It still strikes us revelatory, provocative, perhaps even shocking, when heroines aren't beautiful. It's presumed that any woman who could hold a reader's, or a viewer's attention for more than five minutes must be beautiful or else some sort of novelty, who fascinates by virtue of bucking the convention. But even the 'unconventional' heroines tend to be beautiful, or at least quite attractive, by most real-world standards: they simply don't recognize it because women - yes, still today, and probably for generations to come - are indoctrinated into a belief in their own ugliness. Bridget Jones isn't actually ugly and fat: the pressure to be prettier and thinner translates into a vicious cycle. We're not supposed to believe that she looks to other people as she does to herself. And even the "American stick insect" who makes Bridget feel so very unattractive in comparison would, were she the heroine of her own novel and not the nemesis of the heroine, feel just as desperately ugly and fat. The recent Amy Schumer film, I Feel Pretty, is predicated on this very idea. Schumer's character has to suffer a concussion in order to appreciate her own good looks. A silly controversy (prior to the film's release!) resulted when people expressed outrage at the premise of the film. It wasn't clear whether these very angry people were upset at the intimation that a woman as attractive as Schumer could have low self-esteem or if they were upset because the premise acknowledged the reality that actual looks bear little correlation with how a woman sees herself, but in any case, the movie hit a sore spot. Constant complaints are lodged that heroines are too beautiful for a real woman to aspire to be her, but at the same time, the longing for beauty and for a recognition of being beautiful means that calling a heroine anything but beautiful invites a firestorm.
And when a heroine really isn't attractive by conventional standards? Then she's an ugly duckling, and her confidence makes her into a swan. Confidence replaces beauty and paradoxically renders the heroine beautiful precisely because she isn't beautiful. Her other qualities - her intelligence, perhaps, or her kindness, or her selflessness - shine through the exterior and beautify it. In other words, ugly heroines are never allowed to remain ugly. To remain at the center of a narrative, she has to be made beautiful in some fashion or another. Ugliness is still strictly associated with character; the heroine is both beautiful because she is a heroine and a heroine because she is beautiful. Expanding the definition of 'beautiful' does not shake the basic requirement that beauty is necessary for a woman to have a story worth telling.
The feminist iteration of this usually insists on a beautifying quality that is often considered the compensation for plainness or ugliness: cleverness. Jo March, Anne Shirley, Sybylla Melvyn - these feminist heroines are not described as beautiful, but find me the film adaptation with a Jo, an Anne, or a Sybylla who isn't beautiful. Their 'ugliness' might consist of visible freckles, mussy or frizzy hair, a plain dress, or an unflattering bonnet. Ugliness can be resolved with simple make-over because it isn't ugliness at all, just a lack of self-esteem. The trick that gets pulled off is that Jo, Anne, and Sybylla when viewed as role models let us have our cake and eat it too. They are clever, ambitious girls, girls who must fight to earn their livings, support their families, and win a chance at the life they want, all this, yes - but they're also beautiful. In our imaginations, we touch up their portraits; through the gorgeous faces and trim bodies of film stars, they shake off the last vestiges of plain looks. Thus the needle is threaded. As soon as the plain or ugly girl is visualized, she is transformed at once, from a witch to an enchantress. Inner beauty always gets translated into outer beauty.
One writer who came very close to refusing to beautify her ugly duckling was Mary Webb. In her novel, Precious Bane, the heroine Prue Sarn has a harelip, or a cleft palate as we would say today. Because of this, she is considered unmarriageable at best, a dangerous witch at worst. Prue mourns the possibilities that are closed off to her because of her disfigurement (and because of her poverty and class - these things weigh heavily as well), but she also accepts that those possibilities are not to be. Webb, however, does not let her heroine languish in misery, she does not leave her buried in a farm she can't inherit, while her brother can, she does not let every person without exception dismiss Prue as a hopeless case. She meets Kester Woodseaves, a weaver who also brings down the ire of his neighbors when he intervenes and prevents a bull baiting. These two characters are superior in both intelligence and feeling than their countrymen and they both recognize those qualities in the other. But Kester is beautiful and Prue is not. His inner qualities appear in his face; Prue's are hidden by hers.
The happy ending is delicious! Why shouldn't Prue, this extraordinary, fairy-like creation of Mary Webb's, not marry the man she loves, a man who sees those extraordinary qualities that are invisible to everyone else? She argues against it, insists that he choose a girl who matches him in physical beauty, even pleads with him to recognize her own ugliness and to instead "marry a girl like a lily." But Kester won't give up. He tells her, "I've chosen my bit of Paradise." He then kisses her "full upon the mouth." Mary Webb comes as close as any writer I've encountered has to letting her heroine be loved, really and deeply loved, preferred to a far lovelier girl, without insisting on some sort of quasi physicalized transformation. The ugly duckling is no swan at all, but an ugly duck who has nevertheless found a handsome drake. The especial magic of this ending lies in the fact that Kester's love doesn't transform her into a "bit of Paradise," but recognizes that she always was a "bit of Paradise." As long as we are too afraid to let a plain or ugly heroine remain so even on the occasion of the fulfilling of her dreams, we continue to enforce the beauty standards that many of us who consider ourselves feminists deplore. If every ugly duckling must grow up into a lovely swan, then beauty, whether inner or outer, remains a gendered requirement for recognition and happiness.