Scott Westerfeld

Uglies: A criticism on modern day society


[In the following essay L.J. will discuss Scott Westerfeld’s use of a future perfectionist society to provide a social criticism of current day society.]

What would the world be like if everyone was given extreme beauty for their sixteenth birthday and could live carefree in a city of constant parties and no worries? Would the world really be a better place if everyone were equal in looks and knowledge, or would there be more problems than solutions? Scott Westerfeld explores these possibilities in his novel, Uglies. He creates a future world where all of modern day society’s values are conveyed to their most perfect extremes, to make a statement on their pitfalls. Beauty is no longer an ideal decided by the individual; it is carefully crafted by a “Pretty Committee” that sets the surgical specifications that all “Uglies” must be transformed into. Westerfeld disguises his criticisms of plastic surgery, politics, media, and societal values into a novel focusing on a society very similar to modern day America, except that it seems perfect from the outside, but, like American society, is filled with troubles on the inside.

Taken from the perspective of Tally, the main character, the novel explores the possible downfall current society (or as it is called in the novel “Rusty Times”) along with criticizing most of our values. She lives in a world where normal equals ugly, and being “pretty” is a way of life.

It is necessary to first examine the major basis of Westerfeld’s societal criticism: the single definition of beauty that society holds and its pressure for all to conform and strive for that ideal. “There is a certain kind of beauty, prettiness that everyone could see. Big eyes and full lips like a kid’s; smooth, clear skin; symmetrical features...Somewhere in the backs of their minds, people were looking for these markers. No one could help seeing them, no matter how they were brought up” (Westerfeld 16). While society does hold similar ideas of beauty, with clear skin and big lips being part of them, this passage along with a large majority of the novel excessively generalizes and stereotypes people.
It is foolish to say that everyone, from the elderly to children, of all races and genders have the exact same beliefs on what it means to be pretty. This passage does, however, represent that people are constantly judging each other solely on appearances, which is a reason for prejudices. In Tally’s society, prejudices were eliminated by giving everyone equal beauty.

Westerfeld also explores the issue of plastic surgery. Today people are willing to change there bodies more than ever through surgery to become “perfect.” We are surrounded by celebrities who are constantly rumored to be changing their looks to enhance there fame and image. In the novel, plastic surgery is taken to an extreme. For their sixteenth birthday, all “uglies” receive a surgery in which there entire bodies, from their bones and skin to their blood (to prevent and erase diseases) is changed and reshaped to fit a standard definition of perfection.

“...her body was going to be opened up, the bones ground down to the right shape, some of them stretched or padded, her nose cartilage and cheek bones stripped out and replace with programmable plastic, skin sanded off and reseeded like a soccer field. Her eyes would be laser cut for a lifetime of perfect vision...Her muscles all trimmed up and all her baby fat sucked out for good” (97).

While much of this surgery is not feasible today, with new medical technologies people will continue to go further towards this idea of perfection. Commonly practiced procedures such as lypo-suction, lasik eye surgery, and rhinoplasty are all alluded to, which proves that we are not far from this extreme. Westerfeld questions the values of society, where any measure is taken to achieve perfection, yet perfection is never quite reached.

Uglies also utilizes many references to modern day politics that seek to expose weaknesses in our society and demonstrate Westerfeld’s beliefs on how civilization will end. One major aspect he analyzes is the hazards to the environment our society is creating. “‘Clear-cutting’ was the word for what the Rusties had done to the old forests: felling every tree, killing every living thing, turning entire communities into grazing land. Whole rain forests had been consumed, reduced from millions of interlocking species to a bunch of cows eating grass, a vast web of life traded for cheap hamburgers” (231). This lends to Westerfeld’s other main point. People today (the “Rusties”) are more concerned with turning a profit for cheap product rather than with the harm being caused to the environment. He questions whether making a profit is worth destroying entire ecosystems for. Using future Earth inhabitants looking back at mistakes of the present is an interesting method for making a social commentary. It allows for reflection on how the decisions made by leaders today will effect the future world, and if we are driving ourselves to a society like “New Pretty Town.” Westerfeld also comments on societies dependency on oil. When two main characters, Tally and David, are discussing the demise of the “Rusties” civilization (i.e. our civilization) that occurred when an oil eating bacterium spread from car to car and eventually ate all the oil in the world David suggests, “‘Maybe they didn’t want you to realize every civilization has its weakness. There’s always one thing we depend on. And if someone takes it away, all thats left is some story in history class” (346). Not only does this show that there are hidden weaknesses to the near perfect pretty society of the novel, it also alludes to our current dependency on oil and how the lack of it could easily lead to the end of civilization. In New Pretty Town the weakness is outsiders such as David who live outside the controlled Pretty world and chose to live as uglies because they know the truth behind the operation (it implants lesions on the brain that keeps people practically brain dead and unquestioning). In current society that weakness is oil and how a shortage in supply would cripple the country both physically and economically.

