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“Who am I? Who was I?”: The Posthuman and Identity Formation in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Trilogy

by Gough, Philip


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Tally is impatient and sneaks into New Pretty Town and makes her way to where
Peris lives and sees him:
There was a certain kind of beauty, a prettiness that everyone could see. Big
eyes and full lips like a kid’s; smooth, clear skin; symmetrical features; and a
thousand other little clues. Somewhere in the back of their minds, people
were always looking for these markers. No one could help seeing them, no
matter how they were brought up….The big eyes and lips said: I’m young
and vulnerable, I can’t hurt you, and you want to protect me. And the rest
said I’m healthy, I won’t make you sick. (Uglies 16)
Beauty as Tally describes it is a contrivance, an amalgam of traits that have been
selected in order to create an impression of youth and a calculated emotional
response. As Tally observes, even though she has laughed “at all the stupid things the
pretties said and did” it was impossible not to stare and “[get] that warm
feeling…from looking at a pretty face” (7). The conditioning to want to be a pretty is
reinforced by the combination of physical traits that will elicit the greatest emotional
and physical response and ensure that uglies will desire to be remade into pretties.
Exposed to all the pretties, Tally realizes she “was nothing here. Worse, she was
ugly” (emphasis in original, 7).

Beauty has always inspired awe and often creates a situation where those who do
not meet standards of beauty set by the dominant culture are made to feel inferior and
experience disdain. As Tally makes her way back to Uglyville, seen by the pretties,
she hears their comments: “Look at her face…Tally heard the word ‘ugly’ on their
lips…‘Isn’t she ugly?’ someone asked from the edge of the crowd?” (21-24). Tally
hoped that Peris would see her as a friend and not as an ugly but even he has
difficulty looking at her. “The way he’d looked at her face…maybe that was why they
separated uglies from pretties. It must be horrible to see an ugly face when you’re
surrounded by such beautiful people all the time” (25). The conditioning that uglies
receive survives the transformation and the pretties’ averse reaction to uglies persists.

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Even when pretties are liberated from the influence of the brain lesions that program
them, they still retain their abhorrence of the natural body. When Tally meets the
rangers, pretties from another city, she identifies them by appearance and conversely
they refer to her as an ugly. Despite the fact that they are lesion free and she is
“rejecting” the transformation, assumptions are made based on appearance and labels
persist.

When Shay acts upon her desire to leave the city and remain an ugly, Tally’s life is
disrupted. On her sixteenth birthday, Tally arrives at the hospital eager to become a
pretty but is told that there’s “a problem” and she is taken to another part of the city
(101). Here she meets Dr. Cable, “a cruel pretty,” the head of Special Circumstances,
the cyborg guardians of the city. When asked why she was playing with Shay, Tally’s
answer is hesitant but painfully honest: “Because…it hurt being alone” (106). Tally’s
pain and fear of being alone will follow her throughout the trilogy. That Tally is
exhibiting a basic human need for companionship and further humanity is evident
when she refuses to betray Shay; Tally promised never to tell anyone where Shay
went. But as Dr. Cable tells Tally, “Then I’ll make you a promise too Tally
Youngblood. Until you do help us…you will never be pretty. You can die ugly”
(110). The fear of being alone and ugly sways Tally to help locate the Smoke so that
the runaways may be “repatriated.” However, by sending Tally into the wild Dr.
Cable inadvertently facilitates Tally’s experience with otherness, the very thing the
closed communities of the city are designed to prevent.
Identity invariably gets defined…as a balance between that which is taken to
be self and that considered to be other. The means by which we
differentiate ourselves from other people in our lives as well as from our own
organic functions constitutes the very core of our experiences of personal
identity. (Kroger 8)

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The idea of identity formation as something that emerges from encounters with
otherness is foreign to Tally. She has a clear understanding of her present identity: she
is an ugly, and her “next identity” will be as a pretty. Identity formation in the city is
passive, not active. The only otherness Tally encounters, beside her unsanctioned
journey to New Pretty Town, is on a computer screen and that other is her potential
future self; Tally will also meet her other self as a pretty and as a Special. Tally’s
identity formation is passive in the posthuman world and only becomes active when
she is forced to leave the city.

What is most influential on Tally’s identity formation is her encounter with
otherness as experienced through displacement. Through encounters with otherness,
an identifiable self is discovered. When there is nothing to compare oneself to and no
opportunity for encounters with otherness, Tally’s self-image is formed through
education and conditioning. In effect, the lack of interaction with anyone that is not an
ugly can be seen as limiting the options for identity formation and consequently
limiting the range of identity. McCallum describes displacement as occurring when
characters are “removed from their familiar surroundings and placed in an
environment which is physically, culturally, or linguistically alien” (104). McCallum
goes on to describe displacement as something that can manifest as alienation from
one’s society, time or culture; within familiar surroundings character’s can be
displaced psychologically. No matter what form displacement takes it inevitably leads
to encounters with otherness. Encounters with the other and otherness are integral to
the formation of identity and subjectivity. The value of these encounters, according to
Kroger, is in the way they allow the individual to differentiate themselves from others
and define their own identity as being separate (McCallum 8). The act of
displacement may or may not lead to the acquisition of agency.

