The Myth of the Ugly Duckling


She's so a-dork-able!

Last year I wrote a blog post detailing my biggest television pet peeves because TV shows are filled with conventions that are used and reused until they drive their audiences nuts. Repetition is part of popular culture.  There’s even an entire website devoted to annoying, overused TV tropes. Sure, we must accept the easy shorthand of the TV trope if we are going to watch TV, but ever since I started seeing ads for Zooey Deschanel’s new comedy, New Girl , I’ve been thinking a lot about one particular trope that I’ve always hated. It goes by many names, but for the purposes of this post, let’s call it “the myth of the ugly duckling.” You all read “The Ugly Duckling” when you were a kid, right? First published in 1843 (thanks Wikipedia!), Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story is about an unattractive baby duck who is abused by all who meet him until finally, one glorious day, he realizes that he is actually a beautiful swan! Here’s how Andersen’s story concludes:

He had been persecuted and despised for his ugliness, and now he heard them say he was the most beautiful of all the birds. Even the elder-tree bent down its bows into the water before him, and the sun shone warm and bright. Then he rustled his feathers, curved his slender neck, and cried joyfully, from the depths of his heart, “I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly duckling.”

 The lessons in this classic tale are clear: If people bully you based on something you cannot control, such as the fact that you are “ugly,” don’t worry. Eventually, you will be accepted by a group of much better looking people. These people will embrace you and love you based on something else you cannot control, the fact that you are now “beautiful” and look just like them. Good for you, little duck!

Obviously, this message of “beauty as transcendence” is problematic and highly damaging to the psyches of young children and insecure adults alike. But that’s not why I dislike the myth of the ugly duckling. I dislike it, and its many iterations in popular culture, because the ugly duckling is not “ugly.” I mean, have you seen a baby duck (or a baby swan) before? Let me refresh your memory:

Hag!

You weirdos need a makeover.

Kitten: "You dorks are both getting wedgies." Ducks: "Noooooooo!!!!"

Cygnet (aka, baby swan). For Kara.

And that’s pretty much the problem I have with the myth of the ugly duckling when it is translated into a film or TV show. It’s simply untrue. Don’t tell me someone is ugly when they are so clearly NOT ugly. My first exposure to this myth, as applied to women, occurred when I was about 6-years-old and watching my favorite channel, MTV:

Thank goodness “Goody Two Shoes” was in heavy rotation in 1982; it communicates so many important lessons about beauty, sexuality, and male-female relationships. The most important lesson Mr. Ant taught me is that women who wear suits, buns, and glasses are highly unattractive. Even when they are so clearly hot. This was upsetting to me because at the time I wore a large pair of glasses, quite similar to the pair worn by the woman featured in the video, and I often wore my hair pulled back. Also, I did not drink or smoke. “Shit,” my 6-year-old self noted, “I’m ugly!”

I wore the same glasses.

But not to worry. According to this video, it is easy to capture the attention of the wily Adam Ant. All you need to do is shake your bun out and remove those giant glases. Viola! Ant Ant is totally going to screw your brains out in that hotel room while his horny butler watches through the keyhole. I should also note this video’s plot, about an uptight looking woman who appears to be interviewing Adam Ant, and then decides to let her hair down (literally) and make sweet love to the rockstar, has very little to do with the song’s lyrics. The lyrics themselves (you can read them here), seem to be a critique of image and stardom and of the very transformation the woman makes. But my 6-year-old self was not listening to the lyrics. I was watching the video. And taking copious mental notes.

Rawr.

Fast forward a few years to one of my all-time favorite films, The Breakfast Club (1985, John Hughes). I did not see this film in the theater, but by the time I was in junior high it seemed to be playing on TBS every single Saturday afternoon. Like most kids of my generation, everything I thought I knew about being a teenager came from this film (or some other John Hughes film). Some of the film’s many lessons include: bad boys are sexy, girls who don’t like to make out are prudes, Claire is a “fat girl’s name,” detention is wicked awesome, and, most importantly, if you want cute boys like Emilio Estevez to think you are pretty, stop being so weird and interesting and let the popular girl give you a make over. Ally Sheedy, I am talking to you.

The Ugly Duckling...

...is really a Swan!

