In Defense of Ugliness

 

 

© WinterWolf Studios

winter@winterwolfstudios.com

 

At First Sight

Although I can trace the proclivity back to early childhood, Erik was the first hideous fictional* man with whom I truly fell in love.

I was about nine years old when a new form of musical technology entered our house – the compact disc, or CD. My father has always eagerly embraced new technologies, especially when music is involved, being as much of a music junkie as I am (and likely responsible for much of my own addiction). Back then we had to journey to actual record stores to buy these bright and shiny new things, which were generally kept in back corners and packaged in long, rectangular boxes that were mostly air, ostensibly to take advantage of display racks that were designed for vinyl records and laserdiscs.

Pickings were slim in those early days. I think we’d buy whatever we could get. And one of the albums we bought – I think my mother picked it out – was Highlights from The Phantom of the Opera.

And that was how we met.

After hearing Erik sing, I had to know what he looked like. Although I loathed Christine with all my heart for choosing the easy way out, I had to admit that we shared the same basic curiosity about the man in the mask. It was about 1991, the musical roughly five years into its long reign. Luckily my mother arranged for us to go to Toronto by bus, to see it in person.

I remember sitting on the aisle floor of the Pantages in my dark blue dress and trailing hair ribbons (because while nowadays nine is apparently the new twenty, back then I was not only able to get away with dressing like a Victorian girl, but encouraged in it), mouthing along with the lyrics, soaking everything up – unwittingly burying it in the deepest recesses of my developing brain. And when I finally saw Erik’s twisted face, I fell all the harder. Please don’t doubt that it was love – I was a child, and he was the creation of a man long dead, but I know to this day that I loved him. Those who can understand will.

The book followed. Movies. I gave my heart to Lon Chaney and Charles Dance (who now pays his debts) and Robert Englund (as if he didn’t have it already from Being Freddy.) But mostly the book. Because in the book, everything was bare and plain. Nothing sanitized, nothing altered.

And in the book, Erik clearly resembled a corpse.

 

“And this is what Joseph Buquet said about the Phantom to anyone who would listen: ‘He’s terribly thin and his dress suit floats over a skeletal framework. His eyes are set so deeply that it’s hard to see their pupils. In fact, one sees only two large black holes, as in the skulls of the dead. His skin is stretched over his bones like that of a drum. It’s not white at all, but an ugly yellow; there’s so little of his nose that, seen in profile, it’s invisible, and the absence of that nose is something horrible to see. And all he has in the way of hair is three or four long brown hanks hanging down in front and behind his ears.’” – Leroux, Gaston & Wolf, Leonard. (1996.) The Phantom of the Opera. New York: ibooks, inc.

 

This description didn’t bother me. In fact, it made me love him more. From childhood I had displayed a tendency to side with the monstrous and visually malevolent. The dancing zombies in Thriller made me wonder, not scream. The monsters in the atomic age double features and 1980s bloodbaths and Vincent Price spectaculars I was raised on I counted as good friends, not enemies. As a little girl I’d listened faithfully during story time and found myself rooting for the dragons, the hairy beasts of the forest, and the gnarled geniuses of sorcery – never once did a golden-locked prince, the person I was apparently supposed to be interested in, manage to seduce me. I found princes tedious. Patently uninteresting.

The ugly, though…the ugly I loved. Instinctively. Passionately.

This essay isn’t meant to be yet another entry in the Lia Spills her Soul and Looks Foolish for Having Done So Diary – I have a definite purpose in writing about my love for ugliness today. And it’s because from where I sit I see a sort of war being waged against fictional monsters of every variety – a war of negation, a war of buffing and sanding and polishing and primping.

The ugly characters of the world are having their ugliness done away with. That’s not a gift. That’s a curse.

 

 

Beauty as Devolution

Before I pontificate further, I’d like to offer two examples of the de-uglification of which I speak. I will first look at Erik, and then at perhaps the penultimate beautifully-ugly character – the Beast himself, of the titular fairy tale. These images do not represent every known adaptation of either character (and today we’re focusing on their appearance, not the various interpretations of their personalities and histories), but they are chronologically organized. I will also be focusing exclusively upon visual media, because, you know – I need pictures. Due to copyright concerns and time constraints, I will not reproduce the images here, but link to them.

For Erik, I would like to point you to Lon Chaney, Jin Shan, Herbert Lom, Robert Englund, Michael Crawford, and Gerard Butler.

