One of my least favorite fairy tales is Cinderella and not just because the hero judges a woman based entirely on her looks and is such a shallow dolt that he can’t even recognize her and has to jam her foot into a glass slipper to prove it’s her. Seriously, that alone makes it an unromantic romance, but what really bothers me is the beauty=good, ugly=bad paradigm. It’s a familiar one, and shows up in many, many stories, but it’s particularly evident in the glass slipper-girl’s tale.
After all, she has two “ugly” stepsisters. It’s not enough that their personalities are repulsive or that their jealousy is blatant and obvious. It’s not enough that they’ve been pampered and spoiled all their lives and have become absolute beasts because of that. No, we really need to hate these guys! We can’t possibly have any reason to sympathize with them! That means they have to be ugly to boot, because no one sympathizes with ugly people, right?
It’s not just in Cinderella that characters get the ugly=bad treatment. In many books, movies, and even video games, the bad guy is often also ugly. The good guy is almost always beautiful. Even in Beauty and the Beast, one of my favorite fairy tales of all time, the ugly=bad trope exists, despite the fact that the story is supposed to be about looking beyond the surface. Sure, Gaston (the main antagonist) is gorgeous, so what do you mean ugly=bad, you ask?
Well, let’s see. La Fou is typical of the ugly/bad character design, but I’m not even talking about him. I’m talking about the beast (who is also an antagonist at first, while he is the beast). You see, he’s a physically “ugly” creature (I don’t find him ugly, but I’m weird like that) until he learns to be “good,” then all of a sudden, he becomes a beautiful person. Ugh. What a disappointment! I couldn’t stand his bland face after his transformation…but I digress.
So when he was bad, he was also ugly. When he became good, he became beautiful. Because even though Beauty fell in love with him as a beast, he couldn’t possibly stay ugly and still be “good.” I was also disappointed that Beauty wasn’t disappointed by his transformation. The worst part is that (in the Disney version at least) we are given the idea that Beauty knows how he once looked when she discovered the painting of him, so who was she really falling in love with? Did she ever love the beast? Or did she love the “handsome” man inside the beast? Oh, I wish I hadn’t asked those questions because it just puts a damper on my enjoyment of one of my favorite fairy tales!
But back to the ugly stepsisters. I was rooting for them. Sure, I hated their behavior, just like I was supposed to, but I also felt some degree of sympathy for them. They never had a chance in life—certainly not in fairy tale life. Being born ugly is a guaranteed ticket to villain’s-ville. Yes, their mother pampered them, but at the same time, she was terrifying and plotting and clearly abusive. We only see what happened to these girls when Cinderella is around. We have no idea what they endured before that.
Even if their mother had doted on them completely, never giving them a harsh word, that doesn’t mean they didn’t feel a great deal of pressure to live up to her expectations. Their lack of physical beauty had to be a disappointment to her, given her high aspirations, and based on her character, I have no doubt she made them aware of that disappointment, even if it was only in subtle ways. But then again, it wasn’t subtle. She spent a fortune on creams and lotions and expensive clothes and everything else to make them beautiful. Meanwhile, she very clearly thinks Cinderella is so beautiful that she can only be seen in rags.
Cinderella is the one we’re supposed to sympathize with, but people seem to forget that the ugly stepsisters also lost their father and had only their overbearing, ambitious, abusive, domineering mother to raise them. To add to their problems, they were both born ugly, and their mother’s efforts to make them beautiful served as a constant reminder of their inadequacy in her eyes. Is it any wonder then that they turned out the way they did? They lived in a world where their physical appearance was the most important trait they had, because they had to catch a rich husband for their mother, but they were born “ugly.” Having struggled through some “ugly-duckling” phases myself, I know how bad it is even in modern times, when you’re supposed to believe that there are more important things than your looks (even while watching the beautiful Cinderella get the prince and the “ugly” stepsisters get humiliated over and over again in different stories, but always the same pattern).
The point is that we’re not supposed to sympathize with the ugly sisters. Because ugly=bad. I hate this paradigm so much! For one thing, it’s just downright lazy. It’s playing on the fact that human nature makes us more likely to find symmetrical faces appealing and more likely to equate beauty and youthfulness with “good.” Therefore, it’s easy to make a villain unlikeable even before we know what he’s done just by making him hideous. Big, hooked nose=oh yeah, he’s a definite baddy. Asymmetrical eyes=totally evil. Wart on the chin=burn the witch! She eats babies, I’m sure of it! All I need to do is look at the character and I can tell if they’re supposed to be “bad.” (Or at the very least, not the hero.)
It’s also easy to make the hero(ine) sympathetic by simply making them beautiful. The story of Cinderella would have had more depth if Cindy was a plain (or even ugly) girl covered in ashes, and the stepsisters were beautiful and secure in their beauty, making their spoiled behavior more in line with how the world at large would have treated them as beautiful women. Perhaps the prince could have found Cindy interesting for other reasons, like the fact that she can call up birds and mice to help her do her chores. (I’d sure like to learn how to do that!)
But that sort of thing would take actual story development, because no one is going to believe that the plain mouse of a girl can walk into a ballroom and immediately catch the prince’s eye, but we can believe it when she’s a stunning beauty, so no need for any depth to be added to their relationship. It would make an interesting story if he would have initially been drawn to the beauty of her sisters but then started talking to Cindy and discovered her wit and charm to be far more appealing. Then maybe I wouldn’t have found the prince to be so insufferably shallow! (Who bases their marital preferences on a shoe size? Are her feet really so small that no one else in the kingdom could fit into the shoe?)
Appearance plays a part in characterization, whether we want it to or not, but we can use it to smash the existing paradigm as well as reinforce it. We can turn it on its head and make the hunch-backed old witch with a wart on her nose and straggly hair a kindly woman who aids every lost child who wanders into her forest and nibbles on her house. One of the things I love so much about Wicked (which I saw as a play and then read the book) was the paradigm shift. It’s a great story; I highly recommend you check it out in some medium!
Using a character’s physical attributes to simply reinforce their role is missing a great opportunity to add depth and create more interesting characters—and ultimately, a better story. For anyone who loves the story of Cinderella, perhaps you see the story a bit differently than I do. Feel free to let me know in the comments below. I love getting a fresh perspective on any idea. Also, I’d love to know what you think about this paradigm. Does it ever bother you when ugliness is used to reinforce the “bad-guy” role of a character?