Even as an insecure preteen I noted with dismay that the pre-makeover Allison was actually very, very pretty. After all, she’s played by Ally Sheedy! Ally Sheedy is a fox!  Her “make over” doesn’t alter her appearance in any kind of radical way, much as the removal of a bun and glasses doesn’t change much about the goody two shoes in the Adam Ant video. Both of these women were beautiful from the start and the only people who insisted on their physical unattractiveness were the creators of these texts. In other words, almost every ugly duckling I have encountered, dating all the way back to Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, have never truly been “ugly.” Their ugliness is an artifice I have been asked to believe so that the beautiful, swanlike transformation that inevitably follows can happen. Time and again, beautiful women are cast in the role of the “awkward,” “drab,” “dorky,” or “ugly” girl. And all it takes to make them “ugly” is a pair of glasses, a disinterest in fashion, or a quirky hobby.

At this point you might be thinking: so what? Who cares if film and TV audiences are repeatedly asked to view highly attractive women as “ugly”? I guess my problem with all of this is that in these films and television shows I am told, over and over, that certain key signifiers make attractive women into unattractive or undesirable women. These signifiers include but are not limited to:

Being a tomboy and an awesome drummer:

Some Kind of Wonderful's Mary Stuart Masterson

Being poor:

Pretty in Pink's Molly Ringwald

Being Aaron Spelling’s daughter:

Saved by the Bell's Tori Spelling

Wanting to be an artist:

She's All That's Rachel Leigh Cook

Having musical talent that far outstrips that of your peers:

Glee's Lea Michele

Being smart and wearing glasses:

One Day's Anne Hathaway

In every case, the decision to be studious or artistic or slightly different from everyone else transforms a woman who would normally have more suitors than an alley cat in heat into a lonely spinster. So the message is: ugly women are screwed. And pretty women who value something other than being pretty are screwed. And if you are ugly and you like to read? Well, start collecting cats and Hummel figurines now because you have a lonely life ahead of you, spinster.

DORK.

And that is why I could not bring myself to watch the premiere of New Girl. I just could not stand the way that Zooey Deschanel’s character, Jess, was repeatedly described as being “dorky” and “awkward” in press releases and in early reviews. I don’t care how big her glasses are or how often she bursts into song at inopportune times. Zooey Deschanel is not a “dork.” She’s hot. Can a woman who is that beautiful really and truly be a “dork”?Now I’m not saying that hot chicks don’t get dumped, as Deschanel’s character does in the show’s premiere. And I’m not saying that hot chicks don’t find themselves feeling awkward or acting the fool. I am sure they do. But it’s hard to buy a woman like Zooey Deschanel as a true awkward dork.  You know who plays good dorks? Kristen Wiig. Someone else? Charlyne Yi. I believe her.

Yi gives good dork.

Just not another hot chick in glasses.

It’s time for film and TV to get a new trope. Make a character a social outcast because she’s a bully or because she’s too judgmental. Not because she wears glasses or reads books or carries a big purse. After all, you need a big purse to carry all those books. And you need glasses to read those books. Just sayin.

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30 thoughts on “The Myth of the Ugly Duckling

  1. Good post, and one about a trope that bugs the hell out of me as well, though I think for similar reasons to yours the “sexless male nerd” trope personally bothers me a bit more.

    As a diehard nitpicker, I do have to question your categorizing Glee’s Rachel Berry as an ugly duckling. As multiple characters on the show have noted at different times, she’s “sneaky-hot.” It’s not Rachel’s talent that causes the problems with her teammates so much as her obnoxious attitude about it. Thus, no one is asking that we buy into the idea that Rachel/Lea isn’t attractive, but more that Rachel’s personality is what turns people off to her.

  2. Great post. Along similar lines, I’m often perplexed by the mechanism whereby having a cat, or two, or ten (let’s assume they are well cared-for) can transform an otherwise “normal” single woman into a figure of scruffy pathos, fated to spend the rest of her days in despair and squalor. I’d like to see both women and cat-owners take this one on!

    • This is a great question, Anne. I get why having “a lot” of one kind of pet signals that a character is eccentric or pathetic. It implies that the character’s life is consumed with the care of animals, rather than engaging with other human beings. However, it does seem like female characters who own cats (even just a single cat) are coded as being pathetic or lonely. By contrast, female characters with dogs are more associated with positive traits like independence. I wonder if that’s because it’s difficult to be a complete recluse when you have a dog–they need to be walked and exercised outside. Cats, on the other hand, can live their entire lives inside. So that might be where the stereotype comes from?

