[T]here are rarely ugly heroes or handsome villains in illustrated versions of fairytales–assuming, of course, our usual societal values about what constitutes beauty and ugliness. Indeed, picture books help to teach us such values; when an illustration shows us that the princess whom the text calls beautiful is slender and blond and has a small nose and large eyes, we are being given information about the nature of beauty. Traditionally, the young characters in picture-book illustrations have almost always represented that sort of idea of beauty; many adults were so used to the conventionally blond, perfectly proportioned angels of previous picture books that, when Sendak began to produce his books in the fifties, they found his large-headed, fat-bellied, dark-haired gnomes repulsive. Yet Barbara Bader quotes Ursula Nordstrom’s comment that, by the early seventies, all real children had come to look like Sendak’s depictions of children.
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
The girls who were unanimously beautiful often rested on their beauty alone. I felt I had to do things, to be intelligent and develop a personality in order to seem as attractive. By the time I realized maybe I wasn’t plain and might even possibly be pretty, I had already trained myself to be a little more interesting and informed.
— Diane von Furstenberg
Challenging social norms about who can be beautiful is vital work, and of course it is true that representations of beauty in the media are pathetically white, thin, able-bodied and hetero, and of course this should change. But somewhere along the way, the message of inclusivity went from “every kind of person can be beautiful” to “every person is beautiful.”
I’m increasingly convinced that this message isn’t only less radical than we might like to believe, but also actively harmful.
In stories which attempt to make readers think about beauty – or in stories which inadvertently portray beauty and its opposite in a certain light – what are the common messages? Can you think of any examples?
Consider one of the following tales and answer the following questions:
- Is there any clear link between beauty and goodness?
- Are there instances where danger or harm is associated with beauty or desirability?
- If so, is beauty or desirability the cause?
- Are there any links between beauty and jealousy?
Shrek – If you’re not beautiful you may well marry another not-beautiful creature, but you can still find happiness with that person. But know your ‘level’. I criticise the messages in this film, which is otherwise a beautifully constructed story:
Shrek has the best script I’ve seen this year. It’s the result of two elements of writing, structure and texture, that are rarely found together in Hollywood mainstream movies.
Mean Girls—The most beautiful girls at school are less tolerant of individuality than the other girls and also, beauty correlates highly with vapidness and negatively with academic aptitude.
Cinderella—Kindness and beauty go together. If you’re ugly this will make you mean. Beauty can elevate a woman of low social status out of her class system and into the aristocracy.
Snow White —Mothers (including step-mothers) become jealous of their daughters, since a daughter enters her most sexually attractive years just as mothers move out of theirs.