If you're friends with a woman, it is unforgivable to call her ugly.
This was not always the case. Jane Eyre, (Jane Eyre), Lizzie Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Esther Summerson (Bleak House): these are all female protagonists who are explicitly depicted as plain, and not in an Anastasia Steele "I'm just too slender and my eyes are too big for my face!" sort of way. They are genuinely meant to be plain; Esther is even disfigured by smallpox. This does not affect their protagonist status, or the fact that they are considered attractive by their eventual lovers.
Why, then, is it so impossible for an ugly female protagonist to exist in our culture? Why must 14-year-old Hermione Granger have a Cinderella moment at the Yule Ball, when she has so many other qualities to recommend her?
Britain today has both a sex culture and a relationship culture. Gone are the days when a woman having sex before marriage meant she would have to emigrate to Australia or die of pneumonia in a ditch. Sex culture, for the purpose of this article, is the culture of having sex with people you don't necessarily know well for no other reason than that you think they're sexy and you both want to. Relationship culture, meanwhile, is the more traditional path of romance. But when it comes to female beauty, many people seem to conflate these two distinct cultures - something that is both harmful and unnecessary.
Nathan Biberdorf's article on the way the word "beauty" is used to refer both to inner and outer beauty, without clarification as to which is really meant (i.e. "Everyone is beautiful!") emphasises how needlessly important beauty is made to seem to young women. Every woman I know has been called a bitch at some point, but being called "ugly" is so offensive as to be a rare insult. Yet beauty is only crucial in a sex culture, where what matters is surface attraction. In a relationship culture, beauty is a perk, not a pre-requisite to success, as evident in the novels noted above. This holds true in our modern day relationship culture: we all know hideous-but-happy couples. 'Bitch', meanwhile, is an attack on one's personality, which is the key to success within a relationship culture. Whilst obviously there are people who are both beautiful and good, and people who are neither, for the purpose of this article I am interested in the dichotomy of beauty versus goodness. Consider the following two statements:
A. Emily is very ugly, but she is kind and funny.
B. Ashley is gorgeous, but she is boring and selfish.
Because Ashley would have more success in a sex culture than Emily would, we view Ashley as inherently more attractive than Emily, even though Emily would have far more success in a relationship culture than Ashley would. As our society features both of these cultures, that means that Emily is just as attractive as Ashley: her personality traits are as valuable as Ashley's physical charms. Yet whilst I have heard many people describe women like Ashley, I have never heard someone described like Emily. Her positive attributes listed in this way would imply the speaker liked her, and to call a women you like "ugly" is unacceptable. In a pure relationship culture, however, statement A is far more positive than statement B. (There are Ashleys in Dickens and Austen; they generally end up as miserable fishmongers' wives, filled with regret.) Throughout Victorian novels women are frequently told that they're scrawny or squinty or mouse-ish or just plain plain, but this doesn't correlate with how attractive, beloved, or central to the narrative they are.
Because conservative societies throughout Western history have been relationship, not sex cultures, we hold the notion that sex culture is freeing and empowering. In some ways, this is true. It's admittedly great that women's lives are no longer destroyed because they rode in a carriage with a man, unchaperoned. But sex culture has infringed upon relationship culture. It has insisted that "attractive" and "physically attractive" are the same thing, and in doing so it has created a whole host of problems. Everyone should expect to be with someone they find attractive, but that doesn't mean that every teenage boy should expect to marry Megan Fox at the height of her Transformers (Optimus) prime.
That doesn't mean that a man going out with an ugly woman is "settling", and that doesn't mean that an ugly woman should work tirelessly on changing how she looks so that one day she can have a happy ending. Not everyone is beautiful, and insisting that they are belittles both Ashley's one and only gift, and Emily's many. We need to de-stigmatise ugliness, because in denying its existence we give beauty an importance that it should only have in a purely sex-based culture. And for now, that is not what our society is: for now, the protagonists of Fifty Shades of Grey still want to get married.