Fairy Tale Retellings Still Focus on Physical Appearances- And I Think It’s Lazy!

Fairy Tale Retellings

I love fairy tale retellings, and I’m quick to mention them among my favorite types of books. However, I’ve noticed recently that I become annoyed when I come across elements in fairy tale retellings that are overly focused on characters’ appearances.  These are almost traditional elements that I would not have thought twice about if I’d read the book when I was younger (or maybe I would have even enjoyed them!).  Trying to pinpoint the reason for my dislike has been difficult, but I think it falls somewhere in finding this type of writing a bit of a cop-out, the idea that unusual things happen in a character’s life based on extreme, unrealistic reactions to their appearances.

For instance, Echo North is one of the best books I’ve read this year, but I was struck in the beginning by the fact that all the character’s troubles stem from a time when she is attacked and scarred by a wolf as a child.  After that, she’s branded.  She’s marked as devil by the villagers, and they shun her.  She has no friends, no prospects, basically no happiness in life.  And that seems wild to me.  I am aware that various societies have long histories of considering people’s outward appearances to be some sort of reflection of their inner personalities, and certainly “ugly” people might be shunned or thought to be evil.  However, in this book, other characters know what happened to her; she was attacked by a wolf!  As a child!  So the plot point that they would all hate her afterwards seemed unrealistic to me.

I came across a similar plot point in Briar and Rose and Jack (a middle grade novel, while Echo North is young adult).  There are twin girls born to a king and queen.  One is ugly.  One is beautiful.  The king decides that the ugly one can’t be the heir because…people would lose faith in the crown (ok?), so he makes everyone swear to forget her real parentage and raises her in the castle as a supposed orphan.  As she grows, still ugly, nearly everyone in the castle mocks her or shuns her.  Like the protagonist in Echo North, she has essentially no friends because of her appearance.  She also has a bishop willing to directly tell her she’s ugly because she’s evil.

Again, I know people can be discriminated against for not being “beautiful,” both historically and today, but the way ugliness is used as the catalyst for plots in fairy tale retellings is still becoming irritating to me.  It seems to be a simple means for authors to create drama.  Why would the protagonist take some desperate actions in the book?  Oh, they have no friends and little hope.  Why do they have no friends?  Oh, everyone hates them because they’re ugly.  Perhaps this is reductive, but the ugliness does frequently seem used as a plot point more than anything else.  Certainly there’s some standard reflection on the injustice of the character’s treatment and some looks into how they feel about it all, but I don’t think the authors are really going for commentary on appearances and social interactions.

On the flip side, however, I’m also becoming a bit disenchanted by fairy tale characters who are especially beautiful.  As a child, I was all into gorgeous heroines with purple eyes and alabaster brows or whatnot.  Today, I literally stopped reading a book several pages in because the protagonist was a special snowflake character who didn’t look like anyone else.  Putting my finger on why this annoyed me was, again, difficult, but I think it was the same problem I found with the ugliness; it comes across to me as a lazy way to make the character “special.”  The author is using appearance to jump start the plot or even the characterization, and I’m finding it increasingly unrealistic and unrelatable, even though it’s an element common to many fairy tales.

I’m still going to be a voracious reader of fairy tales; I’ve just developed a personal pet peeve about characters being unusually ugly or unusually lovely.  My ideal character going forward would just look kind of normal, maybe pretty or maybe less than pretty, but not so different-looking their looks start substituting for the plot.

What do you think?

Briana

30 thoughts on “Fairy Tale Retellings Still Focus on Physical Appearances- And I Think It’s Lazy!

  1. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I think retellings could definitely rely less on physical beauty and more on the characters’ abilities and personality traits. Sure, when the fairy tales were written, it was common to assume that outer beauty was a sign of goodness, but we’re not living in 1500. It’s time we changed the notion of “beauty=goodness/specialness”.

