Everyone loves a good fairy tale villain. Captain Hook, Maleficent, Ursula. But when I was a child, I was fascinated with the ugly stepsisters from Disney's Cinderella. Maybe because of all the villains they seemed the most real. Few have come across a shape-shifting sea witch, but several of my friends dealt with the dreaded step-siblings.
As the case with many Disney films, the exterior ugliness of these "ugly stepsisters" are the physical manifestation of their interior cruelty. Just as Cinderella's loveliness represents her innate goodness, Anastasia and Drizella's unattractive features and mannish feet are an indicator that these women are the villains of the film. It's the classic case of beauty equating virtue, and ugly, evil. [Side note: It makes me wonder what being physically plain means. Moral neutrality?]
I find the Grimm Brother's version of the ugly stepsisters infinitely more fascinating. In their tale the stepsisters aren't actually ugly at all; in fact, they're described as having "beautiful faces and fair skin, but hearts that were foul and black." Indeed, it's their malicious behavior toward Cinderella that gives them away rather than any physical cues.
Of course, anyone who has ever read the Grimm's fairy tales knows that cruelty is always punished. Violently. Yes, the stepsisters start out as beautiful . . . but they don't stay that way. They mutilate their own feet to fit into Cinderella's shoe, a plan which sadly doesn't pan out. And later when Cinderella and the prince are wed, Cinderella's fairy-godmother-like pigeons peck their eyes out as punishment of their cruel treatment. On the one hand that smacks of a Disney uglification, a grotesque mutilation of their physical features to match their internal wickedness. However, the act of blinding as punishment dates back long before the 16th century, all the way to the ancient Greeks.
I find that the ugly stepsisters yield so much more than the title character. Their many versions, their shifts back and forth from hideous to dark beauty. And above all, their penance. Definitely the MIC (Most Interesting Characters) of the fairy tale.
My favorite version:
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire
This post is part of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. My theme (in case you didn't already guess) is Fairy Tales. Stay tuned for the rest of the alphabet, and if you'd like to check out the other participants, simply click here.