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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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Chapter Two: Pretties

In order for a dystopia to succeed, identity and a sense of self must be controlled in
order to maintain a stabile and docile society. In this chapter, I will be considering the
modes of identity control in the pretties and the role of memory in restoring humanity
to the posthuman. As Jacobs observes, “dystopias understand free agency as based in
individuality, and they use every means to destroy any kind of identity that is
separable from and potentially at odds with the collective” (92). In the trilogy, what is
normally thought of as naturally occurring, the human body and identity, is reconstructed
through the pretty operation. The goal is to produce a community where
everyone is equally beautiful and happy to conform in exchange for a carefree
lifestyle. Commenting on cosmetic surgery, Balsamo notes “surgical techniques
literally enact assembly-line beauty: ‘difference’ is made over into sameness” (58).
Balsamo continues, referring to a much-cited text on facial and reconstructive surgery
that describes the “ideal face” through drawings and photographs as “a white woman
whose face is perfectly symmetrical in line and profile” (59). This recalls the faces
Shay and Tally morph from their own on the computer screen. Balsamo’s observation
implies that ethnicity and race are removed from the beauty equation in the quest for
an “ideal” face. When everyone is re-made to one standard, the terms “race” and
“ethnicity” lose their meaning, and another marker of identity is eliminated as well as
signs of otherness. The implication in the trilogy is that visual markers of identity
have been removed in order to achieve the “equality” that becoming pretty promises.
This implies that other markers such as gender, hair and eye colour and even one’s
bad habits are “cured” during the transformation (Uglies 29).


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This rewriting of physical identity is foregrounded in Uglies when Tally meets her
friend Peris, now a pretty. As uglies they made an oath, cutting their hands and
sharing blood. “Best friends for life,” Tally muttered, fingering the tiny scar on her
right hand (4). But when Tally sees Peris, “the scar they made together is gone” (18).
As he tells her, all of his skin has been removed and replaced with a better version.
Still concerned about their friendship Tally finally asks, “But they didn’t change your
blood. We shared that, no matter what” (18). Tally wants to believe that beneath
Peris’s pretty exterior he is still the same person and that becoming a pretty only
changes appearance, the visible sign of identity. This recalls Tally’s comment to
Shay, “You’re still yourself on the inside” (93). Tally needs to know that no matter
how much outward appearance is changed, a consistent self-hood will persist. Even
when Tally and David are reunited, and her pretty face shocks him, she has to remind
him, “It’s still me inside, though” (327).

On her sixteenth birthday, Tally is being taken for her pretty operation by a
middle-pretty that she mistakes for her father: “He looked so much like Sol that Tally
almost called her father’s name” (98). Even the hereditary markers of identity, “your
father’s eyes” or “your mother’s smile” all vanish beneath the surgeon’s knife. When
Tally meets David’s parents she is struck by how similar father and son appear: “It
didn’t make any sense. There had to be more than thirty years between them…[b]ut
their jaws, foreheads, even their slightly lopsided smiles were all so similar” (255). As
an aspect of identity, the features that are inherited through genetics are obliterated by
the transformation. The traits that make people different, that identify an individual
within a family or group as separate from others, no longer exist. However, as Tally
learns, the body is only the beginning of the re-shaping of identity.


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After the Smoke has been destroyed by the Specials, the captured uglies are
returned to the city and transformed into pretties. Shay is one of those captured and
transformed. Tally, still an ugly at this point, does not understand why Shay is not
angry with her: “You hated me. Because I stole David from you. Because I betrayed
the Smoke, remember?” (Uglies 394). But Shay just shrugs it off. “But that was all
ugly stuff” (394). Tally does not fully comprehend the extent to which Shay has been
transformed, as her encounters with pretties are brief. Even though she is changed,
Shay also fails to grasp what has happened to her and only understands what the
transformation allows her to:

“I like the way I look,” Shay insisted. “I’m happier in this body. You want
to talk about brain damage?...You’re all full of schemes and rebellions, crazy
with fear and paranoia, even jealousy….That’s what being ugly does….It’s
nice not being all raging with hormones.” (408)
Shay is an example of Foucault’s docile body taken to a greater intensity of docility.
Her conditioning in Uglyville, a Foucauldian exercise, is augmented by technology.
The lesions subjugate all of the “messy” human emotions –jealousy, envy, and anger
– and the result is a pretty. But, without the messy emotions, humans are defenceless.
As David says, “Maybe the reason war ended and all that other stuff went away is that
there are no more disagreements, no people demanding change. Just masses of
smiling pretties and a few people left to run things” (267). Shay has, in effect, been
de-humanized. Much of what makes one human is absent in Shay. As Francis
Fukuyama suggests, the message in fictional dystopias, such as Brave New World
(1932), is that the people are no longer human since they have lost many of the
qualities “that we traditionally associate with being human” (Fukuyama 6). There is
no consensus as to what are the qualities that make people human. When the question
is posed, the answer invariably includes: to aspire, love, feel pain, make difficult
moral choices, have families (Fukuyama 6). Shay does not protest the unauthorized


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changes made to her body or express any anger with her situation, as the brain lesions
have severed access to the part of the brain where these humanizing qualities reside.
Shay exists in an everlasting state of technologically induced happiness. “Unlike the
man [or woman] reduced by disease or slavery, the people dehumanized à la Brave
New World are not miserable, don’t know that they are dehumanized, and, what is
worse, would not care if they knew” (Kass qtd. in Fukuyama 6).

I would like to briefly return to Uglies to consider a passage that has relevancy for
understanding the culture of the pretties and the cities. In the wild Tally encounters
the rangers who are burning acres of a beautiful white flower that Tally is admiring.
When Tally asks why, she is told:

“One of the most beautiful plants in the world. But too successful. They
turned into the ultimate weed. What we call a monoculture. They crowd out
every other species, choke trees and grass, and nothing eats them except one
species of hummingbird, which feeds on their nectar. But the hummingbirds
live in trees.”

“There aren’t any trees down there,” Tally said. “Just the orchids.”
“Exactly. That’s what monoculture means. Everything the same.”
(Uglies 181-182)
The orchid’s dominance is due to its genetic modifications that ensure that it
propagates more easily and flourishes. The lack of diversity in Nature signals
eventual death. “He who lives by the same shall die by the same. The absence of
otherness secretes another, intangible otherness: the absolute other of the virus.”
(Baudrillard 37). Societies that are open and experience otherness can easily survive
threats to their integrity through diversity. If need be, because they are open, they can
extend beyond their borders and become even more diverse and more resilient.
Closed societies lack these options and any assault on their integrity is usually fatal.
In the Uglies trilogy, the cities are isolated from each other and interaction is
discouraged. This makes it easy for the Smokies to “liberate” an entire city and use it
as a base of operations. The closed societies continue to exist, unaware that they are


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slowly being compromised by their refusal to interact and the belief that they are

There is danger in being “too different” that can potentially lead to isolation within
the community or, in extreme scenarios, being ostracized from it. “Almost the entirety
of our daily lives is built up on this set of unreflective expectations and practices, for
which some degree of broad social conformity is clearly necessary. Individual nonconformism
is almost invariably perceived as a threat to that practical identity” (Scott
and Dragoo 7-8). The behaviour that Tally exhibited as an ugly – being tricky and
pulling pranks – is not a part of pretty life. Ugly behaviour from pretties would attract
the unwanted attention of wardens, and with extreme acts, Special Circumstances.
When Shay breaks away from the Crims, the clique she and Tally belong to, to start
her own group, the Cutters, Tally observes, “She’s not one of us anymore” (Pretties
176). This is the nature of identity in Pretties; it is determined by membership in
cliques. The identity an individual desires requires the endorsement of the group to
make it valid, to make it worthwhile in terms of continuity. Erikson observes that this
lies in “the appeal of simple and cruel totalitarian doctrines amongst the youth of such
countries and classes as have lost or are losing their group identities” (133). In effect,
there is no individual identity but only a collective identity. Anyone outside of the
group will not be acknowledged and will be isolated within their community.
Conformity is the only alternative. As Kroger notes of identity formation in
collectivist societies, adolescents are “not faced with the choices and decisions that
youths in contemporary western cultures must make in defining their own identities”
(5). In many ways it can be seen how the posthuman identity circumvents a number of
the challenges that real-world identity formation encounters.