      • I think that it also comes from the nature of cats vs. dogs. I’ve been around cats my entire life and they basically disdain/ignore humans, unless they (the cats) need attention/petting/feeding. What kind of person surrounds him/herself with beings that seem incapable of giving love, and exist only to use people? I’m guessing it’s the kind of person who views the world as full of unloving, selfish people and themselves as endlessly sacrificing and giving. Those kind of people tend to end up alone, after everyone has used them, of course.

      • Wow. You’re probably just trolling, but I can’t not bite. You sure have extrapolated a whole lot of bullshit about people’s personalities based on what I’m assuming has been your experience with a very certain type of cat. Cats, like dogs, and like people… all have very different personalities.

        I have also been around cats my entire life. I’ve also been around dogs, and people my entire life.

        I’ve certainly had cats that fit the description you give, but I’ve also had dogs that fit that personality description. The two cats I currently have are waiting for me at the door every time I come home. They follow me around the house, needing to be in whatever room I’m in. Sometimes they directly ask for attention… but dogs and humans do the same thing. Sometimes, they’re content just to lay next to me on the couch.

      • Nope, I don’t troll. I thought about deleting what I wrote because you or one of your readers might find that offensive, and it looks like you did before I managed to do so…sorry. I found your article because I was googling “dorky girls with glasses” or something similar for a FB post I was writing and couldn’t remember how to spell Deschanel or what Rachel Leigh Cook’s name was.. I liked your article btw, and gave it a thumps up right after I read it. I guess I made a generalization-if you have nice cats, good for you. Treasure them.

      • My tallest,
        Actually the troll comment came from a reader of the blog, not me. And I think your comments about cats aren’t too far off. I own a dog and a cat and their love is quite different–my dog is always up for a good petting while the cat is only pet on his own terms.

  3. Thanks for reading Nick! And I don’t mind the nitpicking, as long as I can nitpick back! First, since when does being “obnoxious” preclude a character from popularity? Aren’t most pretty, popular characters in teen dramas also terribly obnoxious? Second, the show does frequently imply that Rachel Berry is unattractive, or at least less attractive than characters like Quinn and Santana (Even though all 3 are gorgeous. If Rachel had been at my high school she would have had no problem getting any guy or girl [?] she liked). In fact there was an entire story arc devoted to Rachel wondering if she needed a nose job so she could look more like Quinn (a nose job? really? her nose is perfect). And Rachel often mentions feeling ugly next to Quinn (again, both are beautiful, one just happens to be blond while the other is a brunette). I always felt that these comparisons were forced.

    • True, but those examples you mentioned are Rachel’s hangups, not necessarily the opinions of the other characters. If I recall correctly, most of the other characters tried to dissuade Rachel from getting a nose job. IMO, it’s not really a case of the show asking us to believe that Rachel is ugly, but rather that we’re asked to believe that *Rachel* thinks she’s ugly, which a different thing altogether.

      As to the personality thing, no, being obnoxious certainly doesn’t preclude one from popularity, but it certainly is cited often on the show as the reason many people are turned off by Rachel.

  4. Well since we’re nitpicking…”The Ugly Duckling” never says that ducklings are ugly. The titular ugly duckling is ugly to the others because he doesn’t look like them. This is, of course, because he’s actually a cygnet! The ducks and ducklings are being species-ist, basically. I think cygnets are pretty cute (http://tinyurl.com/3qb5vtz), but they don’t look the same as ducklings and that’s why he gets picked on.

    • In all of the versions I heard as a child, including the Hans Christian Andersen version, the duckling is explicitly called “ugly.” For example, a mean old duck says to the Mama Duck “‘Yes, but he is so big and ugly,’ said the spiteful duck ‘and therefore he must be turned out.’”And later, even his own family rejects him “The poor duckling was driven about by every one; even his brothers and sisters were unkind to him, and would say, ‘Ah, you ugly creature, I wish the cat would get you,’ and his mother said she wished he had never been born.” That’s pretty twisted, yes?

      But you are right, the duckling is viewed as ugly because it does not look like all the other ducklings, not because it is truly ugly. But that’s why the human ugly duckling is ostracized, because she is different-looking.That was my point.

      • Right, but it’s NOT a duckling. It’s a cygnet that got mixed in with the ducklings, and its “brothers and sisters” are more like adopted brothers and sisters. The message of the story still seems to be suck it, swans are prettier than ducks, though: “To be born in a duck’s nest, in a farmyard, is of no consequence to a bird, if it is hatched from a swan’s egg.”

