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Fairytale Friday: Beauty is a Bitch

August 16th, 2013

Photo by Tim Walker

A fairytale princess is not necessarily infused with blue blood, but defined by a set of other qualities like virtue, kindness, youth, innocence, the ability to feel a pea through twenty mattresses – and first and foremost: beauty. Beauty is what sets her apart in the first place, and more importantly: the key to the prince’s heart… The beauty is a part of her identity, who she is. It’s like a fitted glove embracing all that virtuous goodness inside, and reflects it: beautiful inside out – that’s our princess…

The value of beauty is vowen throug our society. In the Black Apples submission pile, we found a few ladies who were utterly good, but had this fatal flaw of ugliness (that made them, by consequence, “dark”). In general a lack of physical beauty is considered, if not a symptom of evil, at least “unfortunate”, and likely to inspire undesirable feelings like jealousy, bitterness and resentment (which in turn could cause some evil), while beauty on the other hand, is the ticket to a happily ever after. Of course we do know that appearance doesn’t necessarily reflect a person’s character, but we buy the simplification anyway, because we’re trained to do so – and it’s also very convenient.

Photo: Fiona Quinn

Beauty has always been important in fairytales, but it’s more important now than it was before. The study “The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales” shows that, while 40% of the original Grimm-stories has references to physical beauty, the stories that have been reproduced the most in the 20th century are those with a high percentage of references to young, female beauty. Only a fraction of the reproduced stories places the beauty with someone not female and young. This i worrisome because the stories we tell our children will eventually contribute to their values as adults. The reasons for these statistics are depressing: one thing is consumerism; the beauty industry is huge and still growing. The second one is even more depressing: it appears that while women are gaining more personal, political and economical power, we find new, more subtle, ways to uphold the patriarchy: the pressure and focus on beauty creates rivalry and frictions between women, and is also extremely time consuming – preventing women from effectively forming groups and/or expand their personal power. It is in essence an ambition blocker. And there’s no one to blame this time around: while men certainly buys into this, it is women who upholds this world view. It is we who measure our worth by beauty. It is we that still insists that beauty equals power.

Fashion Fairytale Barbie

Old habits die hard, I guess. And it is of course, much more convenient to find a prince with VISA Gold and be admired for your curly locks, than to work hard to leave your mark on this world.

Fairytales are, among countless other things, also a favored topic for fashion shoots, and I don’t think it’s just to create an artsy/interesting frame for the fashion. It’s not far fetched to see the models; pale and weak and beautiful, marching down the catwalk on sky high heels and spindly legs, as the princesses of our time. They are the new icons of helplessness and beauty: detached from reality, idolized, a trophy on the arms of men, mythic creatures from a harsh world where beauty is the only coin that matters. They are not royal by blood, but I’m pretty sure their fragile frames would feel it, if we popped a magic pea under the mattress…

Fashionable Princesses
Photo: MarieSam Sanchez

But beauty is not just a hallmark of goodness; there is also that other beauty: the evil beauty. Evil beauty in fairytales is almost exclusively linked to older women – the wicked queen in particular. And what makes this beauty so deceptive is maybe just that it’s hard to comprehend that something beautiful can also be cruel (another take on this theme is “the evil child” in horror tories). The older woman in fairytales in past her prime so her (fading) beauty can not be used for reproductional purposes, there is basically no “natural” place for her left in society. She is attractive, and sexual – but her innocence is gone. Her beauty is often “cold”, and she is pictured with a stern and bitter expression. She also has something the younger princess does not: she has experience.  She has the tools that a young girl does not: she knows power, she knows people, and she can use her beauty to manipulate her surroundings. She is, in other words, a player in the game – unlike her younger “sister”.

Snow White after a run in with the older woman
Photo: Fiona Quinn

In her role as the mother/stepmother, the older woman is even scarier, since the nurturing qualities associated with motherhood is replaced with cold ambition. The fear of an unloving mother is a primal one: without the caring mother, the infant’s life hangs in the balance. “The evil mother” is a nightmare, anchored deep within the human psyche. She does not fill her assigned role – and is therefore an unpredictable wild card.

Female sexuality has always been regarded with suspicion and fear in western society. In Christian times women were regarded as closer to nature than men, and were therefore more likely to succumb to animal instincts. Female creatures of myth are often half-human, half-animal, and can manipulate forces unseen (witches and sorceresses). The wicked queen does also, on top of all this, have a brilliant mind. She takes on a traditional male role in seeking power purely for herself, and being willing to do whatever it takes to see her ambitions fulfilled.

Lady Gaga as the witch in a “Hansel and Gretel”-inspired fashion shoot
Photo: Annie Leibovitz

A literary version of the wicked queen is Marquise de Merteuil in “Dangerous Liaisons” (by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos). Like the queen in the fairytale she uses her beauty for her own ends, and manipulates her surroundings. But we’re also let in on her background – and reasons, wonderfully illustrated by this quote from the 1988 movie (by Stephen Frears):

“When I came out into society I was 15. I already knew that the role I was condemned to, namely to keep quiet and do what I was told, gave me the perfect opportunity to listen and observe. Not to what people told me, which naturally was of no interest, but to whatever it was they were trying to hide. I practiced detachment. I learned how to look cheerful while under the table I stuck a fork into the back of my hand. I became a virtuoso of deceit. It wasn’t pleasure I was afer, it was knowledge. I consulted the strictest moralists to learn how to appear, philosophers to find out what to think, and novelists to see what I could get away with, and in the end, I distilled everything to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die.”

Glenn Close as Marquise de Merteuil

The evil woman is in essence a rebel. She rebels against society by gaining control of her surrounding, by figuring it out and manipulating it to her liking. She cannot change it, but she can master it – and therein lies the danger.

Beauty is fickle though: it changes. It is always out of reach, somewhere in the horizon, adjusting subtly over time to make sure we’ll never fully attain it – and the peasants who first told the classic fairytales probably pictured something quite different from the fairytale princesses we have today. Some factors are constant though: we are after all a mixture of biology and culture, and will first and foremost look for reproductive qualities: a healthy looking person will often be regarded as more beautiful than a sickly looking one (models aside), but the rest of it is fleeting and doomed to change. It is only fairytale princesses and wicked queens who’ll remain beautiful forever…

Beauty, Disney and Hollywood royalty in one big, ugly mess
Photo: Annie Leibovitz


Gretchen Esely Gregg:
“This Beautiful Evil”: The Connection bewtween Women, the Natural World, Female Sexulaity, and Evil in Western Tradition
Lori Baker-Sperry and Liz Grauerholz:
The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales

 Camilla Bruce 2013

One Response to “Fairytale Friday: Beauty is a Bitch”

  1. misha herwin says:

    As writers we should be moving away from the traditional concepts of beauty. If we overturn these it will no longer matter what our leading characters look like. Far more important will be the way they act, how they respond to what happens to them and in their world and what they achieve.
    We will be freer, women too will be freed from the burden of worrying what they they look like.

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