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  2. Dani @ Perspective of a Writer says:

    I saw this pop up and knew I had to jump in on this. I think it would be fine if physical beauty weighed in if and only if there was a lot more to it than just that! Like with the story of the wolf attack… did she cause the wolf to attack? Did she taunt it when she knew that was wrong? (Sorry this is a lame example!!) But the point is if the details are all fleshed out and reasonable and the scar is just the REMINDER… then that would be okay.

    Otherwise I think you’re totally right! I am especially peeved at all the gorgeous people running about books. 😉 Excellent Briana

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      No, she was just attacked by a wolf as a small child and then everyone decided to turn on her and hate her after that because she was ugly and clearly evil. I guess it would make more sense in the context of a story where, say, someone wasn’t beautiful because they’d gotten maimed while orchestrating the murder of infants and the scars remind people that they were, you know, murdering infants, and that’s the “real” reason everyone hates them, but that hasn’t remotely been the case in any of the books I’ve read recently.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. anhdara13 says:

    This is something I’ve never thought about but OMG yes this can be SO ANNOYING? I know I do this a little myself, especially in first drafts, but I try to work things out better subsequently – that just gives me a superficial start before going in depth to alienation etc. But ahh, exceptionally beautiful characters bother me, actually.

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  4. bookwormmuse says:

    A really interesting discussion point! It’s not something I have thought purposely but now that you pointed it out, it does seem on the verge of being ridiculous how much outer appearance mattered. And perhaps still does. It’s weird and wrong but I doubt it’s going to go away any time soon, simply because it’s just such a classic device, isn’t it? Hopefully, in future, it won’t be used but for now, it’s here to stay, I think.

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  5. Sionna (Books in Her Eyes) says:

    I’ve always hated the — she’s prettier when she smiles or the geek to beauty transformation, but the ugly = evil is a trope I’ve slowly been disliking. It is lazy and harmful to people who may not be conventionally pretty. I also dislike when fatter people are the evil ones and everyone else is stick thin.
    Really good discussion point!

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  6. Aubrey @ The Shelf Life Chronicles says:

    I’ve never even considered this but you’re right. There is so much emphasis put on looks still and while society is trying to get away from that, it does still happen in books. I’d love to read about a total relatable size 8 princess who has crazy curly hair that’s always a mess. No one is flawless and I want fairytales with flaws!

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, a character with frizzy, curly hair! Bring it on! (And stop having characters comb their curly hair! Who does this?! The only realistic curl hair care I’ve seen was in Honor Among Thieves, I think.)

      I also think there’s a slight increase in characters who aren’t slim, but there’s a lot of work to do there.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Kelly | Another Book in the Wall says:

    I honestly never thought of this before, but you bring up some great points, Briana! It does seem like nowadays, many novels (especially fairy tale retellings) place a large emphasis on physical appearance to further a plot. I’ve lost count of how many protagonists in YA literature are exceptionally beautiful, creating discourse, drama, and similar effects in a story. Great post!

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  8. shri says:

    i don’t read many fairytale retellings, but i still hadn’t thought of this before!! but you’re absolutely right—to have beauty standards CONTINUE to be the overarching theme in fairytales does very little to dismantle the issue in 2019 because it’s not even a critique anymore. it’s like you said, lazy writing

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  9. Fran Laniado- Author says:

    I agree that the basic beautiful=good, ugly=bad paradigm is boring and unimaginative. So is the “don’t be mean to ugly people” as a lesson. But I think that sometimes the point isn’t just “don’t judge people by appearance” but rather the way that appearance, and the way we’re treated based on appearance, impact our experience of the world, and our perceptions of ourselves, for better or for worse. I think it can be interesting to have an attractive character brought to a place where he/she isn’t considered attractive, or vice versa. How does that change impact how the character seems him/herself and how does it change how he/she sees others? That has the potential to be interesting in terms of character development.

