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Charlize Theron, Caitlyn Jenner – is ugly the new beautiful?

Is it possible to have one’s fill of beautiful women? They gaze at us from glossy magazines, billboards, social media channels and OMG, even in real life. Oh, their huge eyes, rounded bottoms and slowly parting lips. If their visual allure could be turned into sound, what noise would they make? The hum of hovering dragonflies and bees. A shimmer of winged rainbows circling ponds and their prey… but droning, in both senses of the word.

That’s because eventually the media versions of these women remind you of a vast deli counter of handcrafted dishes. They become another helping of dessert too many. After a while, caramel fudge dotted with orange, or strawberry chocolate mousse sprinkled with pecan and a dash of lemon obliterate the palate.

The image of dragonflies? It captures these women best. They flicker above ponds in that camera-flash sparkle of sunlight, darting at their prey with ravenous accuracy. For all their pretty appearance, the daintiness of ladies’ underclothing tossed on the carpet, these creatures are arguably the deadliest predators of the lot. They swallow ninety five percent of the victims they stalk.

Charlize Theron in Monster
Charlize Theron in Monster

Enter Charlize Theron, whose character in Monster is an alcoholic atrocity with a passion for slaughtering men. Or the one-armed, cold-eyed warrior in the new Mad Max: Fury Road. In Prometheus she is the icy, emotionally suppressed soldier who surgically removes, on her own (with the help of sci-fi tech), an alien reptile from her womb. Then battles on. She spends half of In the Valley of Elah with a broken nose and bloodshot eyes. Admittedly, other than Monster, we often still see she is a lovely woman, though tainted with some hideousness, be it her portrayal of the iceberg personality of a psychopath, or having a missing limb. But what would be lost if she were not, in conventional, globalised taste, a truly beautiful woman in the first place, before she was almost ritually blood-sprinkled with ugliness?

That which is globalised has too many seasonings from different places. Chili and sweet basil meet rosemary and sage. We risk blandness in the international airport lounge of erotic taste. So, perhaps, that is why we uglify. What better debasement is there than exploiting the gorgeous for glaring contrast?

In Mad Max: Fury Road, the cruel desert-scapes illumine Charlize’s body. Unashamedly lustful Greek statuary comes to mind. The chiseled buttocks of those statues were made to be squeezed. Through 3D lenses we are invited to savour and virtually touch Charlize’s sand-burned body, even though she has an amputated forearm. Men or lesbians surely, secretly, wonder what it would be like to caress her, or even sleep with her… even with her sawn-off limb. Often she fits to her stump a lethal prosthesis, which has more than a hint of the dominatrix. What if her missing limb had been a leg? The sex drive productively clashes with the aesthetic and the ugly, creating a fresh gallery of attraction as repulsion and repulsion as attraction.

Of course, all this not only applies to Charlize. Many women, from Sappho through to similar demigoddesses like Demi Moore, Daryl Hannah and Sigourney Weaver have gone through sacraments of degradation and transformation often involving cleansing through blood.

In the act of filmic gazing there is a poignancy to seeing the gorgeous brought down to mucky, sacred earth. The gaze and its secret desires: that sense of ownership, of eyes raking through a lovely creature, pinning her or him down, without having to ask for consent. The woman (or well hung, striking man) is both transfigured and debased through maiming, or through substance abuse, or an emotional scarring, any of which can remind us of our own frailty. But here we have the warrior archetype as uplifting, uplifted, fractured caryatid. The wounding and the vulgarisation of our Charlizes resonate with where we all come from: the defencelessness of our childhood, a place of dropped toys and parents’ arms that sometimes were not there for us. It was a place where we had no choice when, at times, ugly things happened at home.

Of course, Charlize Theron is only one of many canonically “beautiful people” used to create the stark contrast with the brutality daubed on them. They mirror the tastelessness, the ugliness inherent in neoliberalist globalisation. The faces and bodies of these “beautiful people” were once upon a time unique – when they were honeyed with the touch of their mothers, with the laughter of other children they played with.

Then there is Caitlyn Jenner. What would be lost if she was conventionally “ugly”? Would a constructed, sexy image of him her still have been tenable, splashed across the pages of Vanity Fair? If taboos are cast aside, those pear-like, edible thighs of …hers are secretly, hugely appealing, creating a complex double entendre in instinctual desire unavailable to the human race a few decades ago.

These women of ours. Like dragonflies, their eyes stare at us with the terrifying gentleness of angels.

Follow Rod on Twitter @rod_in_china


  • CRACKING CHINA was previously the title of this blog. That title was used as the name for Rod MacKenzie's second book, Cracking China: a memoir of our first three years in China. From a review in the Johannesburg Star: " Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes". Cracking China is available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle or get a hard copy from His previous book is a collection of poetry,Gathering Light. A born and bred South African, Rod now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, after a number of years working in southern mainland China and a stint in England. Under the editorship of David Bullard and Michael Trapido he had a column called "The Mocking Truth" on NewsTime until the newszine folded. He has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. if you are a big, BIG publisher you should ask to see one of his many manuscript novels. Follow Rod on Twitter @