By Rebekah Fitzsimmons
The Ugly (part 3 of 3)
This is the third and last in my series of review posts on Scott Westerfeld’s series, including Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras. Please see the first two posts here and here. As always: spoiler alert.
My biggest concern in the series was what I found to be a glorification of plastic surgery and self-mutilation. This begins in the first two books with a constant emphasis on physical appearance and the continual assertion that the only way to be beautiful was to undergo radical physical alteration at the hands of plastic surgeons. The “Pretty-making” surgery is granted to every citizen when they turn 16 and it enhances their physical beauty as well as their muscular and immune systems. Over and over we are told that this enhancement is based on evolutionary science, ensuring that those operated on are truly irresistible, even powerful over those non-altered individuals. The major conspiracy point of the novel revolves around the secret fact that, along with making the population pretty, this surgery also dulls the intellect, drive, and desires of the population at large, rendering them “bubbleheads” who rarely question authority or seek out more than a good time.
There are, of course, moments in the text where the characters pay lip service to the idea of finding beauty in yourself without these surgeries. In Pretties, Shay and Tally play with the computer simulation software, making up possible faces for themselves, but Shay claims that she doesn’t want to change herself at all (Tally is aghast at the possibility). Shay asserts that one can be beautiful without the surgery and that it is all propaganda that makes the uglies believe that they need the surgery. Shay runs away to The Smoke in part to prove that she doesn’t want the surgery, and Tally is driven to follow her by Special Circumstances, who threaten to withhold the Pretty surgery from her unless she helps them track down David and The Smoke. Despite their objections to the surgery based on what they experience in The Smoke, Shay and Tally both end up transformed, first into Pretties, then into Specials.
As the books progress, there is great outrage and rebellion against the idea of brain modification done without the knowledge or permission of the citizenry, and the reader is encouraged to see this kind of modification as a violation. However, the practice of “surge” and the celebration of the ways in which physical and surgical alterations can express one’s personality, group affiliations, and popularity is celebrated even after the “mind-rain” saves everyone from their mental muzzles. In Specials, Diego, the city of sanctuary for all mind-free individuals does not abandon plastic surgery, but loosens the “beauty regulations” and allows, even encourages, its population to alter themselves in any way they like. The unnamed Asian city in Extras, likewise allows individuals to surge or not to surge based on their preferences, but one of the first things Frizz notices about Aya is her unsurged nose and claims he thought it “brave” for someone to walk around with “a nose like that.” It is clear that unsurged people are considered abnormal, meaning there is city-wide peer pressure to alter one’s looks via surgery. Fritz even embraces his own form of brain muzzling, in his Radical Honesty surge, though he objects whenever someone calls him a “bubblehead.” Frizz sees a distinction between his elective brain modification and the bubblehead surgery done in secret, but Tally and others see any brain modification as a part of the same evil. By the end of Extras, we have only a couple of characters who have chosen not to enhance themselves surgically: David, who was born free of the city influence and Aya, who promises Tally that she will not add more surgeries on top of her feed implants. However, Tally, the character held up through all 4 novels as the hero and moral compass for the reader is the most surgically enhanced individual, who refused to decommission her “Special” qualities out of a desire to keep people from “rewriting” her for a 3rd time.
What is even more disturbing is the glorification of self-mutilation at the end of Pretties and throughout Specials. In order to defeat the “bubblehead” legions that cause the pretty population to be docile and moronic, the Crims attempt daring and dangerous tricks that serve the adrenaline-pumping “bubbly” feeling that they associate with their brains working around the legions. However, Shay creates her own clique based around the idea that cutting themselves or causing other injuries can also help them to escape from the bubblehead phenomenon.
Special Circumstances, always on the look out for young people who are able to resist the treatments, recruits Shay and her cult of friends to be a new kind of Special, nicknamed “The Cutters.” While specific members of the Cutters cease cutting themselves, they remain known by this celebratory, special name throughout the rest of Specials and into Extras. To me, the glorification of the feeling that comes from self-mutilation and the way it allowed Shay to escape being a Pretty and allow her to advance to the head of a group of Specials is disturbing. Granted, Tally eventually rebels against the idea of cutting herself, but until they are “cured” by the New Smoke, none of the other Cutters comment on the problem or even swear off the practice. The glorification and normalization of this dangerous practice in a popular book for young adults is troubling.
Partly, it is Westerfeld’s excellent writing abilities that are to blame here: the descriptions of the way Tally feels when, as a Special, she cuts herself and feels a flood of positive and exhilarating emotions, are so vivid and convincing that no amount of backtracking later in the novel can undo the impression he has created. It is fine for Tally to swear off the cutting as a means of escaping her Special modifications that keep her under the power of Dr. Cable, but even as she resists, she pines powerfully to feel the way cutting herself makes her feel. As one of the grown-ups reading this novel, I can objectively note the message Westerfeld is attempting to send: that this cutting is monstrous and wrong. But as a young adult, caught up in the emotions of being a teen-ager, one might grasp onto the raw emotion and effect of Shay and Tally’s cutting as something to be tried.
With all of that said, I still think the Uglies series is worth a read. The books are popular for their dystopian elements, the action sequences and the strong female protagonist of Tally. It is just important for teens to be able to differentiate between the celebration of plastic surgery, brain modifications and self-mutilation and the intended critiques of those practices.
Rebekah is a PhD student.