Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Beastly females

In college I took a fantasy class, and I wrote a paper on C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces. The book retells the story of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche's sister-named Orual-who is tremendously ugly yet not evil like the classic stepsister stereotype. In my paper I explored the concept of inner and outer beauty, and how beauty is perceived and treated.
This is a theme that fascinates me, but I was surprised to discover in my research that few other authors touched on the subject. In fact, given the importance of the theme in the book, it's pretty much ignored in most papers and books.

I learned some interesting things about C. S. Lewis as well-for example, his wife was not considered especially beautiful, and for a while he himself treated her like one of his male friends. This is also a theme of the book-how Orual is despised as a female and at best is treated like "one of the guys," all because of her ugly face. Only by veiling it can she ever hope to be treated like a woman.

Not only do critics of the book ignore the topic of female ugliness, but I think culture at large avoids it. Women love Beauty and the Beast-it is still far and away the favorite on Surlalune Blog's favorite fairy tale poll. Other popular stories involving beastly/deformed males include the Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Elephant Man, and especially Phantom of the Opera. You'd have to live in a cave not to know that (at least some) girls find the Phantom to be eternally more attractive than Raoul.
EDIT: Gerard Butler as the Phantom in a makeup test, without mask

Yet what about examples of Animal Brides or females with deformities? Though folklore has examples, virtually none remain in common knowledge. Even with historical Animal Bride tales, generally the animals take beautiful forms-swans or cats-and there is little struggle to win male affections. There are seal maidens, but they shed their seal skins and then the men fall in love with their naked human forms.

The Frog Bride (illustrated above by Kay Nielsen), is one of the exceptions. But very few people know that the Frog Prince is sometimes a Frog Princess. Why do we ignore this theme? Why do we only have animal grooms?

My theory is that we, as a culture, can't even stand the idea of an ugly female. Females themselves are willing to love the Beast-but don't want to be the ugly, vulnerable one themselves. I'd be interested to know how popular Beauty and the Beast is among males. Do they mind picturing themselves as the Beast? Or can they stand it as long as Beauty stays hot the whole time? From my limited experience, it APPEARS as though men tend to judge women by more shallow standards. Please contradict me if I'm wrong.However, there are some exceptions to the rule: Gail Carson Levine's Fairest. This book features a hideous girl with a beautiful voice in a land where singing is valued as highly as beauty. I would LOVE to live in a land like that (I am definitely one of those people who wishes every deep emotion would trigger backup music and a song with choreographed dancing). It's a very good story-I found it on the bookshelf of a girl I was babysitting one day and started it, and after I went home I had to go to the library and finish it. Then there's Penelope, in which Christina Ricci's character has a pig snout for a nose. Yet first of all, these examples are hardly classics like the male versions I mentioned before, and I also wonder about their implied messages. Fairest has good messages about how each girl is beautiful on their own, but seems to put a lot of pressure on the boys to fall in love (basically) at first sight-yet now they're not supposed to judge by beauty, but instantly know character. If boys do judge by appearances-and let's face it, we all do to some degree, should we ignore that fact? No one would claim that beauty/appearance doesn't matter at all. How do we deal with it in the world in which we live?

And one Netflix commenter pointed out that Penelope seems to indicate that any physical flaw will result in being treated like a complete monster, and that true happiness ends in looking like a beautiful celebrity. Of course, that's sort of the message implied by the old versions of Beauty and the Beast as well. Another commenter-I tried to find the exact quote but it was left a while ago-said something to the effect of, "This movie is stupid. I kept waiting to see Christina Ricci cuz she's hot but she had that stupid pig nose on the whole time."

What do you think?


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  2. Michael Crawford in that pic? Looks more like Gerard Butler to me.
    Then again, I might be wrong since I don't remember the Gerard phantom having an exposed skull as part of his deformity.
    (I'm something of a Phantom of the Opera geek. =) )

  3. Til We Have Faces is one of my favorite books. :)

    As far as: "Penelope seems to indicate that any physical flaw will result in being treated like a complete monster" -- I took this to be more metaphorical. Because even if we don't treat "ugly" women like monsters, there is definitely an attitude toward them. Anyone who is seen by society as being unattractive has experienced the pettiest and meanest of humanity. In that light, the transformation from pig-nosed to ugly could be seen as -- once you find someone who loves you, they see your true beauty.

    In that light, I don't think Penelope, Beauty and the Beast, or any of the transformative stories can be taken literally--unless we want the story to be about plastic surgery....

  4. RichLayers, I totally agree with you about the metaphorical meaning. I think the commenter's/my point was that people already tend to focus on little flaws they perceive they have and overexaggerate-we obsess over a zit, or we don't like the shape of our nose, Audrey Hepburn thought her neck was too long, etc.-and the overreactions of the people in the movie seem to indicate that yes, any flaws you think you have really are horrible and montrous! When really, most people don't even notice them.

  5. That wasn't Micheal in his Phantom make-up. It was a test run for Gerard Butler from the 2004 movie. That make up was never used on Gerard.

  6. 'Til We Have Faces. I could write an essay about how and why that book is one of my treasures.

    As the others have said, in fairy tales, physical appearance tends to point to one's inner nature. Hence, witches are ugly. The Beast is ugly because he is spoiled and selfish. Beauty is beautiful because she is good (though the definition of "good" is debatable).

    Even though Orual wasn't evil, her soul didn't contain the beauty Psyche's did. She was full of self-pity, selfishness, and resentment. The story is about the journey to make her soul beautiful.

    But would I like to see a story in which the female is the ugly one--in soul or otherwise? Yes, for a change!

  7. One of the things I appreciate about the book Til We Have Faces is how Lewis veers away from the traditional inner beauty=outer beauty and inserts real, complex souls within different bodies (and in many older versions of Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales, the beast's ugliness was not because of innate cruelty, but an enchantment which hid their true, beautiful form-it wasn't until the Mayer children's book and then the Disney version that the Beast's punishment was deserved for his animal nature).

    And though Orual did become bitter and resentful, I would argue that that was largely to do with how she looked and how people treated her because of her ugliness. How much more difficult is it for someone whom the world reviles to love the world back, despite their harsh treatment?

  8. I'd love to read your paper on Til we have Faces! And I really want to read that book now...
    I think more people should write stories about 'ugly' girls. There was one fairy tale I really like (it's not Grimm or Andersen I don't think) that was about a plain/ugly princess who was taken to live in a poor house on a bet that in a certain time, she could be made beautiful, through learning how to enjoy work, and a few other things.