      • Dearest Pris, I think we are saying the same thing here. But just to be clear, I will also insert a picture of a baby swan into this post so folks can see they are adorables too.

  5. Fab column again. And you haven’t even mentioned Ugly Betty who, after all, was never ugly in the first place. That this ugly duckling myth gets repackaged across the globe in umpteen countries with the signifiers of ugliness being glasses, braces and odd dress sense, says much about the way we still view women across the globe. Sigh. When will women be allowed to move beyond these tropes. The ugly sisters gave Cinderella a hard time, as did her mean (elder) stepmother (not ugly so much as an older harridan). Snow White was stuffed once the mirror told the witch that she was the prettiest in the land and sleeping beauty was never going to get beyond her 16 years once her good looks were guaranteed by the (hapless) fairy godmothers. And so it goes on. Women and beauty are inextricably linked as are outsiders and ugliness.

    And just for the record – I saw Adam Ant live recently – he has matured (like old cheese?) even if the tropes that he played with in his ‘goody two shoes’ video haven’t.

    • Thanks for reading, Kim! UGLY BETTY’s America Ferrerra is a great example of the ugly duckling. America is such a pretty actress, but glasses and braces turn her into the titular heroine, ugly Betty (though I must admit I know NOTHING about this show. I watched one episode and did not enjoy it).

      I can’t believe you saw Adam Ant live. I am assuming he’s no longer baring his midriff or seducing sexy librarians?

      • Au contraire. On a rainy lunchtime in a field somewhere in Suffolk Adam Ant ripped his T Shirt off and pranced around to ‘Prince Charming’, ‘Goody Two Shoes’ and ‘Stand and Deliver’. Surprisingly fit and still quite handsome. And no, he didn’t seduce any sexy librarians but I’m sure that he would have given half a chance……

  6. “Make a character a social outcast because she’s a bully or because she’s too judgmental.” I think that’s doable, but how long can that last (unless they are a minor character), because otherwise the audience will be turned off?

    Dorks are socially inept, not necessarily ugly. I think a lot of people can relate to that.

    What about the current trend where hipster girls are wearing dork glasses?

    ps – two more for your list: Sarah Jessica Parker in Square Pegs and Lisa Kudrow in Friends.

    • I watched Neighbours then. Good point. Plain Jane Super Brain – is she the ex-stripper that married Des? And, how do I remember their names when I can’t even remember names of students I met yesterday?

  7. I love this post! This exact thing– the ways beautiful actresses are “transformed” in an attempt to convince the audience that they are no longer the beautiful girl– is something that has bothered me for a long time.

    For the most part, I agree with everything you’re saying, however, I did take issue with how you framed your conclusions. It’s possible that “She’s hot. Can a woman who is that beautiful really and truly be a “dork”” is reading not at all how you meant it, but that seems unlikely. I feel like you’re getting caught up in some stereotypical tropes yourself, with that statement.

    Can a woman who is that beautiful really and truly be a “dork?”

    YES!

    The issue is not that one cannot be the other, the issue is the way the medium of television and movies attempts to use the personality trait (dorkiness) to make the physical trait (hotness) completely disappear. The issue isn’t that the hot girl can’t be dorky, or vice-versa, it’s that we ONLY have cultural tropes for “hot girl,” “dorky girl,” etc… and we don’t often allow those to intermix.

    I really like Deschanel’s new character, precisely because I feel it is rebelling against that norm. Unlike the Rachel Berry character, Deschanel’s Jess is unequivocally hot AND dorky! Having watched a few episodes, she is quite successfully remaining both the hot girl, and the dorky girl. I really think it’s a step in the right direction. Her dorkiness is not being used in an attempt to convince the viewer she is less hot; that character is hot, and a dork. I think that’s a great thing.

    • My problem with the way Deschanel’s character is written is that she isn’t a dork but seems more like a sheltered child.

      • I would have disagreed with you after having just watched the first few episodes, but as the season has gone on, thats increasingly been my feeling. I really couldn’t handle the episode in which she could not say “penis” or “vagina” and instead used quite childish euphemisms.

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  9. You are equating dork and ugly, but they aren’t the same thing. Ugly is visual unattractiveness, while dork is a…….personality malfunction, for lack of a better phrase. One can be “the most beautiful person in the world” and still be a dork. Just as a physically unattractive person can have many genuine friends and have an active, functioning social life.

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