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For pretties, expressing individuality is limited to the body and is expressed
through radical surge, a decorative form of cosmetic surgery. Westerfeld’s conception
of the dystopic posthuman is what Hayles most fears: “[M]y nightmare is a culture
inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than
the ground of being” (1999: 5). The caveat here is that the limitations that inspire this
treatment of the body is beyond their control. This “accessorisation” is the limit of
how much pretties can participate in their own identity formation and expressions of
individuality. “There is a strong ‘inner’ desire in humans to be free from controls over
their body that rob them of their personal identity” (Holland 159). In writing about
real-world adolescent identity formation, James E. Coté and Charles G. Levine assert,
“Identities are now often constructed through fashion. Such a person literally believes
that he or she is represented by clothing and contrived appearance, and social
relationships are opportunities to act out whimsical identities” (28). Westerfeld’s
portrayal of the pretties and their quest for individuality and membership in cliques is
a reflection of the commodified real world of adolescent fashion and identity. Even
though the pretties “believe they are freely choosing and freely acting from a position
of integrity,” their rebelliousness and quest for individuality is in reality limited to
what the state allows, since it controls those who design the clothes and administer
the surgery (Jacobs 93).

Tally seeks to be an individual, but at the same time her expression of individuality
must not endanger her acceptance in the group she desires to join. “The peer group,
used by teenagers in different ways through the adolescent years, provides support in
meeting the individuation challenge” (Kroger 74). The establishment of relationships
with friends and groups alleviates Tally’s fear of being alone. Tally, as a pretty, is


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with her friends Peris and Shay, and they are members of the same clique, so there is
no threat of loneliness.

Besides the physical transformation that is a result of the pretty operation, a less
visible, but perhaps more important aspect of identity that is affected is memory.
In Pretties, identity formation is an apparatus of the state where the purpose is to
achieve sameness through the application of technology, implanting false memories,
and attaching lesions to the brain that control behaviour and inhibit intellectual
growth. As Hayles notes, when the reconceived posthuman body is viewed as a
construct, it follows that knowledge is also regarded in the same way (1999: 85).

Shay discovers that her memories have been reconfigured and she confronts Tally.
Shay, through placing herself in danger, is stressing her body and beginning to
Tally, I remembered things when I was up in that tower, staring down at the
ground and wondering if I was going to die….So here’s what I remembered:
It’s because of you that I’m here in the city, Tally. All those stories I used to
tell? They were bogus. What really happened is that you followed me out to
the Smoke to betray me, right? (Pretties 142)
Despite the programming that has been enacted on those transformed from ugly to
pretty, there is an innate resistance to external control of one’s mind and body. The
formation of the Cutters, a group of pretties led by Shay, is formed to purposely
practice self-mutilation that inflicts pain that is strong enough to release them from
the mind-numbing control of the implanted lesions. This effectively challenges the
subjection and subjectivity of the pretty identity and although this is not a restoration
of the human, as their bodies are still posthuman, it does return control over their
bodies and their consciousness. This is a new identity, a freethinking mind in
conjunction with a posthuman body. Again, there is a sense of irony associated with
the posthuman body. Through conditioning and the belief that one is ugly there is a


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strong desire to embrace a technology that will free one from the stigma of an ugly
body. However, the body that they desire so much that is seen as liberation is in
reality a prison and demands that they surrender their identity and individuality to rid
them of the ugly epithet. It is ironic that in order to be free of the technology that
represses memory and creates a false identity some pretties resort to attacking and
hurting the very bodies they have been conditioned to desire. This willingness to
endure pain and injury attests to the resilience and tenacity of humanity and the
resistance to control that Westerfeld believes are inherently human qualities. As Ostry
observes of characters in posthuman literature, “They have to reclaim their self
through resistance” (231).

New Pretty Town is an illusion of liberation when in reality a great deal has been
lost: individuality, identity, purpose, and much of what makes one human. The
problem is that those living in the dystopic world of the city are completely unaware
of their loss, because the technology that transforms them also effectively keeps them
in a state of constant forgetfulness. Memory, which plays a great role in the formation
and continuity of identity, functions at a subsistence level in the pretties.