I have often jokingly referred to Butler’s makeup as, “Damn this papercut!” In isolation, I must admit that his condition is terrible to look at. But what makes Butler papercut-y is the fact that the 90% of him that’s physically perfect by conventional standards, including his non-skeletal body, is obviously meant to make up for the 10% that isn’t. This is made abundantly clear in the vast majority of his visual media, where he cuts a striking, seductive figure – even moreso than Michael Crawford, who pioneered the ALW Erik.

I am certainly not opposed to retellings, reboots, and reinterpretations. I would have to live in a cave if I were. I love Englund’s Erik, who makes a deal with the Devil and commits murder almost casually; I love Crawford’s Erik, grandiose and eloquent; I love the original Leroux Erik, practically twitching with neurosis and repression. But I do think that as Erik becomes prettier, his story becomes less touching. Passion turns to pity, insanity and despair become petty angst, and decisions born of desperation are suddenly nothing more than plain old kidnapping – even Christine suffers, for her choice becomes more and more inexplicable. No longer simply an idiot, she finds herself recast as an unforgiving, hateful idiot, which in turn forces us to question the Phantom’s taste. Erasing Erik’s ugliness doesn’t make him more identifiable, it makes him less so.

To turn to the Beast, I would point out Jean Marais, John Savage, Ron Perlman, Disney’s version (of course), Alex Pettyfer, and Mark Pedowitz.

Do I really have to say anything? Sing with me, now. Two of these things are not like the others, and one of them is a freaking joke

Although the argument could be made that the new television Beast might turn into something more horrifying – no one knows, yet – that argument doesn’t hold water when the initial images from the show are contrasted against the vast history of B&B adaptations, the best of which feature Beauty falling for the Beast in spite of his hideous exterior. In fact, that’s the entire point of the story.

What’s important to note about these two examples isn’t necessarily the effect of time – when unmasked, the 1943 Claude Rains Erik closely resembles Butler’s, and the recent Pete Bregman sketches of Erik are both accurate and amazing. We’re not really talking about a devolution that can be neatly charted in months and years. What we’re talking about is the decisive, myopic similarity of the most recent adaptations of these “ugly guy” stories. A similarity that says one or more of the following things to narrative consumers, all of them insulting.

 

  • Modern people are fragile and cannot handle more ugliness than this.
  • Modern people are more shallow than ever before, and cannot be expected (or even more insultingly, trusted) to fall in love with a character that strays too far from the ideal, no matter how intelligent, kind, or talented he or she may be.
  • We’re lazy, and don’t feel like offering more ugliness than this.
  • This is ugliness. Physical perfection is what we now expect of characters and by extension, our fellow men and women.

 

To bolster my argument, let’s look at two more examples – and let’s skip ugliness entirely. Let’s look at two characters that are meant to be either merely creepy, or simply visually unremarkable in their normally-clothed forms. I give you Dr. Jonathan Crane, from the Batman universe, and Peter Parker of Spider-Man.

 

Crane 1Crane 2, and Crane 3.

Peter 1Peter 2, and Peter 3.

 

Even in these last two examples, a pattern clearly emerges. Now, characters cannot even be Bland Everymen; they must be conventionally physically attractive at all costs. In the case of the film versions of Peter Parker, this has transition has occurred in a shockingly brief period of time.

And our society is the poorer for it.

 

 

The World Needs Monsters

I was an ugly child. I can admit it. I’m not about to offer photographic evidence of that period my life because I’m too lazy to hunt it down, but trust me, I was an unfortunate little thing for a number of years. Dun-colored, greasy hair, poorly-chosen glasses, horrible skin, no idea how to dress (when I wasn’t allowed to wear my best dresses). The sort of goofy, equally emotionless and inexplicably amused expression that someone who’s learned to live without other people often dons when she’s watching the world and thinks no one is watching her. Zero social skills, to boot. I had the whole package.

I distinctly remember one day in seventh grade when I glanced about at the other girls – stylish, pretty, befriended – and realized that I did not have looks or the ability to form seemingly effortless connections, and so I must have brains and heart, because nothing else would recommend me to the world. Don’t act like children are incapable of knowing these things. They are.

