Thursday, April 24, 2014

U is for Ugly Stepsisters

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.


  1. I always preferred the Brothers Grimm version too - because evil is so often hidden in beautiful packages, although I am firmly of the belief that internal beauty always shines through in the end. I know people who are not beautiful in the classical sense, but their warmth and joy in life makes them some of the most beautiful people I know.
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  2. I down-loaded all of the Grimm fairy tales onto my Kindle. Wow. I am sure glad I didn't read them when I was younger. Some are certainly grim.

  3. Grimm's version is better, I believe. It's more satisfying to see those evil get their just desserts.

  4. I do recall thoroughly enjoying the Maguire book when it first came out....perhaps it is time to pull it off the shelf and give it a reread....

  5. Anastasia and Drizella are PURE EVIL. I hated them at 2, and I will always hate them! Grrr

  6. I prefer the ugliness being inside, since I have always thought that that is where ugliness comes from - whenever I look at people, the ugliness is in their eyes, not their body.
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  7. Funny thing - the Disney ugly stepsisters aren't particularly ugly. Pretty sad that a squint and a slightly bulbous nose are (in women, anyway) so disturbing as to be the hallmarks of true evil!

  8. Isn't there a version where they are turned into pigs?

  9. It's interesting how the old Disney movies were so biased against blended families. I guess that's part of the history of the myths, but it was no Brady Bunch.

  10. I enjoy a good antagonist (or three, in this case) where they aren't so predictable. Let them be beautiful on the outside but pure evil inside. I like the not so typical villain. I think the Grimm Brothers had it right:)

  11. I prefer the Grimm brothers' version, it's just too easy to make the villains ugly.

  12. Oh I love the Grimm version and thought they got what they deserved. How many have we met in our own lifetime that look so pretty until they open their mouths. My favourite film is "Ever_After" but there was a Russian take on this tale that i used to watch when I was a kid. The owl represented the fairy Godmother and her dresses came from a walnut. Another fav is the german version where Cinderella weeps at her mother's grave and from the tree she had planted comes the dresses

  13. i need to reread those grimm tales - i dont remember them being so dark! did you see the movie fantasizing their life, showing where they got their ideas, with matt damon and heath ledger? it was pretty good!
    really love these fairy tale posts =)
    we're almost thru!

  14. I like the Ever After version of the step sisters. Neither are ugly, but where one is out for the prince, the other turns out to be a lot nicer, especially when she stops being a pushover to her sister and mother.

  15. The stepmother was never physically punished. She had the horror of seeing what her machinations had wrought by seeing her daughters' faces, she was the one that told them to cut off their toe and heel.