Kroger observes, “identity formation during adolescence cannot be fully
appreciated without knowledge of its childhood antecedents and consequent adult
states” (6). But this is not possible in this dystopia, where citizens are segregated
according to their “class”, and interaction between the different environments is
restricted by physical and electronic boundaries. There is no knowledge of the past, as
that is erased by the transformation from ugly to pretty, and the segregated
environments preclude any knowledge of what the future will hold when they age and
become middle-pretties. Pretties are living in the here-and-now, which is seemingly


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nothing more than an endless series of parties. What memory persists is fragmented
and unreliable.

Tally’s memory is fragmented and much of what she remembers does not make
sense or hold much meaning. Her memory has not only been selectively “erased” but
new memories have been implanted that have given her a new identity. In effect,
Tally’s identity is inauthentic. Language and, consequently, the ability to express
ideas are limited by the re-programming of the mind. When Tally is trying to decipher
the clues that will lead her to the letter she wrote to herself, she has to concentrate to
remember that a lock requires a key to open it (Pretties 77). In effect, the identity that
Tally formed in Uglies no longer exists. As Applebaum notes, “technology [is] a tool
…which can be used or abused, depending on the agenda of those who deploy it” (7).
But this “prosthetic memory”, as Landsberg refers to it, is permeable and the
experiences, memories and identity that have been glossed over with agenda specific
implants can be retrieved. In Pretties, the release of suppressed memories is achieved
through stressing the body – hunger, pain, excitement, or strong emotion – and the
haze that shrouds pretty memory is lifted. Tally first experiences this when she is
injured while bungee jumping:
Her head throbbed, but the clarity that had come over as she’d thrown herself
off the balcony hadn’t faded….Everything felt very real: her intense revulsion
at Croy’s face, her fear of the Specials, the shapes and smells around her. It
felt as if a thin plastic film had been peeled from her eyes. (Pretties 38)
For a moment, Tally’s memory returns: she remembers Croy from the Smoke and that
he has something to give her. Her fear of the Specials contradicts the implanted
memories that portray them as her friends and the ones who saved her from the
Smokies. Tally has not yet connected the physical stress and pain with her recovered
memories. For that she will need assistance.

With the aid of some exceptionally strong coffee and two calorie purgers, Tally’s


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heart begins to beat rapidly and her metabolism accelerates. Zane tells Tally, “It helps
if your heart’s beating faster” and when she asks, “Helps what?” he replies,
“Thinking” (61); and she begins to remember. She recalls the Smoke, David and the
truth about her “rescue.” But her memories are not clear and she wonders, “How
come I can’t remember? What’s wrong with me Zane?” (64).

Zane tells Tally that once something is remembered it needs to be repeated, told as
stories, so it is not forgotten and lost forever. Pretties’ memories are programmed to
be unreliable. During her confrontation with Tally, Shay tells Tally that she is
remembering how the past really was: “Shay laughed bitterly. ‘I hate to bring the
whole David thing up, but who knows if I’ll remember it tomorrow, you know? So I
thought I’d mention it while I’m bubbly’” (143).

The letter that Tally writes to herself is a form of memory storage and retrieval that
is old technology. There are few in Tally’s world that can write with a pen and paper,
so in a sense this aspect of her memory is safe from intervening manipulation and
therefore remains stable. However, the person who wrote the letter technically no
longer exists. The danger in confronting the possibility that the mediated identity is a
construct calls into question and challenges the stability of the present identity and
subjectivity. “When memories might be separable from lived experience, issues of
identity – and upon which identity is constructed – take on radical importance”
(Landsberg 181). Tally reads the letter, which cryptically reads, “You’re me. Or I
guess in another way to say it is, I’m you–Tally Youngblood. But if you’re reading
this letter, then we’re also two different people” (Pretties 88). Despite the letter that
explains her sacrifice, the effect of the lesions, and the cure, Tally doubts the truth of
the contents. Tally does not believe in the “other” Tally and resists the suggestion that
she wants anything other than to be a pretty, what the implanted memories tell her she


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