The Sexism Behind “Sexy-Ugly” (Updated)

August 28, 2009 at 1:48 am 10 comments

“You don’t have to be beautiful to turn me on.”
– Prince, “Kiss”

In Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), Helen describes Harvey Keitel as “very sexy-ugly.” Urban Dictionary defines the term as “a person (usually male) who is not conventionally good-looking but who is, through their idiosyncrasies, charisma, attitude or other mystery factor, sexually attractive.”

I take issue with this concept for a number of reasons. First of all, pseudo-lesbian movies like Kissing Jessica Stein are – to me – mostly fodder for heterosexual male masturbation and not accurate depictions of the LGBTQ community. Exploiting a group of people for capital gain and trying to pass it off as art is not cool in my book. Aside from that, why are only males usually “sexy-ugly?” I can think of quite a few reasons.

For better or worse, society assigns a much higher value to the attractiveness of women than to that of men. To an extent, this makes sense because men tend to be more visual than women, but I cannot help thinking of how it is the exact opposite in the animal kingdom (male birds’ vibrant plumage attracts mates). In addition, most women would find the description “sexy-ugly” offensive (if applied to them), whereas men might see it as a compliment. Implicit in this double standard is that–unlike women–men don’t have to adhere to as many social conventions to be attractive. Bottom line: It’s somehow OK for men to be “sexy-ugly,” but women have to be “sexy-sexy” to be considered attractive.

In efforts to resolve this gender bias, I have composed of list of male and female “sexy-ugly” celebrities. But, first, I want to express my feeling that “sexy-ugly” is a misnomer: There’s nothing ugly about being sexy! Instead, I term it “unconventionally sexy” or “uniquely attractive” because these people have some kind of physical feature and/or intangible quality that makes them attractive beyond traditional standards.

Men: Steve Buscemi, Billy Bob Thornton, Sean Penn, Lil Wayne, Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Jack Black, Tommy Lee Jones, Alfred Molina, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Malkovich, Tom Petty, Stephen King, Peter Dinklage, David Spade, Quentin Tarantino, Jason Segel, Kevin Smith, Dennis Rodman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, 50 Cent, Lyle Lovett, Elijah Wood, Thom Yorke, John Lithgow, Sid Haig, Tommy Lee, Trent Reznor

Women: Francis McDormand, Lucinda Williams, Chrissie Hynde, Sandra Bernhard, Liza Minnelli, Missy Elliott, Natasha Lyonne, Christina Ricci, Sandra Oh, Amy Winehouse, Pink, Heather Matarazzo, Courtney Love, Anjelica Huston, Joan Cusack, Toni Collette, Siouxsie Sioux, Margaret Cho, Nia Vardalos, Juliette Lewis, Tilda Swinton, Mariel Hemingway, Martha Plimpton, Lili Taylor, Whoopi Goldberg, Amanda Plummer, Cher, Cassandra Peterson (Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), Patricia Arquette

I’ll add more as I come up with them. Any suggestions?

Entry filed under: Health and Beauty, Pop Culture. Tags: , , , .

“Jumbo Jessica” and the Marlon Brando Paradox Excerpt from “Those Bright College Years”

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Denise Janick  |  March 20, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    I say, “Leave Chrissie alone!” How dare you put her in any category that has the adjective u g l y in its title. I demand that Chrissie is immediately replaced with Angelina Jolie!
    Love to Lauren
    PS I really will not mention (this time for sure) that we are redecorating one the guest rooms for you. No rush, though.


  • 2. lollygabber  |  March 21, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    I agree that Chrissie does not belong in any category with “ugly” in the title. That’s why I renamed the category “unconventionally sexy” or “uniquely attractive.” If I were a celebrity, I would have listed myself because I’m certainly no “girl next door,” but I have a special kind of appeal. I am adding a few more names today. Thanks for responding: I expected the article to inspire some heated opinions :-).


  • 3. Nicole  |  August 28, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Great post, and I agree one hundred percent! Men can get away with being sooo much less conventionally attractive than women. I think it definitely has to do with the whole men are shamelessly visual people thing, while women are more focused on people’s insides. Sweeping generalization, but there is a kernel of truth in it.

    Personally, I’ve always been attracted to the unconventionally sexy — both men and women. “Sexy-sexy” people have no draw to me. I like people who are interesting and unique, both in personality AND looks.

    To your list of men I would add Slash, who is terribly sexy. Brian Johnson, Angus Young. (Actually, a lot of the musicians from the butt-rock era fall into this category.) Seth Rogen, Jack Nicholson, Kevin Spacey.

    To the women, I’d add Clea DuVall, whom I’ve had the hots for since “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Hmmm. It’s much, much harder to think of women for this category than men. Brittany Murphy, maybe. Kate Moennig. Amber Benson. Janeane Garofalo? Pretty much the actresses who get relegated to “unattractive best friend” roles are the ones I find most attractive.

    Which reminds me of a line from the Simpsons, when Mo was trying to be a TV actor and the producer tells him, “I meant TV ugly, not UGLY ugly.” How freaking true.

    Fun post! It sparked a very lively discussion here in the office, by the way, between me, Lisa, and the ‘new’ Tammy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 4. Hoopermazing  |  March 21, 2010 at 5:08 am

      “I think it definitely has to do with the whole men are shamelessly visual people thing, while women are more focused on people’s insides. ”

      If by “insides” you meant, wallet, then I concur.


  • 5. Mudd  |  August 29, 2009 at 1:04 am

    Pink and Patricia Arquette are both gorgeous. Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal are incredibly good looking, although Joaquin might be less traditionally sexy. And Lyle Lovett is–purely and simply, plainly and truly–ugly.

    I have no idea how to categorize people. Everyone has something about him that can be interpreted as compellingly good looking; at least I think so.


  • 6. kelly  |  October 15, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    Sorry,Liza Minnelli is just plan UGLY nothing sexy about her!!!!! she is the ugliest woman i have ever seen.

    ‘ugly sexy’ is like Madona or Lady GaGa NOT Liza,Liza is just ugly


    • 7. lollygabber  |  October 16, 2009 at 4:46 am

      You are certainly entitled to your opinion, but does this change your mind?:


      • 8. Allison  |  November 4, 2009 at 11:03 pm

        not only is she still ugly here, but she also looks clinically insane. and her voice is a lot more shaky and less impressive than that of many of her fellow female broadway stars. i honestly do not see even the tiniest smidgen of appeal in liza.


  • 9. Hoopermazing  |  March 21, 2010 at 5:01 am

    Ha ha… @ “Kissing Jessica Stein” being masturbatory fodder for straight males. How many straight males do you imagine have ever even heard of that film, much less sat through it. I’d hazard that the majority of the straight men who did see it did so under duress at the behest of a woman.


  • 10. Zen_Menace  |  March 2, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    Franka Potente, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lucy Liu



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