For whatever reason, I grew into my body and my face. I got my brown teeth capped. I got acne medication and something of a sense of style. When I lost my hair, I got awesome wigs. But I am embarrassed and ashamed to note that as a grown-up ugly, bullied, ostracized child, I am still incapable of fully accepting the idea that pretty people can have completely horrible lives.** Logically, I know that beauty can easily go hand-in-hand with suffering, misfortune, and pain, and that I have no right to judge anyone. Logically, I know that everyone has their burdens to bear and their demons to fight. Emotionally, the child I was still occasionally mutters, “Yeah, you’ve got it so hard, Miss Living Shampoo Commercial. Cry me a river,” upon hearing a breathtaking character’s tale of woe.

In short, I didn’t, and still don’t, want characters that have the privilege that beauty confers. I want characters that show me how to struggle, how to survive, how to redeem myself, and how to be grateful. And monsters do that. Ugly characters do that.

Ugliness magnifies nobility, heroism, talent and goodness precisely because we don’t expect such things from the ugly and the monstrous – because our brains are wired that way. It makes these qualities brighter, more beautiful, more alluring by tucking them inside bodies that evolution and an unbroken history of societal shallowness have taught us to despise and distrust. Stories about the ugly take advantage of our preconceptions in order to shame, enlighten, and move us. They offer a catharsis that the fog of lust and giddiness attending handsome princes and rugged human heroes can never hope to match. The ugly enslave our hearts, not our hormones.

Monsters show us how to truly be human.

What does it say about us, when a simple scar is enough to visually label someone playing the role of a “hideous Beast?” Does it not point to a certain growing intolerance in society, a certain increasing shallowness? (Hooray for oxymorons.) What does it say about us, when monstrous characters don the masks of princes and princes are thus forced to become gods? Are we setting our eyes on some sort of heavenly ideal, or are we turning our backs on the part of our souls where true humanity resides?

The trend seems to be toward making bestial behavior the true sin, the true mark against these types of characters. While important, this cheats the moral. The whole point of making heroes of monsters is that their good behavior contrasts so sharply against their horrific exteriors that what lies within is enshrined and what lies without fades away. Monsters who look worse than us and are better than us exhort us to examine our own preconceptions and condemn our own hateful impulses. They arouse fear and disgust and sympathy and admiration in equal measure. Such characters fight to assert themselves as worthy of emulation, worthy of attention, worthy of love and success, and in doing so teach us that we’re entitled to those things, too. That’s the point.

That’s what I love about them.

So, what’s the purpose of this little essay? I thought there was one, but at the end, I have to acknowledge it’s been mostly ranting. But as someone who’s been lucky enough to have been given a platform, as I look at what’s being done to the characters that I grew up loving, I find myself more dedicated than ever to producing things that run counter to trend. I will write uglier, sweeter zombies. I will not give my spider-men fangectomies, as I’d planned – they’re going to have chelicerae that stretch to their waists, at this point. I will personally fight against the idea that a shaving accident is enough to make a man a Beast, that vampires always have amazing hair, and that huge fangy brutes can’t hold multiple Ph.D.s.

If that disgusts some people? So be it.

More monsters for me.

 

 

 

* This essay is meant to address issues within the world of fiction. It should not be read as a commentary on any real persons, living or dead. I hesitate to even refer to Erik as a monster – he is a deformed/scarred human being – but he is technically considered one, at least in the Universal canon, alongside such characters as The Invisible Man.

** Of course I’m not talking about facing things like death, abuse, persecution, illness, etc. – undeniable tragedies.  We’re not discussing those here, only trivial matters.

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12 Comments

  1. Darcie Thomas
    Jun 16, 2012

    I have to say I completely agree, it seems that everyone is consumed by looking good. It’s horrible to think that some people are bullied and stigmatized for not looking like the ideal. Also the beast was always one of my favourite fictional characters :) both him and belle taught us that beauty isnt just based on looks but the way we are :)

  2. Lori
    Jun 16, 2012

    This is probably my favorite blog post of yours. I, too, was an ugly child, but didn’t realize it until about 8th or 9th grade, when it dawned on me that none of the boys liked me. I did the same: looked around at the “pretty girls” and realized I wasn’t one of them and never would be. It took me years to get over it. I’m still not pretty and I’ll never be considered attractive by any means, but I’ve learned to own it and go with what I’ve got.

    I also love these so-called “beasts”, the lesser attractive counterparts to the shiny knights and princes. When it comes down to it, I’d rather have a heroic guy like Bram than a fake Prince Charming. Do you remember the 90’s tv version of Beauty and the Beast, with Linda Hamilton? I had the biggest crush on Beast, which my sister thought was insane because she loved the boys on Saved By the Bell and I’d rather swoon over a scared beast. He had more heart than any other guy on tv then.

