|The Loathly Lady, Juan Wijngaard|
So what gives? Why are these oddballs heroines? Why match an unattractive or even downright hideous woman with some poor dope who has little to no choice in the matter? What are these women's redeeming qualities?
Well, they tend to be far more self-sufficient than your average swooning princess. Penelope is a perfect match for wily Odysseus: when suitors finally flock to her (although drawn more by the lure of marrying a crown than by her beauty),
|Penelope and the Suitors, John William Waterhouse|
There's a very obvious, and very uncomfortable, lesson here. Beautiful girls don't need brains; plain girls, who can't coast on their looks, are the only ones who need to be able to think. But in multiple cases, that lesson is subverted by the twist ending to these stories of unlovely
|"My Lord?", Juan Wijngaard|
|Odysseus and Penelope Reunited, N.C. Wyeth|
So why aren't there more of these heroines? Mostly because they're too complex. Fairy tales run on archetypes. Everyone already knows what you mean when you say "the beautiful princess." If you're telling the story of Tatterhood, you have to take time out to explain about her weirdness. If you create a marriage like that of Odysseus and Penelope, the characters have to be real enough to support its complications; you have to tell an epic, not a five-minute
|Tatterhood, Lisa Hunt|
And maybe the scarcity of non-beauties lets the chosen few shine a bit brighter. After all, the independent non-beauty too can become an archetype: the shrewish unpleasant scold who lives to plague the poor hero's life, a la Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew" or the greedy fisherman's wife who makes him use up all of the wish fish's goodwill. But this kind of heroine never got so popular that she became ubiquitous and boring. Her low level of exposure let her stay stubborn, strong and awesome. She's always there, if we know where to look.