complexity of villains and I started to understand why it was so easy to find them repulsive. In most fairy tales, the primary antagonists are, at least in some way, portrayed as physically unattractive. The typical characteristics, especially for female antagonists, are at least one of the following: fat (Ursula the Sea Witch), old (Evil Queen’s disguise), and ugly (Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters). Take Roald Dahl’s stories for example, he introduces his villains by narrating their unlikeable traits and then proceeding to describe in detail how unattractive they are. In his James and the Giant Peach, the antagonistic Aunt Sponge is said to be greedy, selfish, cruel, and unsympathetic. Along with Aunt Spiker, she abuses and torments her own nephew and this is evil enough as it is. It sets the stage for two evil characters who are out to get the protagonist. But then Dahl goes on to detail Aunt Sponge’s appearance calling her morbidly obese with a grotesque appearance. Aunt Spiker is also described as having sunken eyes and a balding gray head. In contrast, the characters at the forefront of the story provide a problematic context, as well. The un-good-guy-ness of the antagonists is further emphasized by the fact that the protagonists of fairy tales all have large bright eyes, slim waists, and immaculate hair, and they always win. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is the epitome of this context. The story revolves around how Snow White’s beauty drove her envious royal stepmother into homicidal rage. It was also her beauty that caught the heart of her Prince Charming leading to her happy ending. Sure, her kindness and responsibility is portrayed, however, it’s never part of the storyline. The symbolism used is a simple enough concept to understand at face value. Children need to be taught that evil is bad, revolting, and ugly. But storytellers often forget that the same could be said for the opposite—that the very human characteristic of physical unattractiveness could be considered evil. You would think that 21st century fairy tales and other children’s stories would evolve from their 19th century origins. Despite the elevated status of women in society, the emphasis on looks and beauty is still as prominent as they were in the 1850’s.
The message this brings to readers, especially young girls, is that beauty should be a significant quality for females to possess in society. In fact, this also affects the perspective of boys, as well. These stories bring them up to believe that beautiful women are the ones most deserving of happiness. As Language and Literacy Professor Dan Hade put it, “Children’s literature is the only class of literature not produced by those who read it.” This fact gives authors, editors, and publishers a level of authority and responsibility as to what kind of literature children consume because what a reader consumes in childhood influences how they view the world as adults. When the status quo for fairytales is ugly-bad, pretty-good, the child is advertently taught to conflate beauty with morality. Hideous villains raise children to idealize beauty above all. A society then grows up not wanting to be ugly. There may be people who want to be bad and edgy instead of good, and some people who may even want to be poor instead of rich. But you will most likely never meet anyone who wishes to be ugly because the media we consume solidifies the idea that good things come to the beautiful. Beyond literature, digital media has also started to encompass these ideals. Advertisements target insecurities such as body hair, pimples, weight, and skin color as if these don’t naturally occur on the human body. Television shows turn persons who are not conventionally (by the Eurocentric standard) beautiful into secondary characters that remain the butt of jokes as if only the flawless are worthy of screentime. Hollywood has time and again casted Caucasians for Asian roles as if the ratio between the population of China and of North America wasn’t 1.3 billion to 579 million in 2016. These issues are as real as this journal, and until these outdated standards and tropes are left in the past, until appearances become less integrated into a story, we become responsible in educating children that fiction does not reflect upon their reality. It becomes our responsibility to evaluate their understanding of the story and correcting them if necessary lest they mirror their concept of morality with what they see in the mirror. joust