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  10. Margaret @ Weird Zeal says:

    This is such a good point! It’s frustrating that those aspects are present in current fairy tale retellings, especially since I usually want those kind of stories to update based on the world we live in now, and I don’t think ugliness is such a Thing in these days. As you said, I’d love to see some more nuanced commentary rather than “this character is hated because they’re ugly”

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      It just feels like such a cop-out to me, as if the author went backwards from, “Why would they just leave their home for a different one?” to “Oh, they have no friends at home anyway” to “Why not?” to “Because everyone hates them?” to “Why?” to “Well, they’re ugly!”

      It makes no sense. Yes, people judge based on appearances, but you cannot tell me that every.single.person in a city hates this one person because they’re ugly. Not even just doesn’t like them, actively hates them and goes out of their way to be mean to them. It’s absurd, and I see it in books frequently!

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  11. Winged Cynic says:

    Excellent points. I myself used to love books where heroines were either “gorgeous” or “ugly,” but I now find it sets unrealistic expectations because that means you have to be special in appearance in SOME way or another for exciting things to happen to you.

    I think a fairytale-ish book that does the appearance thing well is Bear and the Nightingale. Upon first impression, Vasya is thought to be somewhat ugly by someone in the story, but then as she begins growing on him, he wonders how he ever thought she was ugly. It’s a good balance imo because it shows that “beauty” is just about owning how you look as you mature. 🙂

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I agree so much! Most of the people I know in real life just look…normal? I mean, I think some people are pretty, of course, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone I thought was like, “Wow, Stop in your tracks to stare at them and them offer your servitude gorgeous,” which seems to happen a lot in books…

      That’s a very good point! I read The Bear and the Nightingale awhile ago and hadm’t remembered that. I think that’s very realistic. People’s looks can change, or your opinion of them can change. I think once you know someone, you associate them more with their personality than whatever they look like.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Winged Cynic says:

        lol right! There are books where the love interest or whomever just stops and stares at the protagonist because they’re so pretty, and I’m like, “No. Just, no.” It’s simply not a common occurrence!

        Liked by 2 people

  12. PerfectlyTolerable says:

    Hmm, I’ve never really thought of it before but I guess I always thought of exceptionally pretty or ugly people as being a normal part of fairy tales? Maybe it isn’t so much lazy writing as it is that the author doesn’t realize they could (and should) break from the trope?

    Have you read Uprooted?!?! The main character is normal looking and her best friend is the beauty and her friend is supposed to be the one taken because of her beauty but when the main character is taken instead it throws everything into chaos 😀

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I specifically thought it’s a lazy explanation for “why everyone in town hates them” though. I mean, it’s crazy to think that 99% of the people you know actively hate you, but I see it in fairy tales all the time, and the explanation is always that the character is ugly.

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  13. Grab the Lapels says:

    Recently, I read and reviewed The Snow Queen, a science fiction novel published in 1980. The Snow Queen was especially beautiful, but it didn’t bother me. It took me a while to realize why, and then it dawned on me that she was almost turning into snow. She was frosty and pale and wore everything white. She still had this strong personality and wasn’t just a movable prop, but her outsides reflected her identity. It was interesting, as I am typically the first one to wonder why a character has to be described at all. When I’m writing (and I’m not saying I’m right to do this), I’ll give a character one memorable detail about their appearance, like “Janet who always wore the purple belt” or something.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Gosh what a great post!! Couldn’t agree more that too many retellings just focus on appearance (and in my opinion other superficial elements). And this is such an interesting point about how there’s often a running motif of characters being mistreated because they’re ugly. And yeah I often find myself disenchanted by the constant beauty pageant in some retellings. I think it would be great to have a happy medium

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Aislynn d'Merricksson says:

    Great post! I never really thought about this before, but you’re right. Being ugly in the eyes of the culture as a reason for shunning, or being too perfectly beautiful/ handsome is kinda annoying. The only place the excessive beauty wouldn’t faze me is with fae.

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