Despite a majority of the novel alluding to the ways in which humans are destroying the planet, Weterfeld does note that there are progressive thinking people in society. In one passage when David and Tally come to an old and rusting wind farm, Tally questions whether there were really any “Rusties” who cared about the environment. David replies, “They weren’t all crazy. Just most of them...You’ve got to remember, we’re mostly descended from Rusties, and we’re still using their basic technology. Some of them must have had the right idea’” (341). This suggests that there are innovative people in the world that can save the environment, they just need to be listened to. Westerfeld is not completely criticizing society as an inept group who is heading for extinction, but rather as a misguided people who need to start being guided by the right people. He illustrates that in order to save future generations, we must change our lifestyles now to be less harmful to the environment.

Westerfeld also touches on the stereotypes that celebrities and the media create, and societies distorted view of perfection. In one passage where Tally and Shay are reading an old magazine they come to a picture of a model.

The woman looked like she was starving, her ribs thrusting out from both sides, her legs so thin that Tally wondered how they didn’t snap under her weight. Her elbows and pelvic bones looked sharp as needles. But there she was, smiling proudly baring her body, as if she’s just had the operation and didn’t realize they’d sucked out too much fat. The funny thing was, her face was closer to being pretty than any of the rest. (199)

Models are seen as the most beautiful people in society. They are lusted after for there appearance and are idolized by many. Yet in a society that has found a formula for perfect beauty, the thinness of a model is seen as grotesque and unattractive. It is suggested that it was the operation gone wrong. This shows the distorted view that the media (such as magazines) provides about attractiveness. The view that society has of a perfect stick thin body is far different than a healthy and attractive one that would be found under the specifications of New Pretty Town. The models considered most beautiful today, would be considered uglies there, proving that we have distorted ideas of perfection. The novel also tackles the stereotypes presented in the media dealing with society’s view of celebrities. While looking at the aforementioned magazine,

...and almost all of them had wrong, ugly proportions. But instead of being ashamed of heir deformities, the people were laughing and kissing and posing... ‘Who are these freaks?’ ‘They aren’t freaks,’ Shay said. ‘The weird thing is, these are famous people... They’re sports stars, actors, artists. The men with stringy hair are musicians, I think. The really ugly ones are politicians, and someone told me the fatties are mostly comedians’ (198).

This recognizes the different stereotypes held by the media. Such as that all politicians are ugly and deceptive, all comedians are fat, and all musicians are unclean. It also demonstrates that to an outsider, these people that so many see as larger than life are just as average as everyone else. To the pretties they seem to be freaks because they are confident despite being ugly, however, this represents that to anyone who is not from our society would not idolize the celebrities for looks and beauty as many people do.

Westefeld also utilizes the brain lesions that cause all pretties to be conforming and unquestioning members of society to for his societal criticisms. The pretties, who are idolized by uglies, are total conformists who cannot think clearly for themselves, while the Smokies, who chose to stay ugly forever and rebel against society, are seen as clear headed and strong. This shows Westerfeld’s opinion that those who conform are ignorant, while those who rebel are intelligent. This, however, is not the case, as all conformists are not unintelligent and all rebels are not necessarily smart. Westerfeld’s opinion, while valid in a generalized sense and fitting to the purpose of the novel, is misguided in that it generalizes the population.

Westerfeld’s use of a future society that takes modern day values to their extremes creates a social commentary that forces the questioning of societies values and where they will lead us. While overly generalized at times, his criticisms of society are accurate in depicting the possible downfall of man kind including political policies and the media. The main purpose of Uglies is to show that personal freedom and individuality is more important than conformity.

(L.J. 2011)





Pretties: The use of allusions and symbols


[In this essay L.J. will discuss Scott Westerfeld’s use of symbols and allusions to provide comparisons between the flaws of “New Pretty Town” and modern day society as well as to develop the main characters ad plot of the novel.]

In his second installment of the Uglies series, Scott Westerfeld once again uses the futuristic society of “New Pretty Town” to demonstrate how a society would be if all of current societies values were carried out to perfection. Main character, Tally finds herself finally having received the operation, yet still missing something important in her life. Westerfeld uses many symbols and allusions to relate “New Pretty Town” to modern day as well as to develop the characters and plot.

