A letter in the November 23rd New York Times from Bonnie Berry, the author of “Discrimination and Social Power,” expresses her approval of Julia Baird’s November 9th Op-Ed essay “Being Dishonest About Ugliness,” which I unfortunately missed.
In that piece, Ms. Baird argued that we “assign moral judgment against the unattractive,” which she and Miss Berry reprehend. In her letter, Ms. Barry notes, “I am working with two research teams examining police reaction to suspects’ appearance and public reaction to crime victims’ appearance.” She adds, “I can barely wait to see what we discover.” Surely it is easily predictable what they will discover.
Ugliness is not merely a disadvantage; it is, at least in most people’s reaction to it, tantamount to a sin. This has always been so and will, I am afraid, never entirely change. Yet there are some exceptions even now. Some of the most obvious villains in art, like most of the villains in Dickens and Victor Hugo are really ugly. But even those innocents who only look ugly, e.g., Quasimodo, are suspected of villainy. That is so in romantic fiction in general.
Good places to start looking for the archetypical equation ugliness equals evil, are fairy tales, which embody centuries of folk “wisdom.” Prime example are the wicked witches. Why did these creatures have to be old and ugly, when they could just as easily have been young and beautiful?
Think of the worthy citizens of Salem, Massachusetts, and the witches they hanged, who, contrary to some romantics’ notion, were not beautiful but old and ugly. Their supposedly innocent victims, however, were young and attractive, which made the wicked crones even uglier, physically as well as morally. To this day, to vilify a woman, she is often referred to as a witch.
There are, I repeat, exceptions, though far less numerous. Sirens and mermaids are evil and dangerous because of their treacherous allure, but they are, it would seem, more infrequent than witches. And some of them even are good: think of the Little Mermaid, or Medea, a witch who, in love, becomes good (except to a brother), but who, betrayed, turns killer.
Noblesse oblige, the French saying has it, but ugliness, too, obliges, at least in the public imagination, to be bad. If, by the way, I keep coming back to fairy tales, it is because, whoever claimed their authorship by putting them in writing, nevertheless gathered them from the great mouths of the anonymous. In other words, they were folk tales, representing popular beliefs and attitudes.
So we come to Cinderella and her wicked sisters who, signally in the ballet versions, are always grotesque, grotesque being the ugly when it is comical. Their purpose, among other things, is to offset and distinguish the pretty and good one that much more. Much the same is true also of Snow White’s seven dwarfs. Though they are not evil, indeed quite the opposite, they do serve as contrast to and enhancement of Snow White’s beauty. More often, though, we get evil dwarves, as in the novel “Klein Zaches” by E. T. A. Hoffmann or in Rapunzel’s fairy-tale tormentor.
Wizards, too, if they are evil—which they most often are, think “Swan Lake” and “The Firebird”—are also ugly, even if the title Magician might hint at the opposite. So, too, in “The Fiery Angel,” Prokofiev’s marvelous opera, the Magician Agrippa von Nettelsheim, master of the diabolical arts, is usually represented as ugly. But no one could be uglier than the wicked Svengali, as the illustrations show, in Gerard du Maurier’s “Trilby,” whose lovely eponymous heroine he viciously dominates. Svengali has even become a generic term for evil manipulators.
Hollywood, before it became obsessed with various forms of violence, initially had looks playing the first fiddle. Here, too, less good looks, if not explicit ugliness, attested to flawed character. Thus Barbara Stanwyck often played less than sympathetic heroines, although leading actresses, no matter what their parts, were never outright ugly, unless they played a witch, such as Margaret Hamilton in “The Wizard of Oz,” of whom I wrote that, although 83, she didn’t look a day over 82.
The male villains also could be very ugly, none more so than Peter Lorre, an otherwise excellent actor in both European and American films. By the way, I seem to recall reading that he, in spite or because of it, received oodles of fan or love letters from (no doubt perverse) women. Other specialists in Hollywood evil looked either totally scary, like Boris Karloff, or displayed a horrible hypocritical slipperiness just as bad, like Bela Lugosi.
In no sense though is ugliness considered stupidity or lack of talent. Otherwise one would have had to view a fellow like Stravinsky (supremely ugly), or the great poet Leopardi (a hunchback), negatively in a play or movie. In fact, Iago, though usually played as somewhat ominous-looking, is the epitome evil, but by no means stupid.
There are also a number of characters in various arts who do start out as ugly, but turn out to be even physically transmuted into beautiful, this being the ugly duckling syndrome, as he turns into a lovely swan. That kind of ugliness is not only not bad, but a message of hope to the unsightly, who may yet dream of miraculously becoming beautiful. And so, be it said, in lovers’ eyes they do.
Let us finally turn to the world of opera, which being anyhow usually topsy-turvy. Here it generally requires no ugliness to be evil. Thus Salome is beautiful enough to drive her stepfather and the young officer nuts, and Lulu, though not basically bad but driven so by men, is likewise beautiful, indeed fatally so.
But even in life, is ugliness a sign of wickedness? Few women were uglier than George Eliot and George Sand, yet they were surely not evil. Fickle perhaps, as in the case of Sand, but not evil. And some of the most amoral ones, like Alma Mahler and perhaps (though not latterly thought so) Lucrezia Borgia, were the very antithesis of ugly.
To return, however, to Ms.Berry’s letter: despite the bias against bad looks, there may be some consolation for uglies in that even the attractive may not be attractive enough, like those who strive, as she puts it, for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch (a peculiar choice) or a career in modeling, but do not make it.
And is there not perhaps a reverse ugly duckling syndrome, whereby the not quite attractive enough turn sour, and from sourness to meanness, and ultimately ugliness? That may be saddest case of all.