Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies: How through the Lens of Political Criticism a Story Seemingly about Beauty Becomes a Critique on Government, Free Will, and the Power of Beauty and Individuality

Young Adult Literature is shadowed by misunderstandings and biases. The genera is seen as a negative influence upon young adults or it is seen as a stepping stone in which teens use to work their way up to the “classics.” The stories in YA novels are seen as just that, stories; rather than reading the text critically like a classic novel YA texts are read in order to get young adults to read. The common thought is that critical thinking should be left to the classics because they are literature with a capital L. Reading a novel for the story is perfectly acceptable but to limit a text is wrong. Young Adult literature should be treated the same as classics as in that they should be read with critical thinking and different critical theories. I cannot read a novel without wanting to know the time in history that the novel was written—what was going on at the time that this author was writing and why did he write about this topic? Should we not do the same investigating with novels of today? They most certainly will long after you and I have left this world. Literature is embedded with history. Present literature is filled with present history and current events. So, what is the harm of thinking critically and applying critical theory to Young Adult Literature? This genera resonates with teens and adults for a reason and it is imperative that readers think critically about all literature, not just literature with a capital L.

Scot Westerfeld’s Uglies is the first book of his trilogy, the Uglies series. The protagonist, Tally, lives in a dystopian world where everyone is “equal.” Everybody has a surgery on their sixteenth birthday that turns them pretty. If everyone is pretty then everyone is equal. There are three stages in this world. At first one is ugly, pre-surgery, then one is turned into a pretty, then into a middle pretty where one “chooses” your career, and the last stage is crumblies. Tally becomes friends with a girl named Shay who runs away from the city to be with a group that lives in nature; Smoke, a place where everyone is ugly because they ran away from the surgery. Shay’s escape led to Tally being interrogated by the Specials who are the hand of force back in the city; they threaten not to let Tally have the surgery unless she help find the group that Shay fled to. Tally, regretting her decision, agrees to the terms. Once Tally arrives at Smoke her feelings begin to change and decides to hold off on alerting the authorities of her whereabouts. Tally begins to have feelings for David; however, Shay also has a crush on David and this comes between the two friends. Tally notices beauty in things that she never thought could have beauty; she sees beauty in working with her hands; she sees beauty in David’s smile, even though he is an ugly, because it shows kindness and love; she sees beauty in nature and begins to question the entire system back at the city. After learning from David’s parents, who are previous doctors who administered the surgeries, that the surgery literally changes inhibitions, lesions become present that were not present before, Tally understands why people would run away. She came to the camp a traitor but begins to embrace the ugly lifestyle. Tally’s version of beauty is disrupted and she must choose what version to embrace.

Scot Westerfeld creates a world where everyone becomes pretty and thus equal. In this world there are no diseases, no eating disorders because there is no need to look better than anyone because everyone is already pretty, and no wars or fighting over the way others look or for the colour of people’s skin. Individuality is eliminated from the equation. By looking at Uglies through political criticism we can find many topics that the author is questioning. In the in the citizens must give up their individuality; this creates a peaceful world without selfishness, but the loss of individuality is taken without consent; but like I said, harmony and peace are achieved. So, what is the harm of giving up a little personal freedom for the sake of harmony? Looking through the lens of political criticism this novel is able to challenge issues that today’s society is facing, an appreciation that can apply to many more novels in the YA genera. Westfield not only shows the dangers in his dystopian world but also complicates issues in showing that maybe not everything about an oppressive government is bad. On one hand there is the thought that people should have a choice to have the surgery but on the other hand it is for the greater good that people do not have a choice to have the surgery. With Big Brother and the NSA leaks going on in today’s news, looking at this text through the lens of political criticism seems like a good idea. Maybe this is why dystopian novels are so popular, because they deal with current issues. Had I just read the novel for the story I would not have gained so much from the novel. I also would have been doing a disservice to the author.

Throughout the novel, uglies are kept separate from the pretties by a river as well as a distinct physical difference. They live in two different cities. Since uglies are pre-surgery they have not had their inhibitions taken away, the lesions inserted. Keeping the two separate makes sure that the uglies cannot have an influence on the pretties. The river represents power. Separation is a form of power that the government utilizes. If someone is going to run away they do it as an ugly, as a young person; this has significant meaning to me. Once an ugly makes it all the way through the system they have no will power to change; they have been indoctrinated and after the operation they have literally been brainwashed; they are tied to the system for life and can no longer escape it. Tally and Shay have a conversation about hover boarding; they do not see any reason why they cannot sneak out and hover board once they are turned pretty. However, they finish their own thought, Tally says, “Besides…just because we get the operation doesn’t mean we can’t do stuff like this” and Shay responds, “But pretties never do, Tally. Never;” I believe this scene helps Tally later in the novel in understanding that the operation really does change a person (Westerfeld 49). The separation gives the appearance that becoming pretty is the only choice; so, even though they are willingly forced into an operation, Westerfeld shows that government can give off the appearance of free choice but in reality they have just stripped away all other choices.

