in American film of the 1940s

Madeleine Ann Cahill, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In a culture that has traditionally valued women's looks above all else they offer, "ugliness" has been a site where powerful forms of oppression--sexism, racism classism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia--intersect. Just as physical determinants of unattractiveness have fluctuated along with changing cultural ideals, film's construction and treatment of the unattractive woman have varied throughout the hundred years of film history, forming a site upon which one may explore the shifting socio-cultural imperatives presented to U.S. women in the 20th century. Using socio-historic and feminist methods, I argue that film constructs ugliness as carefully as it does beauty, and that, as cinematic signifiers of ugliness are fluid, the "look" of the camera is the most reliable indicator of ugliness and spectator (non-)identification. Cinematic representations of ugly women may be broken down into two broad categories whose dimensions--barely evident during the silent film era--became fixed during the classical era of Hollywood cinema. I refer to these depictions as the "ugly duckling" and the "truly ugly" woman. The ugly duckling is a sympathetic character, transformed--usually at the hands/eyes/scalpel of a man--from ugly to beautiful, while the "truly ugly" woman, never transformed, demonstrates that it is she herself, not only her appearance, that is ugly. This dissertation focuses primarily on the cinematic construction of the ugly woman during the 1940's--an age generally regarded by film historians as Hollywood's "Golden Era"; a decade of intense military, economic, and social upheavals reflected in the gender messages presented on the silver screen; and a period when the "ugly duckling" was more prevalent than at any other time in film history. Though the ugly duckling plot was compromised often by patronizing treatment of the material, and always by the utilization of a glamorous star appearing in "homely drag" (rather than the employment of an average-looking actress), it nevertheless merits serious and extended analysis because of its potential to present powerfully liberatory images of women on the screen.

Subject Area

Motion Pictures|Womens studies|Mass media|American studies

Recommended Citation

Cahill, Madeleine Ann, ""A bad time of it in this world": The construction of the "unattractive" woman in American film of the 1940s" (1995). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9606493.