Tuesday, May 1, 2012

She's Got a Great Personality

Beautiful princesses are one of the classic staples of great fairy tales, right up there with fire-breathing dragons and evil magicians. The landscape of legend would be unrecognizable without Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Helen of Troy, to name just a few. But after a while you start to roll your eyes and wonder if any female in all of myth who's not a stepsister is anything less than a stunning beauty. Worse - a stunning beauty whose entire value rests on her looks, not on anything she says or does or thinks or is.

Luckily, there's another kind of heroine. She's much more obscure than her good-looking cousins, but she's there. She goes by names like Tatterhood, Lady Ragnell, or Penelope. In her stories, it's made explicit that she has nowhere near the beauty that's expected of a heroine. Tatterhood's twin sister is everything a princess should be; Tatterhood takes hilarious joy in subverting all those expectations, smacking goblins over the head, riding around on a goat, and negotiating her marriage by her own damn self. Penelope is Odysseus' consolation prize for ending his courtship of Helen of Troy and concocting the Oath of the Horse, sworn by all of Helen's remaining suitors. "Sorry you won't get the hottie of the century. But hey, she's got a cousin who's obviously not getting fawned over by scads of suitors. How about you marry her instead and take her off our hands?"

The Loathly Lady, Juan Wijngaard
Lady Ragnell, of course, is hideous beyond description. (Not that that's ever stopped writers from describing how physically painful it is to look at her, or artists from showing us in stomach-churning detail.)

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
she holds them off for ten years without ever offering the deadly insult that would turn them and their military force against herself, her son, and her throne. She even outwits her husband, forcing him to reveal himself with a well-timed lie about their bed. Lady Ragnell, cursed into ugliness, doesn't lock herself in some tower and wait for a brave knight to save her; she masterminds her own rescue, tricking her way into marriage with the one knight whose sense and goodwill can break her curse. (Not to mention that she saves King Arthur's life while she's at it.) Tatterhood is just a badass. I can't do justice to her in a sentence or two. Read for yourself. (But see also, above, re: goblins and goat.)

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
heroines. Both Tatterhood and Lady Ragnell transform into beauties at the moment of the happy ending, to the shocked delight of their respective husbands. Lady Ragnell's comes as a relief on many counts: for her, since her spell is broken; for Gawain, since he's now married to a beautiful as well as intelligent woman; and for the audience, since we really didn't want to see Gawain the awesome shackled to a hag. Tatterhood's transformation is especially noteworthy. She's not under any curse. She herself wields the magic that changes her into a beauty. She looks the way she does because she chooses to. Whatever face she wears, it's one that she creates for herself. The message is subtler than "plain girls need brains," but it's actually much more interesting to deal with a heroine who shapes her own notion of beauty and worthiness.

Odysseus and Penelope Reunited, N.C. Wyeth
And Penelope's marked lack of a transformation is nothing short of heartwarming. Odysseus gets a magical face-lift thanks to Athena, who restores to him all the beauty of his youth when he arrives at last in Ithaca. But Penelope, who's now twenty years older than when Odysseus went to Troy, gets no such divine gift. She's as careworn as she was five minutes before he came back. She doesn't get to erase those years from her body. And Odysseus, who has slept with nymphs and flirted with a princess, returns to her arms with joy. For him, physical beauty is irrelevant; it's Penelope herself that he loves, her cleverness, her personality, her determination. Their reunion is both physical (as in, old as she is, he still desires her) and intellectual (they use the afterglow to catch each other up on their lives and plan for the future). Theirs is the most satisfyingly depicted marriage in all of Greek mythology, precisely because it's based on a connection deeper than that of a young prince and a beautiful princess. Penelope doesn't need to pretend to a beauty she never had in order to entrance her husband.

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
bedtime story. But the comparative lack of non-beauties does emphasize the trend-buckers. Among all the Andromedas, Ledas, and Semeles, Penelope stands out. The Round Table seats one hundred and fifty knights; Lady Ragnell is among the few knight's wives who gets named. (Another one, Linette, is equally famous for her lack of conformity to the expectations of a damsel in distress.) Tatterhood, alas, is obscure in comparison to other fairy tales, but she's not easily forgotten.

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.


