can meg be unattractive?

Disney has announced a new version of A Wrinkle in Time adapted by Jennifer Lee who co-wrote and directed some little film with strong female leads you might have heard of if you happen to be alive: Frozen. I posted the announcement on that ubiquitous social networking site with the line “this has potential.” Kristin and I had a brief exchange about casting:

KB-A: Oh the important casting questions. I hope they don’t make the Meg character all glammed up. She needs to be studious and Calvin needs to be athletic, and they can find each other regardless.

BG: I also immediately went to the casting of Meg. It’s kind of like Jane Eyre. They never make Jane plain enough. They never make Meg awkward enough. (Might make an interesting blog post; would truly plain or awkward heroines make audiences too uncomfortable in a way that book readers aren’t?)

This is my stab at the aforementioned blog post. If Kristin writes one, too, I’ll link it. The following is simply from my own observation and musing. It is not academic. I am sure there have been studies done and papers written, but I am not accessing outside information.

Meg, in this 2003 TV Movie, is not “glammed up” per se, it’s a fresh and simple look, but it is ridiculously attractive (no glasses? Really? They’re an integral part of the plot and the essence of who Meg is):
meg_murryHere is her description in the book, “She looked at herself in the wardrobe mirror and made a horrible face, baring a mouthful of teeth covered with braces. Automatically she pushed her glasses into position, ran her fingers through her mouse-brown hair so that it stood wildly on end, and let out a sigh almost as noisy as the wind” (8). She once overheard herself described as “‘that unattractive girl'” (12). Compared to her mother, her “plainness” is “outrageous” and a hair cut makes her look “even plainer than before” (15, 16). She is also described at various points in the first few pages as aggressive, sullen, and belligerent. She is unattractive, especially to herself, perhaps, but the book makes it clear that other people see her that way, too, and not easy to like, at least when she is with people who make her uncomfortable. She’s not good in school, not good in sports, not really good at anything except math, and she can’t even show that in school. The book is as much or more about her journey to accepting herself, faults and all–Mrs. Whatsit, “Meg, I give you your faults” (121)–as it is a science fiction story about 2 kids and a friend saving their dad from a distant planet. The darkness on Camazotz, the idea that making everyone be exactly the same is a kind of evil, highlights the theme of Meg accepting her differences: “‘Maybe I don’t like being different,’ Meg said, ‘but I don’t want to be like everybody else, either'” (170-1).

Meg is an awkward, difficult teenager whom people love anyway, and I think that’s part of the reason so many of us identify so deeply with her. She was not someone we aspired to be; she was who we actually were.

The question becomes, how does that get translated to film, and is it possible? It’s one thing to read about an awkward, geeky character who is belligerent and aggressive. When I’m reading I can translate that any way I want in my mind. It becomes, perhaps, a version of my own type of introverted social awkwardness. I’m also pretty sure my own sense of Meg is somewhat more attractive than the descriptions I quoted above.

Also, my idea of what those descriptions mean differs from others. Kristin said “studious” and I said “awkward.” Those adjectives might correspond or they might not. She sees Calvin as “athletic,” and that is absolutely the case (“Meg was pleased and a little surprised when the twins were excited at having Calvin for supper. They knew more about his athletic record and were far more impressed by it than she” (55)), but, in spite of that, I see him as tall and gangly with bright red hair and freckles, tall and skinny rather than “athletic.” Two careful readers, both of whom have doctorates in literature, see these characters at least somewhat differently. No matter what the filmmakers do, it will be someone’s vision, and that vision won’t necessarily be wrong (except as above, when they leave off the really specific details like glasses and braces–though braces have changed so much since the 60s, that if the film is set in the present, that detail might have to be changed for the sake of verisimilitude), but it probably won’t match mine.

My real question, though, is this: on film, where the characters and actions are presented to us, and there is not room for recreating those characters in a way that works for us in our minds, can a heroine be truly unattractive, both physically and in manner, and have us connect with her? How does she become lovable? In the story, by being loved, but we have to want to love her. Does making her slightly more attractive both physically and in manner help us do that? Could we grow with her if she started rough and began to soften as she gets to know Calvin and Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and Aunt Beast (maybe my favorite section) and find her own strength? I would like to think so. But I guess this is my concern: given Hollywood’s track record of making heroines attractive, I’m not sure we will have the opportunity to find that out. (Think Hermione who is lovely with a nod toward “bushy hair” from the beginning of the first Harry Potter film or Anne Shirley who is played in the enchanting mini series by the ever lovely Megan Follows, and always Jane Eyre who can be made up plain-ish in movies, but is never ever actually what I would call plain.)

As I said originally, I think this new film has great potential, but even Anna and Elsa are beautiful princesses who can then also be strong female characters. huh.

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3 Responses to can meg be unattractive?

  1. Wow, such a great post, and so much to think about. A while ago I saw a clip of a Dustin Hoffman interview in which he talked about his experience dressed as a woman for Tootsie. When he was first put in makeup for the film, he looked in the mirror, and then turned to the makeup people and said, “Well, okay, that’s fine, but now make me a beautiful woman.” They said, “This is as good as it’s gonna get.” He looked back in the mirror and realized he was looking at a woman he would have ignored and had no interest in. He realized he’d spent his whole life completely dismissing women who weren’t “pretty enough.” He actually almost cries in the interview–it’s amazing. He blames it on our society’s brainwashing. I wonder if it is, in fact, social conditioning, or if it is something inherent. On the one hand there are all those “babies respond more positively to symmetrical faces” studies. On the other hand there are obviously changes in what is considered beautiful across time and cultures.

    I read Calvin the same way you did: wiry rather than muscular/athletic. Narrow shouldered, not broad shouldered.

    Isn’t Meg “redeemed” somewhat later in the trilogy, when she has grown into her looks and has thick chestnut hair or some such?

  2. I wrote one too, but I like your response better. Here’s a link to my post: http://kristinberkey-abbott.blogspot.com/2014/08/heroines-plain-and-awkward.html

    I now am fascinated by how different readers visualize the characters differently. I agree with your assessment of Calvin, while at the same time, I see his awkwardness as not interfering with his popularity, unlike Meg’s awkwardness. I don’t see him as the handsome football player; I agree that he’s likely tall and gangly, and yet he doesn’t have the same discomfort in his body. I have always read this dichotomy as related to gender and to his ability to find a sport that could work with his awkwardness.

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