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Tally first experiences displacement when she is separated from her family for her
“education” where she is taught that she is an ugly and that the “cure’ for ugliness is
the pretty operation. Tally’s next encounter with displacement occurs when she enters
New Pretty Town, where she experiences feelings of being other that reinforce her
desire to be rid of her ugly identity. When she is denied the transformation and faces
the possibility of remaining an ugly for the rest of her life, Tally experiences
psychological displacement by remaining in Uglyville past her sixteenth birthday and
being alienated from the community. In effect she is in a liminal state, without an
identity, technically no longer an ugly and not yet a pretty.

As noted above, conditioning not only reinforces identity but it also infers that
ugliness is the source of many problems in the past: prejudice, injustice, even war was
based on how people looked. The pretty operation circumvents any repetition of
history implying a homogenized society where difference is non-existent. The
promise of equality through technology eliminates otherness, an essential aspect of
identity formation. What is lost is “that sense of a personal identity an individual has
of her/his self as distinct from other selves, as occupying a position within society and
in relation to other selves, and as being capable of deliberate thought and action”
(McCallum 3). The price of equality and beauty is sameness. When otherness is
eliminated there is no longer anything to measure against which gives validity to
concepts that are based on degrees of difference, such as beauty. When everything is
the same, the concept no longer has any meaning. When there is nothing but sameness
and no sense of otherness, there is no jealousy, ambition, desire or a need to make
choices. These are just some of the things that are referred to as human qualities.
When otherness is eliminated and sameness prevails, people are no longer human.

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The conditioning uglies are subject to fosters an attitude towards the body as
something that is malleable and easily replaced. This is seen in the morphing program
that Tally and Shay use to create their ideal body and the rejection of their natural
body when becoming a pretty. Corporeality is emphasized in Uglyville. The mind and
spirit of a person have no importance and are actually considered an impediment.
Tally learns the importance of integrating the mind and the body when she learns how
to hoverboard. She learns to be aware of her body and how it moves and how she
needs to react and convert her thoughts into quick physical responses or risk injury.
This is not something that is taught to uglies and it is a skill that the transformed
pretties are unable to master due to their diminished mental abilities. The
transformation mutes the relationship of mind and body, and objectifies the body and
treats it as an accessory. When Tally hoverboards, she engages a symbiotic
relationship of body and mind, less concerned with appearance and more concerned
with performance.

Tally’s journey through the wild also makes her more aware of the physicality of
her body; aches and pains, hunger and thirst, are conditions that do not occur in the
city, forcing her to think of her body subjectively rather than objectively as she has
been conditioned. In the wild all of the safeguards that the city has in place to protect
the body are absent. “This was the wild, she reminded herself. Mistakes had serious
consequences” (Uglies 150). Her perception of nature changes once she experiences it
from a vantage point outside the city. Where she once described the sky as “the color
of cat vomit” (1) she now saw it in a completely different way: “A band of orange and
yellow ignited the sky, glorious and unexpected…but changing at a stately, barely
perceptible pace” (151). Tally is becoming more sensitive to her surroundings,
responding in human terms, something that is not nurtured in the city for the simple

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reason that these human qualities will soon vanish beneath the pretty exterior of the
transformed ugly. Tally is learning about another kind of beauty, the beauty of nature,
but she still does not see herself as a product of nature and only thinks about how
completion of her mission will result in her being made beautiful.

Tally’s journey through the wild and arrival in the Smoke exacerbates her
displacement. In adolescent fiction “this displacement of a character can destabilize
and place in question…concepts of personal identity” (McCallum 104). However,
McCallum’s statement implies a questioning of personal identity that is not an issue
for Tally: she is resolved to assume a new identity as a pretty with the belief that her
transformation will only be cosmetic and she will still be the same inside (Uglies 93).
By being displaced from her environment, Tally’s identity formation will shift from a
passive mode to an active mode through interaction and encounters with otherness.

When there is no “other” there is no sense of self as a distinct entity. As Kroger
observes, the community plays an important role in identity formation “recognizing,
supporting, and thus helping to shape the adolescing ego” (Kroger 9). The community
of Uglyville does all of these things but it is not with the idea of helping the
adolescent form an identity, as the ugly identity is temporary and exists only to
prepare the individual for their pretty identity. The primary function of the ugly
community is the production of docile bodies that willingly submit to the
transformation. “Normal” identity formation is subverted in favour of satisfying the
state’s agenda of producing a conformist and obedient population that can be easily
controlled. There is a community as Kroger describes, but it is outside the city.

In the Smoke, Tally has the opportunity to interact with others and discover
through difference what makes her unique as a person. “Others now become
important not merely as potential sources of identification but rather as independent

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agents, helping to recognize the ‘real me’” (Kroger 9). The difficulty this statement
presents is that for Tally does a “real me” actually exist? Her ugly identity is a
cultural construct and her conditioned desire is to become a pretty. Tally’s encounter
with otherness convinces her that she is normal and the transformation is abnormal,
not because the technology reconfigures the body but because it reconfigures memory
and affects identity and sense of self. In the Smoke, Tally discovers that being “ugly”
is normal and through books and pictures she learns that this was the way the world
really was, populated by people who were all different. Most people were content
with the way “nature” made them and this was the identity they lived with all their
life. This contradicts the “education” that she received in Uglyville that blamed much
of the world’s unhappiness on physical appearance and justified the transformation
from ugly to pretty.