  1. OMG! We had that lady Ragnell book at my school when I was younger! I haven't seen it in years!! Awesome.

    Oh how I wish you didn't have retractions on this blog, because I would have loved to see you apply this to modern day media like movies or books (Hermione Granger FTW). It would have added a whole new dimension. Sigh. Oh, well.

    1. Wait, you know that book? I OWN that book. I scanned the illustrations from my copy of that book. It's only one of the BEST BOOKS EVER. You are welcome to borrow it. As long as I get it back. :)

      The funny thing is, modern heroines who aren't stunning beauties are way more prone to the unnecessary makeover than heroines in legends. Key being "unnecessary" - Lady Ragnell's isn't a makeover so much as a re-transformation, and Tatterhood's is purely by choice, because she feels like looking a certain way today. But one of the first things a modern nonbeauty has to endure on her way to becoming a Heroine is to get her hair straightened, her skin cleared up, her glasses ditched, etc. Only then can she start doing Heroine Stuff, whereas legend's nonbeauties get their beauty sessions AFTER all the heroism is done. (I'm thinking specifically of poor Mia Thermopolis, to whom nothing good happens until she applies contacts and eyebrow wax. And then there's always Bella Swan, whose third-act demonic makeover automatically cures whatever "flaws" she previously had, so that she is now suitably perfect enough for her inhumanly perfect mate.)

      Hermione, of course, was already super-cool, but her reaction to her makeover cements what an awesome role model she is (as well as a great character, and in many ways a true throwback to the nonbeauties of legend). Her makeover comes precisely in the middle of the story - book 4 out of 7. It's stunning, as these makeovers tend to be, and it makes Harry and Ron look at her in a very new light. But the next day she's bushy-haired again - by choice, like Tatterhood - and tells Harry that it's all way too much trouble to do every day. All of which makes her the only modern made-over heroine to take control of her image, to look the way she wants to look whenever she chooses, and to be perfectly at ease with herself. It's all very old-school, very Tatterhood, and very wonderful to see in this day and age.

    2. Wow, I just fell in love with you all over again. Thanks for responding to my comment. That really is interesting. Again I think of that gawd-awful makeover to poor Ally Sheedy in the Breakfast Club. Makes me mad it does.

      I was also thinking about the Disney movie "Mulan" (you may have heard of it). She actually gets a make-under to become more bad ass (well, or a gender reassignment but hey, it's Ancient China). But then at the end she reverts back to her plain old self, but the guy still likes her anyway. And yes, she did get a makeover at the very beginning but that was before we knew her and Shang didn't see that so it doesn't count. Except that it totally does.

    3. Oh lord, Mulan is a whole new kettle of fish. The legend actually has her incognito as a man for ten freakin' years, during which time she becomes a general. When she finally returns home (with her best friend - what the hell, let's call him Shang) and puts on a dress for the first time in a decade, the first thing he does is propose marriage. It's all delightfully Twelfth Night; on one hand, you're thrilled that Mulan's found a guy who appreciates her for the awesomeness of who she is, and on the other hand it makes you wonder just how long Shang had been attracted to his general. Mulan's makeover is essential to the social acceptability of the happy ending, but you're right - it's not so much a makeover as reverting to her original self. And the movie plays the makeover subversion completely straight, given how after the first disastrous scene she never gets gussied up again. (Probably also because that makeover is super-unnecessary and actually gets in the way of her finding out who she really is. Social commentary much?)

      Mulan might be the most successful at navigating between the before-and-after states. My favorite bit of the legend is her response to his proposal, where she flawlessly integrates her original self and the advantages she's picked up during her make-under. Basically she says, "Yes, I'll marry you, but only if you continue to treat me as an equal, because that's been great for ten years and I'm still just as awesome even though I'm actually a girl." There's a fantastic mutual respect thing going on that reminds me a lot of Odysseus and Penelope (although neither Mulan nor Shang make each other work as hard for that respect as Odysseus and Penelope). And that stays in the movie too, if watered-down somewhat: Shang gets completely flustered when confronted with girl!Mulan, but ultimately learns to respect and work with her, and she makes no bones about the treatment she wants from him while staying friendly enough to help him out.

      I need to see The Breakfast Club, if only so I can finally get the true horror of that reference. And I love you too. :)