Another power seen through the lens of political criticism is the power of individuality or the absence of individuality. The operation makes you equal but takes away individual physical characteristics. No one person is prettier than another person. In the action of stripping individuality Westerfeld shows how importance and power of individuality. Shay talks to Tally about how the rusties used to live, “Everyone judged everyone else based on appearance. People who were taller got better jobs, and people even voted for some politicians just because they weren’t quite as ugly as everybody else” (43). An individual could be more successful based on their individual physical characteristics. The society that Shay and Tally are a part of has an obsession with beauty but they point out flaws in the older system. Those flaws in the rusties society resemble today’s society. Even though the big critique seems to focus on Tally’s society, through the lens of political criticism I am able to stop and contemplate the above quote. I would say that we are not at the point where someone gets elected due to being better looking; however, our society thrives on the beautiful and popular. Is Westerfeld implying that our society is headed that way? There is nothing wrong with being beautiful but letting beauty influence one’s every decision can lead to destruction; it says something when people are so willing to give up individuality for peace and how bad things must have been.

The only pretties mentioned that ever escaped are David’s parents. Upon having the second surgery into adulthood, middle pretty, certain people have the lesions removed according to their profession, “Every negative worked in the same sort of profession…firefighters, wardens, doctors, politicians, and everyone who worked for Special Circumstances” (252). David’s parents explain pretties whose jobs require quick reactions or deal with danger had the lesions cured but everyone else still has the lesions in their brain. The powers in charge are limiting certain functions of the brain to certain peoples. David’s parents no longer wanted to help aid an oppressive system that essentially abduct a person’s mind thus caging them in the system for life. In the mind of David’s parents and all those who live in Smoke, the government has overstepped. Having students read this text can spark valuable discussion in the classroom. The intentions of the operation was created and implemented as a result of extreme war and chaos; people will take advantage of such circumstances. Students can engage in discussion government. Do they believe that the operation is justified if it brings peace? Would the society be the same had they not placed the lesions in the brain? If not, those in power lied about the cosmetic surgery being implemented in order to gain harmony; the cosmetic surgery means nothing but is a catalyst to take away a people’s free will.

This particular YA novel sheds possible light on a society that does not promote critical thinking and is controlled by the government. Critical thinking is power. The uglies might be willing to have the surgery but could that be as a result of being told that it is the best thing to do? Are the uglies really making their choice out of their own free will? High school students might go to college because they genuinely want to, but many go because it is what is expected. They have been taught that if they wish to succeed and get a well-paying job then they must attend college, thus many high school students blithely head into college because “it’s the thing to do.” They are told that they will find out what they want to do in college, but why is college the preferred catalyst? Once another thought, another way was presented to Tally she then is able to think and begins to think critically. Teaching one view does not promote critical thinking. While ugly, Tally still has the ability to think critically. Those who went through the surgery can think, but they become ethnocentric in a way; they think only about their way of life and everything else becomes harmful. Without views that challenge our own views, critical thinking as a form of power and as a resource goes untapped and becomes useless. If only academia would think critically about YA novels; they would come to the realization that these books are rich and oozing with pertinent issues and with potential, untapped potential. Unfortunately at this time, many of these potential novels will remain just that, potential and untapped.

Westerfeld challenges an omnipresent government and brings to light that the government keeps secretes. While using the political lens it is obvious that Westerfeld is critiquing this form of government, but at the same time of the secrecy and control can be justified. He questions what secretes the government should keep, if any. As the government back in the city keeps the Special Circumstance Division a secrete; many do not even believe that they exist, but they have that fear that they could be real; this keeps everyone in check. Through the political lens we see Tally and the rest of the runways are challenging, critiquing, and pointing out the dangers in a society in which an all seeing and all-knowing omnipresent Big Brother exists. Is the reader being challenged to think critically about their own society and government? It is difficult to read a novel and not take anything away from it. The Special Circumstance Division functions similar to how the panopticon functions; the people do not know if they are present or not present but just the possibility of the SC existing keeps order. Westerfeld creates a system where Big Brother works at its finest; however, Tally and the runaways questions and rebel against this form of government. Is the SC, in their actions, oppressing people in order to keep the secrete about the lesions or are their actions carried out to keep people safe? Even if the SC is keeping peace does that justify the caging of an individual’s free will? Westerfeld portrays a society that functions under these conditions and everything appears to be functioning smoothly. Young Adult novels like the Uglies challenge readers to contemplate these issues that are so relevant in today’s society. Is a society without personal freedom really all that bad?