Adolescence is a time of change both physical and mental. When Tally meets the
Smokies for the first time she identifies them based on appearance, seeing them as
just uglies, staying true to her conditioning. But when she is introduced to David, the
implied leader of the group, her impressions stray from conventional ugly thinking:
The boy smiled again. He was an ugly, but he had a nice smile. And his face
held a confidence that Tally had never seen in an ugly before. Maybe he was a
few years older than she was. Tally had never watched anyone mature past age
sixteen. She wondered how much of being an ugly was just an awkward age.
(Uglies 189)
Tally is displaying powers of observation that are contrary to the way she has been
taught to see the world. Her brief time in the wild has affected her way of thinking,
not just about the environment she is in and her relationship to it, but to how she
conceives herself, her evolving subjectivity. Tally is now noticing the more subtle
aspects of identity, such as facial expressions or a smile, and interpreting them to

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understand something about people other than what she has been taught about
appearance.

Even though Tally is accepted and made part of the Smokey community, she still
feels displaced since her only reason for being there is to betray the Smokies in
exchange for beauty. But Tally’s time in the wild and the Smoke make her aware of
the beauty that exists in Nature. As David tells her, “Nature didn’t need an operation
to be beautiful” (230). Tally thinks that he is only referring to the pretty operation and
does not grasp the subtlety of what his words intimate. Later he tells her that it’s
“what’s inside that matters,” to which Tally replies, “But first you see my face”
(emphasis in original, 278). Tally still believes in appearance as a sign of identity and
as noted above, the human body is the most visible sign of identity. Tally thinks,
“maybe he really could see past my ugly face” and when she asks David if he really
thinks she is beautiful he replies, “Yes. What you do, the way you think, makes you
beautiful” (279). Tally has been conditioned to believe that beauty is only in
appearance and therefore, as an ugly, she cannot be considered beautiful. But here in
the Smoke she has learned that beauty is not just appearance. Thinking about the
pretty operation, Tally tells David “I don’t want you to look like everyone else” (279).
This signals Tally’s rejection of becoming a pretty and the acceptance of her
humanness. The irony is that the new identity Tally has formed will soon be lost as
she agrees to become a pretty in an effort to find a cure for the lesions that make
pretties less than human. Writing on how the protagonists in young adult
utopian/dystopian writing often suffer, Rebecca Totaro notes that:
The protagonists suffer from some defect that makes them aware that they are
different and that their maladjustment threatens the harmony of the larger
community….By experiencing the contrast between two different worlds, the
hero comes to understand the nature of his or her suffering, and of his or her
community of origin as primarily utopian or dystopian. Armed with a new,
practical knowledge, the hero must then decide where he or she belongs. (129)

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Tally’s identity formation comes full circle in Uglies. She has successfully cast off the
identity of an ugly and rejected the philosophy of the city that informed her sense of
self. In the wild, she encounters otherness and forms a “new” identity that is not
predicated on the lies and falsehoods that are designed to create docile bodies that will
willingly submit to transformation. Tally’s desire to become a pretty is what brought
her to the Smoke but now, in an ironic twist, the only way to defeat the lie of the
transformation and atone for her duplicitous action is to sacrifice her identity and
embrace her coming pretty identity as an agent for change. Kroger notes that in order
to achieve an identity one needs to commit to a cause that is reflective of an ideology
(27). However, any commitment to an ideology will be lost, as will identity and
memory, when submitting to the transformation. Tally is hesitant to become a pretty
but is committed to making the sacrifice. What she is most concerned about is losing
her memory and, in the process, losing her newly formed identity. The very act of
remembering is the affirmation of identity and it provides continuity.
Memory is thus constitutive of the self in these fictions. In an era of bodily
transformation, change, and dissolution, the mere (and ahistorical) fact of
physical existence is no longer a guarantor or selfhood.…[t]he continuity of
memory implies a kind of immortality, in which the vicissitudes of the flesh
become irrelevant” (emphasis in original, Bukatman 1993: 248-249).
As a means of guarding against the inevitable loss of memory and subsequently her
identity, Tally writes herself a letter to remind the next incarnation of herself who she
really is. Without a memory of what she has done or why she has done it, her
willingness to sacrifice herself for the benefit of others, considered to be one of the
greatest signifiers of being human, will be futile.

Tally learns that she is “capable of deliberate thought and action” and returns to
the city to submit to the transformation from ugly to pretty, uncertain as to whether
she will ever be “Tally” again. The warden who finds her sees only an ugly, but she is

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no longer an ugly or “squint” declaring, “I’m Tally Youngblood…Make me pretty”
(Uglies 425). She has acquired, if only for a moment, agency.

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