“It was as if a mysterious, all-knowing Master had given everyone a cloak of ugliness to wear, and everyone would have accepted it without question. Master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked around and seen nothing that contradicted the statement; rather, they saw support for it from every billboard, every film, every look. “Yes,” they had said. “You are right.” And they took ugliness in their hands, threw it over them like a cloak and went around the world with it. Everyone dealt with it as they wished.” – Toni Morrison, “The Bluest Eye”
“Bottoms” begins with best friends PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) preparing in typical teenage engagement in front of a mirror, preparing for a carnival where they hope to be blown away by the cheerleaders who visit them , to be noticed. I’m in love with Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber).
These two are typical clumsy high schoolers, which means they’re horny and lack style. Unlike Molly Ringwald’s Andie Walsh, the creative misfit heroine from Pretty in Pink, they don’t have a knack for putting together fancy outfits and leave the bells and whistles to other girls. PJ puts together a broken tribute to Britney Spears, describing the object of her affection as looking like a Dutch boy.
Josie, whose expectations are much lower, refuses to make such a fuss. What’s the benefit? Isabel is dating school football star Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), who tops the social ladder while they hang out at the bottom.
Still, Josie says, just because they’re ugly and untalented doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to get laid. They’re lesbians too, but whatever. Nobody cares. It is the two characteristics of ugliness and lack of talent that mark them as outcasts.
Such a complicated word, ugly. Highly subjective, amazingly unspecific, ugly is a collective term for everything undesirable. We know exactly what a cautioning parent means when they say, “God doesn’t like ugliness,” or “Don’t act ugly,” or “You don’t want me to be ugly.”
When one adult says it to another, it may be time to either walk away from the conversation or take off your earrings and crack your fingers.
Fist fights are the ugliest activity a decent woman can engage in, and PJs and Josie’s fight club, which includes members of the cheerleading squad, are vile towards their attackers. But they don’t fight “like girls” – no thrashing, no hair pulling, no soles slapped in the face. They punch, punch and kick with precision, breaking bones and rescuing helpless boys from themselves. They wear their bruises and blood-stained smile with pride. Getting ugly gets results.
Highly subjective, amazingly unspecific, ugly is a collective term for everything undesirable.
In the real world, however, the word is a stone thrown at others to put them in their place—especially women who are conditioned to equate our worth with our attractiveness.
Nobody wants to be seen as ugly. But if the goal is to tackle another person’s insecurities, it doesn’t matter if the goal is a supermodel. That’s why those lines from Tori Amos’ “Precious Things” were such a slap in the face back then — we’ve all been like, “He said you’re really an ugly girl/ But I like the way you play/ And I am.” died/ But I thanked him…”
As the song suggests, you might not remember the first time someone called you ugly, but you can almost certainly recall an incident. In my case, a teenager loudly told his immaculately coiffed and manicured girlfriend he had his arm around how ugly I was after I couldn’t give him a better reason why my nails weren’t polished than the truth: “I did me.” I don’t want to paint her.
This interaction also showed how limited the power to label a person as ugly can be – you have to value the offender’s opinion. Unless you’re interested in how that person feels, the term “ugly” causes a passing pang at best. Once that’s over, it’s just material.
That’s why the intentional reappearance of “ugly” in “Bottoms” amplifies its upswing. PJ and Josie really don’t care what anyone thinks, whether that’s related to their perceived ugliness or their ridiculous desire to start a fight club, ostensibly to promote sorority but with the ulterior motive being to have sex.
Before the two formed what they called their self-defense club, they described themselves as ugly with casual acceptance. Edebiri delivers the phrase “ugly and untalented” with absolute neutrality, as if PJ and Josie accepted that those were their defining traits. That’s because they did it. The same goes for everyone else at your school.
“Could the ugly, untalented gays please report to the principal’s office?” booms an administrator’s request over the school’s public address system. The rest of the students know exactly who they mean, and PJ and Josie respond immediately. The talented gays silently follow the program and require everyone to strive for the extraordinary and perfection. These lesbians are not on board.
But her term “untalented” goes with “ugly” to reinforce its true meaning and indicate averageness. In “Bottoms,” “ugly” is more often related to a character’s style than their looks. “Don’t talk to me you ugly son of a bitch, okay?” Jeff yells at Josie, adding, “I don’t talk to girls in overalls!”
Later, when Isabel visits Josie’s apartment, she notices an oversized hoodie and excitedly remarks that she’s always wanted one. Unfortunately, her mother forbade it, telling Isabel that sweatshirts would make her body look shapeless and, yes, ugly.
If director Emma Seligman, who co-wrote “Bottoms” with Sennott, uses that word deliberately, it may be because she wants people who identify with Sennott and Edebiri’s characters to see it as a badge of honor.
You could also view “Bottoms” as an unintentional rebuke for the ridiculous rage on social media “ugly beauty.” While it sounds like an outgrowth of the body positivity movement, “ugly beauty” is the opposite of all of that and somewhat contradictory given that its top evangelists are role models like weak-tee provocateurs Julia FoxJazzelle Zanaughtti and pop stars like doja cat: conventionally gorgeous people doing crazy things with expensive makeup. Fox’s hallmark is it Bleach her eyebrows, calling it “man-repellent”. Zanaughtti posts Instagram shots of himself under the handle @uglyworldwide in which she sports rodent-like buck teeth and pincushion-like hair, and also creatively bangs her mug.
The fashion world praises these and others as avant-garde; The fashion world is also one of culture’s most important guardians, dictating who has the luxury of playing in that mud puddle and who lacks bone structure or the right skin tone. Note that none of the top “ugly beauty” exponents are dark-skinned black or brown women.
Because for anyone who doesn’t fit the prevailing white, short stature standard of beauty, playing with “ugly beauty” just isn’t a thing. Toni Morrison’s prose explains why—when the world holds up a certain image of Eurocentric, heteronormative attractiveness that doesn’t fit, “lean on.” [you] from every billboard, every film, every look” Claiming your beauty becomes a lifelong effort. emphasis on effort.
But maybe not for Josie. Not quite yet. Their T-shirts and loose pants border on an act of protest. Her aesthetic philosophy is reflected in a natural hairstyle that is rarely manipulated by leave-in conditioners or anti-frizz products. And so says one black woman who’s had natural hair most of her life — to be someone who’s front-facing, says, “It’ll do what it does,” and moves on, takes backbone and a big dose of it “I do not care.”
Ayo Edebiri stars as Josie, Rachel Sennott as PJ, Zamani Wilder as Annie, Summer Joy Campbell as Sylvie, Havana Rose Liu as Isabel, Kaia Gerber as Brittany and Virginia Tucker as Stella Rebecca in Bottoms (Orion Pictures).Josie’s lack of polish contrasts with the immaculate manner of her classmate Annie (Zamani Wilder), who also sees Josie as the smartest of her cohorts “despite being a black Republican.” Annie represents edgy perfection, but you can achieve Josie’s wrinkled look by hardly trying.
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The dark meaning of “bottoms” is leading more people to embrace the ugly and notice how the word draws on the standards of behavior that pervade our culture. PJ and Josie refuse to be role models for gay or teenage girls in the movies. They are neither artistic nor funny nor above average. They’re not even the best fighters at their club.
Should they get hordes of us to run to the call for ugly, untalented gays, even straights, then we count their retrieval of the true meaning of ugly as successful. It might sound like an insult, but “Bottoms” translates to being undisturbed, casual, and comfortable in our skin.
“Bottoms” is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
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