Tuesday, November 24, 2015


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.                                                                                          


  1. Terrific topic! So juicy! I can think of tons of stuff to post on this one. Quick thoughts. . .

    1) I used to be attractive, but now I'm getting ugly. Age is creeping up on me. Got me some warts that didn't used to be there, pot belly from too much beer, graying hair, lots of nose and ear hair that I didn't have before (etc, etc.) That stuff is bumming me out. I don't look in the mirror any longer; too depressing. In my mind I'm still 30 years old, and it'll stay that way until I die. I like the way I look when the light is low, but that's about it.

    2) Maybe it would've been better to have always been unattractive. I think it's worse when one "had it at one time", but now they don't. I look at women in the groshery store expecting them to smile at me like they used to do, but there's nothing. No recognition. Weird.

    3) My only consolation is, that I'm not as dumb as I was when I was younger, although that's not saying much. People have always said that I was pretty much, "a lunkhead, but fairly attractive." Now, I don't even have that. Shame.

    4) I could go on a diet, and get some plastic surgery. I thought about getting a bunch of new clothes (nice sport coats, shirts, slacks, and such), but why? It isn't going to last that long. Pretty soon the surgery wears off and THEN you're uglier than ever. The clothes go out of style, and then you have to spend a fortune to replace them. I can't afford all that stuff anyway because I'm poor and unemployed and all I do is hang out on the internet all day goofing off. BUT, at least I USED to be attractive and I got tons of good looking women to go to bed with me. You know, back in the day.

    5) I like the new format. All the things I hold dear, and the blue background is a nice change from the burgundy.

    1. Lubed up Larry? What are you, a poofter?

      I mean that sounds so gay.

    2. "Lubed" has multiple meanings, my Good Sir! Don't always think in the literal sense. I'm lubed right now now and it doesn't have anything to do with sexual orientation. I shall respond to your posts (below) in good time. You've referenced some good films.

  2. Robertson Davies' novel 'Fifth Business' has a character named Liesl who is physically ugly -- here's a description of her from the Gradesaver website:

    Liesl, Magnus Eisengrim's (Paul Dempster's) business partner, is like a Faustian Mephistopheles to Dunstan. She is a rather hideous bearded woman, but most important for leading Dunstan to explore the dark shadows of his soul. Liesl exhibits intellect and wisdom that transcends even Dunstan’s.

    Her methods of leading him into his 'shadow self' employ Jungian theories, and she is the one to explain to him his destined role as "Fifth Business." Liesl eventually convinces Dunstan to embrace his dark side in order to finally become whole.

  3. I haven't read this one, but I've heard about it. Magnus Eisengrim's Fifth Buisness is not copacetic with Liesl's views on Dunstan's, who in fact is an invention of Robertson Davis' intellectual mind, and stuff.

    Who garners more ideas about Faust than Paul Dempster's Magnus Eisnegrim's Dunstan? Liesl of course, who is butt damn ugly.

    This is portrayed by Robertson Davies' character Paul Dempster who is Magnus Eisengrim's Mephistopheles, who is Liesl's main man.

    Carl Jung, notwithstanding, Dunstan could be Mephistopheles' Magnus to Liesl's Dempster, but who knows why he would not be Eisengrim's Dempster to Dunstan's Robertson Davies? I haven't a clue.

  4. More info on the physically ugly Liesl, from the Wikipedia page for 'Fifth Business':

    "Liselotte (Liesl) Vitzlipützli — Daughter of a millionaire Swiss watchmaker who assists Magnus Eisengrim in his travelling magic show. She is bisexual, and the victim of an early adolescent affliction (never specified but possibly acromegaly) which leaves her unusually tall and with large features. She is Ramsay's confessor, lover and critic and completes him as a man."

    Yes, an ugly woman can complete the growth of a man! Let's hear it for the ugly girls, and the big girls too:


  5. There are two kinds of evil. Cretinous ugly evil and cool evil. And many handsome actors loved to play the cool evil character. Take James Mason in North by Northwest. Or Claude Rains as the smooth operator in Notorious. And Henry Fonda as the magnificent villain of Once Upon a Time in the West. And who can resist the femme fatales. Rita Hayworth in Lady from Shanghai.
    And the dark villains of noir flicks.
    Robert Mitchum looked good in that film directed by Laughton. And Palance was awesome in Shane. But they were bad to the bone.

    In a way, beauty can be evil cuz it is illusory. Because something looks good, we assume it is good inside. Or, we want to believe so. But a beautiful car can have a faulty engine, and a beautiful person could be petty, vile, hideous, noxious, odious, and real shitty.

    Some people have said John Simon has an ugly soul. Hostile, judgmental, harsh, cruel, vicious, arrogant, sneering, and etc. But they are wrong. Simon's soul isn't ugly. It's just mean and nasty, which is okay for a critic cuz it makes no sense to be a nice critic.

  6. Each partner should be the key
    That fits the other partner's lock---
    Great beauty could be essential,
    Or it could be a superfluous crock---

    For varied are the aspects
    Of a healthy human creature---
    Solicitude, the meeting of needs
    Matter more than fairness of feature.

  7. A folk wisdom approach to the problem of ugliness may come from practical experience. It stands to reason and experience that persons whom fate rendered ugly and or deformed will experience a lot of rejection. So folk wisdom might suggest that when happening on such a person, it is wise to be cautious. Such people have little reason to exhibit friendliness and much reason for resentment.

    Of course this has nothing to do with morality. It's just an exercise in primitive social psychology.

    Cultures influenced by concepts like karma and re-birth are particularly hard on unfortunates, as they are seen as suffering just karmic retribution.

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