Tally wanted the surgery because it was all she could think about growing up; she legitimately wanted to be a pretty, but had she known from the beginning that her brain would be filled with lesions that would remove her inhibitions would she have wanted the surgery? Is Westerfeld showing the power of an education/indoctrination? The fact that the surgery is required is overlooked by the populous and they gladly have the surgery in which they have no say how they look; surgery is their only “choice.” So, some freedoms are given up for the greater good. At what point should people say enough is enough? I think Westerfeld shows that educating people a certain way as well as a sense of fear can keep pushing the line further back. If the media and government keep painting a certain people as terrorist then most everyone will eventually see no problem with taking those people’s freedoms away in order to ensure their own freedoms remain safe; this is the same thing happening but the people are relinquishing their own freedoms. I cannot help but think about the education system and how if someone does not finish high school or college their chances of being successful diminish; essentially, if a person does not go all the way through the system then they are considered useless to society. In order to be a functional member of society a person needs education.

Specials raided Smoke and took most everyone back to the city where they will be forced into having the operation. Tally and David escape and rescue everyone that was taken but Shay has already been turned into a pretty. Maddy, David’s mother, begins working on a cure. She finds a way but there is a one percent chance that the pill could leave the volunteer a vegetable. Shay has changed due to the lesions and Tally wants Shay to take the pill. Shay never wanted the surgery but she was forced. Shay refuses to take the pill and tries to convince Tally and David into turning pretty too. Even though Shay has been changed she should still be able to use her free will; Tally thinks they should make her take the pill even though Shay does not want to take the pill; Shay is happy the that she is. Westerfeld complicates the situation with Shays refusal and Tally’s urge to force the cure upon Shay. Can people be happy in an oppressive society? Shay answers yes. Shay also points out that if Tally, Maddy, and David were to force the cure upon her then they would be no different than the city, “In a lot of ways, you and Dr. Cable are alike. You’re both convinced you’ve personally got to change the world” (392). Doctor Cable wishes to keep the lesions a secrete and stop Maddy from developing a cure because she believes it right. If Tally and Maddy force Shay to take the pill then they are no different and they become the oppressor. Even if something is in the person’s own interest one still cannot force them to do anything outside their will. Even good people with good intentions cannot and should not force their way onto people. Tally volunteers to be the subject of the cure.

Stories are written for critical thinking and life lessons just as much as they are written for entertainment. Just because something was written for the masses and for entertainment does not mean that text cannot be challenging and promote critical thinking. Every day everyone uses critical thinking; some might have an ethnocentric critical thought process but they are still analyzing information as they see it, touch it, or as they read it. Every person has the functions and capabilities to think critically; however, in order to really tap into one’s ability to think critically one must branch out and observe actions, places, people, and situations that they are not typically accustom to being around. Applying critical theory to YA novels is a great way to expand not only the minds of young adults but of parents and those in academia. Time and time again I find myself recommending a YA novel and I have to defend it; I tell the person that it is deep and challenges current issues. When someone recommends a classic to me they just tell me it is by this author or that author and therefore it is good and valuable. Why is it that people will discretely read a YA novel but flaunt that they are reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick? Some books might be better than others; but the key word is “book;” I did not say some genera’s are better nor does any one genera have deeper meaning than the other. Unfortunately, many parents and those involved in academia look down upon an entire genera; they are in a sense ethnocentric when it comes to what qualifies as quality literature. When reading classics students are told to look for themes, students are told to apply the text to events that took place when the text was written, and students are told to apply currents issues or today’s society; but why are schools and teachers trying to teach yesterday’s novels to today’s readers? If YA is taught in the classroom it is often to accompany a classic. Should not classics be able to stand alone? Should not YA novels be able to stand alone? Classics should not be the only books to which critical thinking can be applied. When critical thinking/critical theory is used on any book the complexities of the both the book and the critical thinking are portrayed. If teens are going to be reading YA novels then they should be taught how to pull complexities from those novels. They should not be led to think that critical thinking is for the classics only. Are we teaching students to only think critically about certain books and dismissing other novel’s validity? Young people already want to read YA novels because they resonate with them. Think of how much more meaning they could pull from those novels if they were taught to read those books through a critical theory lens. How much more social commentary could teachers get their students join in? Even if all the students do is ask questions, critical thinking happened. Even if the teacher does not have an answer, students still participated in discussion about the many issues that YA novels deal with. If critical theory in YA novels can possibly change and better the education system then hope lurks in the future that academia might catch on to this way of thinking.

Work Cited

Westerfeld, Scott. Uglies. Simon Pulse ed. New York: Simon Pulse, 2011. Print.