One of the first allusions in the novel is to Rudolph Valentino’s mansion, Falcon Lair. “The bash was in Valentino Mansion, the oldest building in New Pretty Town. It sprawled along the river only a few stories high...Inside the walls were made of real stone, so the rooms couldn’t talk, but the mansion had a long history of giant fabulous bashes. The wait to be a Valentino resident was at least forever” (Westerfeld 16). Rudolph Valentino, was an actor in the 1920’s known as the “Latin Lover.” This is significant in understanding the exclusivity of living in this mansion, as he was a famous actor and only the top Pretties could live here. More significant, however, is that it reveals the location of “New Pretty Town,” which had not been revealed in the first novel. Valentino mansion is located in Beverly Hills, which means that the Rusty Ruins would be the city of Los Angeles. This puts into perspective the complete loss of current society, in that one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country was reduced to rusty skeletons, and the only remaining piece left was an old Hollywood mansion.

Another allusion in the novel comes at a costume party where, “Zane, who knew a lot about history, had come as some dictator’s assistant who wasn’t totally fashion missing, all in tight black with a bubbly red armband” (23). The red arm band is referring to a swastika, meaning that Zane was dressed as one of Hitler’s officers. Calling the swastika “bubbly” (which in this novel means “cool”), symbolizes that the Pretties have no knowledge of history and are generally uninformed. Zane obviously did not know “a lot about history” because he would not want to be seen dressed as a notorious dictators assistant if he understood the harm Hitler caused to society. Its ironic that he is seen to have knowledge of history compared to the others when he does not know any of the meaning behind the history, which implies that all Pretties are ignorant.

A major symbol in the novel are “calorie purgers” which symbolize modern day diet pills. They represent that despite being in a civilization where it was attempted for everyone to be made equal, there are still personal concerns over weight and appearance. Pretties are still worried about becoming overweight, despite the operation. This shows that no matter how beautiful or perfect people are made, human nature is always going to make people find their flaws and wish that they were more beautiful.

Westerfeld also makes multiple allusions to religion and God. God is referred to as the “invisible superhero in the sky” (173) which suggests the absurdity that he feels towards religion. Superheroes are fictitious characters that, in stories, people have faith in to save them from evil. By referring to God as a superhero Westerfeld implies that God is also a fictitious character that people blindly put there faith into for guidance despite that he is “invisible” or that they have no proof of his existence. Tally bringing forth this idea that God is absurd serves as a mechanism for Westerfeld to express his belief that in the future, the idea of God will no longer exist and that believing in him now is the same as believing in Superman. Another allusion made towards religion is, “The longer she stayed out here, the more Tally understood why the Rusties and their predecessors had believed in invisible beings, praying to placate spirits as the trashed the natural world around them” (253). This alludes to the fact that many people today pray to God asking for forgiveness and seeking to go to Heaven, yet there are still sinning by destroying the environment. He points out the irony that people try to cancel out the harm they cause to the environment by praying, yet what they are destroying is not being fixed by whatever they are praying to.

Another major allusion in the novel is to the fairytale Rapunzel. Tally has several dreams that she is locked inside a tower. In the first she feels completely trapped until an “ugly prince” comes to save her. This symbolizes David, her love interest from the Smoke, and proves that she is starting to regain her memory and is wishing to be free of the city. Her second dream reveals that Tally has become bored with Pretty life and must take it upon herself to find David and the other Smokies:

So there was this beautiful princess. She was locked into a high tower, one whose smart walls had clever holes in them that could give her anything: food, a clique of fantastic friends, wonderful clothes. And, best of all, there was a mirror on the wall, so that the princess could look at her beautiful self all day long. The only problem with the tower was that there was not way out. The builders had forgotten to put in an elevator, or even a set of stairs. She was stuck up there. One day, the princess realized she was bored. The view from the tower- gentle hills, fields of white flowers, and a deep, dark forest- fascinated her. She started spending more time looking out the window than at her own reflection, as is often the case with troublesome girls. And it was pretty clear that no prince was showing up, or at least that he was really late. (245)

This symbolizes that she, along with the other Pretties, is trapped inside the city and kept up in a “tower” by the Specials, who represent the witch. This passage occurs directly after she makes her escape from “New Pretty Town” and shows that with the lessening of the lesions on her brain, the more she has wanted to escape and rebel against the society. She realized that she was trapped and was finally capable of making her own decision and escape. While in the first dream she was waiting for David to come save her, this dream shows that she has realized that she must go find him herself. It also represents that even though she is in a world where she can have all of the material goods she desires spit out at her from a hole in the wall, she would still prefer freedom. In the final allusion to Rapunzel, it is revealed that Tally has made her complete transformation and no longer wants to settle on only being a pretty face. “‘She lived in a high tower in the sky. It was a very comfortable tower, but there was no way down and out into the world. And one day the young goddess decided that she had better things to do than look at herself in the mirror...’” (271). This represents that being beautiful is not satisfying enough to make someone happy. It underlays the entire purpose of the novel; that beauty and equality have their consequences and people must chose if free thought and the ability to change the world and live how one choses is more important than complete equality.

