Western standards of beauty are ubiquitous, and just one of the many things they’ve infiltrated is our retellings of fairy tales. All too often, you can tell who’s good and who’s evil just by looking at the characters’ faces. If they’re classically beautiful? They’re probably good. But if they have anything that’s considered ugly by societal standards, be it a big nose, a fat figure, or a wrinkled visage, chances are they’re working for the dark side.
While the intent is likely that ugly deeds reflect themselves onto the features of the evildoer, in fact it only goes to deify beauty and demonize those who don’t meet its standards. Look at the witches we meet in classic Disney fare:
Snow White’s evil Queen starts out as a great beauty and later sacrifices her looks, becoming an ugly old woman in order to murder Snow White. This is used to show the extent of her murderous desires, as she originally wanted to kill Snow White because Snow White was considered the only person more beautiful than her. The Queen wanted to be the fairest in the land, but she was so mad at Snow White for being prettier that she was willing to give up her own significant beauty (because, admit it, being second most beautiful in the whole land is nothing to sneer at) for a chance to personally kill her. Even though she’s already the queen of that country and has everything at her fingertips, beauty is the currency she’s concerned with because that’s what a woman’s worth is measured in.
The Little Mermaid’s Ursula the Sea Witch is certainly no angel. She’s the only real malevolent force in the film, and is simultaneously the only merperson/hybrid creature that is not pencil-thin and conventionally good-looking. Coincidence? I think not. While I like to remind people that Ursula is a shapeshifter and that means she chose that particular fat body out of anything she could transform into, that body-positive message is undermined by the louder message: fat and ugly people are not to be trusted.
And then there’s the Wicked Witch of the West. One might think my starting point for her is the classic Wizard of Oz film, but let’s look back a little further. In the original Oz novels, this is the way the Wicked Witch was described and illustrated:
So we go from the above witch, who had wacky hair and an eyepatch and wasn’t that much taller than the young Dorothy, to the classic film’s green-skinned version. That version actually draws from a long tradition of anti-Semitism, as the hooked nose and pointed hat were ubiquitous in medieval imagery of Jews in Europe. This Wicked Witch is still less comically ugly than the originally illustrated one, but she certainly isn’t as pretty as, say, Glinda, a self-identified good witch.
In recent retellings of the Oz stories, like the musical Wicked, where the Witch is presented as more of a complex, sympathetic, and/or relatable character, she’s generally played by a young, beautiful woman whose only “flaw” is her green skin. Once Upon a Time even goes so far as to have its Wicked Witch character only get green skin when she’s feeling hateful or jealous toward her sister Regina. She literally gets “uglier” as some sort of magic punishment for not being a good person.
And the real kicker in all of this is that it’s a massive double standard, as male magic users in media are allowed to be ugly without it having any relation on their goodness. It’s women who are constantly fed some variation of “only bad witches are ugly”. And as this trend is so common in media for kids, it hammers this message home from an early age: women’s beauty and their worth are intertwined. Are you an attractive woman by society’s standards? Then you’re probably a good person. Do you for whatever reason, whether by choice or chance, not meet Western beauty standards? Well, then, you’re probably a bad person.
This is one trend I would like to see die a speedy death. Kill the idea that women have to meet a certain standard of beauty to be treated with the respect they deserve. Kill the idea that not meeting this standard is an affront to society. Kill the idea that inner beauty must needs manifest itself in outer beauty, because it then perpetuates the idea that people who are not beautiful did something to deserve that. Unattractive women can be the good witch, and beauties can be the villain; I’d like to see more media that reflects that.
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And speaking of Ursula, her sister Morgana is indeed ‘pencil-thin’, but it’s in a creepy and supposedly unattractive way. And yes, she was evil too. So maybe the message is not merely ‘fat and ugly people are not to be trusted,’ it’s ‘ugly people regardless of body type are not to be trusted.’
This trope must die.
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This fails in the multiple examples you provide. Especially Once upon a time.
You connect her green skin with her being ugly. But in Once Upon a time and movies like Guardians of the Galaxy. Character have green skin without being ugly. The fact that you seem them as ugly, doesn’t mean they are. Put a beautiful woman in green make-up, she is still beautiful.
Regina who was a main villain in Once Upon a Time is also extremely beautiful. And never changes physically, despite her personality changing.
And then the so called double standard. Again in Once Upon a Time, Rumple is easiest the ugliest looking character, especially while in the Enchanted Forest with that ugly skin.
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