In Defense of Ugliness
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.
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.
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.
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.