Westerfeld’s use of symbols and imagery allows him to provide commentary on today’s society as well as further the plot and character development of the novel.

(L.J. 2011)

Society’s Impact on Self Image in Uglies

Today kids look forward to having a big party on their sixteenth birthday, but in Scott Westerfeld's novel this is not the case. In the futuristic novel Uglies, sixteen year olds have their skin sanded down and their appearance completely altered into what is considered pretty. Immediately, they move across a river into a new city that is exclusive to only people who are pretty like them. Westerfield makes a social commentary on where our society is headed with the increased use of artificial self improvements and its effects on one's self image.
Hypothetically speaking, if we all joined their society we would be considered ugly. Anyone normal is ugly according to the standards placed on these characters. The novel follows Tally Youngblood, the main character, on her journey to becoming pretty. Her surgery was postponed due to complications, as the story follows her inner monologue which describes how societies standards affect her self image. Before getting the surgery, no one is pleased with their appearance, but that's okay because they only have to feel ugly until they turn 16 and move to New Pretty Town. But why don’t the pretties come back to visit Uglyville? Why don’t the pretties play pranks and sneak around anymore? Is it possible a change in appearance can alter one’s personality? These are the questions Westerfeld evokes for his readers.

The leaders who initiated this concept had one goal in mind; to end appearance discrimination by making everyone the same. Everyone has the same opinion on what is pretty and not only did people look the same, but their idea of beauty was the same. It was tradition to turn “pretty” at age 16, and no one questioned the practice of completely modifying one's appearance to fit society's standards. At least that's what Tally thinks until she meets Shay. Shay has an abnormal way of thinking in her community and chooses to run away in opposition to the surgery. Before leaving she plants this idea in Tally’s mind, but Tally promised her lifelong friend Peris, who had undergone the surgery and was waiting for her in New Pretty Town, that she would turn pretty so they could see eachother again. Shay and Peris are comparable to an angel and devil on each shoulder. Shay is the devil, tempting Tally to sway from tradition and not get the surgery, while Peris is the angel, luring her to turn pretty and follow the rules.

Westerfeld uses comparisons to describe these people’s appearance and actions, as a warning to what our world may become like. The most advanced, furthest from normal citizens are the Special Circumstance Workers. They are described as “cruel beauty” ( Westerfeld 134), which provokes “respect saturated with fear” (125). Due to extensive and myriad surgeries, these people are so far from looking human they resemble monsters more than anything else.
Uglies was published in 2005, and cosmetic surgery has become even more prevalent as time goes on. There is no denying that people rely on permanent and dangerous procedures to give them a desired look, and Westerfeld predicted this progression before it was as common as it is today. Through his alarming descriptions of people in their different stages of life and the mind washing effect that is portrayed on the characters, Westerfeld is warning people of the possibility of beauty becoming an adverse central focus that is necessary for genuine happiness.

Expanding on the idea of a society seeming beneficial from an outside view, but being corrupt when closely examined, Westerfeld’s fabricated society vaguely resembles communism. The concept may seem practical at first, but has no chance at longevity due to people’s individual ideas, like Shay, whose thoughts differed from the majority of societies. Start by looking at communism from a distance, where the government is supposed to protect its citizens against corruption and greed and keep all processes controlled and equal. However, the real problems lie within the force that is supposed to be preventing these scandals. This mirrors Tally’s world, where a society in which no one is discriminated against seems perfect, but the leaders are brainwashing its citizens through years of wanting perfection, and then using this desire against them. For example, in an attempt at extortion, Tally’s surgery was refused until she exposed Shay’s location. A Special Circumstance employee named Dr. Cable threatened, “until you do help us, to the very best of your ability, you will never be pretty.” Tally never intended to reveal the location of her friend, but she has been brainwashed into believing life is pointless without becoming pretty, and because of this lure, she therefore agrees to aid her enemy and give up Shay’s hideout.

Westerfeld correlates ideas and trends in his novel to today’s world, and portrays his disapproval by exhibiting a society where appearance is the most important aspect of life. He fears government would take advantage of people's dependence and use it to harm the citizens it is supposed to be protecting. While his viewpoints seem extreme, alterations such as tattoos, piercings, liposuction, rhinoplasty, and several other permanent modifications are becoming more prevalent in today’s society while the use of these methods are increasing.
(C.C. 2015)