  3. Scattered Laura
    Jun 17, 2012

    This post puts into words so many of the things that bother me about modern character representations, particularly where lead protagonists are concerned. I’m sick to death of characters who only think that they are plain or average, but who turn out to be dazzlingly beautiful really.

    I was a plain, overweight bespectacled child who never managed to grow into her body. While I hope I’m not ugly, I know that “average” is the very best I can hope for. Maybe this is why I’ve always loved Jane Eyre. Jane was plain, but she was clever and strong and I loved her passion. We need more leads like her!

    It’s such a shame, but it seems the message that inner beauty is what’s important has been lost. These days, if you want your inner beauty noticed, you better scrub up nice first!

  4. Miss Habel
    Miss Habel
    Jun 17, 2012

    Your post reminds me of those “transformation” movies where the plain girl takes off her glasses and suddenly – gasp – she’s astonishingly beautiful. I think it’s important to be reminded of tropes like that, because they’re so easy to fall into. I know even I’m guilty of making my human girls pretty in order to dramatically widen the divide between them and the monsters seeking their attention – part of it’s laziness, part of it’s probably simply narrative convention.

    I am going to keep Jane Eyre in mind. :D

  5. Miss Habel
    Miss Habel
    Jun 17, 2012

    Ron Perlman is the only Vincent I acknowledge. :D

  6. Miss Habel
    Miss Habel
    Jun 17, 2012

    Besides, think how much you’d save on heating bills in the winter by marrying a furry dude! XD

  7. Kailia Sage
    Jun 18, 2012

    As a teen in today’s society, I’m in agreement with everything you’ve said. Girls are ALWAYS doing something to look like the “accepted” form of beauty. Some put on a lot of make up or try to get super skinny. I agree: people are extremely shallow these days. I remember listening to those two girls talk about this one guy who had acne (and a mild case at that) and how he was “ugly” and how he’d “never get a girl. Who’d want to date him?” As for me, Beauty and the Beast is my favorite fairy tale and I LOVE Erik! Great post!

  8. Märit
    Jun 19, 2012

    You are completely right. In a way, it’s actually kind of strange how contemporary media portrays an increasingly beautified reality, because it probably makes us all unhappy to think that we don’t live up to these ideals, or rather, this “requirement” demanded for being allowed happiness. Still, as I’m obviously a victim of this same trend, I can understand why. For some reason I just find myself more concerned if the person in danger is attractive. I don’t like that I feel that way, and I find it awful to think that this sentiment will grow worse. That’s why I think you’re right about good monsters (or rather the monstrously looking) teaching us something – that you don’t have to be super-attractive in order to deserve love and happiness. Particularly as I myself might most generously be described as someone chubbily average.

  9. James
    Jun 21, 2012

    Thank you, for referencing my blog on this site.(The 1943 Phantom of the Opera) I found this article quite lovely and concur with your love for the strange.
    I have always been an avid fan of the horror genre, particularly keen to those classics from yesteryear(notably before I was born.)
    Characters such as Erik the Phantom, Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, etc. continue to compel and fascinate.
    Also, to be a guy for a moment, you make a hell of a Gothic beauty.
    Best of luck, miss. All my blessings,
    James

  10. Miss Habel
    Miss Habel
    Jun 22, 2012

    Aww, thanks! Your site is also great, I’ve been making a list of movies I need to track down. :D

  11. Miranda
    Jun 29, 2012

    I wish there was a way to plant this post into every single shallow person’s brain. I just don’t understand how some people don’t understand inner beauty. When I was in elementary school people called me fours eyes and I only wear glasses to read. My friend Lacy was picked on because of her clothes, shoes, music choices, guys she liked, and because she was my friend. But no one seemed to take time to know that she is an amazing person. One minute of talking to her and they would have seen. Lucky for Lacey I would started ranting to every bully she and I had. I’m so glad people finally got the message.

  12. Jenna
    Oct 6, 2012

    Thanks to Netflix I was recently reunited with that wonderful beast. I loved the show as a small child and wanted to run to the sewers. Thank you for the essay or “rant”. It is so terribly true that our culture is more obsessed with looking beautiful on the outside then building or working out their inner character and beauty. Thank you for turning your back on the popular and writing what counts. There may be few of us but as long as the few stand and continue to speak and write (any artful expression) then we shall prevail to teach the few in the next generation.

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