Dorian’s Mirror

In Oscar Wilde’s classic, Dorian Gray’s portrait grows uglier as his behavior goes from ordinary hedonism toward increasingly evil actions. The ‘monster’ in Dorian chips away at his humanity, but none of it shows on his face because the painting magically reflects what should be the marks of time and depravity.

This connection between ugliness and evil is central to many fairy tales and it persists today. We expect the bad guy to be ugly and even the sexy-beast-monsters (vampires, werewolves, etc.) are never as classically handsome as the heroic figures. In a postmodern incarnation, the anti-hero is the protagonist so he doesn’t have to be a perfect model, but he can’t be unattractive.

We want our sexy monsters to be delicious eye candy. Check out the covers of romantic suspense, paranormal romance and urban fantasy books, if you want a crash course in attractive, if slightly evil, guys.

Internal beauty is another ball game.

The ugly coating obscuring the beautiful soul is also a classic story element. The ugly duckling is, of course, a beautiful swan and the gorgeous prince of a guy is just waiting for true love to peel away the monster-face that was part of a curse. Most of these beautiful, but hidden, souls are male. In the realm of fairy tales, female ugliness is rarely skin deep.

The connection between the external appearance and the internal status is up front and obvious. The witch is always old and ugly; and the evil Queen has a menacing appearance. Even if she is, on the surface, beautiful, her icy soul shines through and destroys her beauty. Princesses in fairy tales don’t have acne scars or big feet or warts on their noses — flaws are reserved for mean step sisters and wicked witches.

This was bad news for old ladies living alone in houses in the woods. If the house happened to be located on a nice plot of land (a plot coveted by a greedy village leader) or if she happened to know something about herbal medicine, have a prominent birthmark and a cat, she was in big trouble!

I’m not going to indulge in a feminist rant, this is territory explored by many a writer before me, but it’s worth noting the rise of the almost pretty protagonist and the not-quite-model perfect heroine. Maybe that need to connect the outside and the inside is finally breaking down?

Let’s toast great looking monsters and regular folks with wonderful hearts!


  1. Oh! A feminist non-rant 😉 I’m more of a humanist than a feminist but I can still remember how uplifted I felt after seeing Alien for the first time at the cinema. Yes I was terrified and yes, I did mangle the hand of my date – poor lad couldn’t play the piano for a week afterwards – but the thing that made me a huge fan was that Ripley was female, too tall, not classically pretty AND she was kick-ass in the monster fighting area. A few years later I cheered Linda Hamilton in the /second/ Terminator movie. If you haven’t seen it she goes from being a typical, pretty bimbo who needs to be protected [Terminator 1] to being this ripped, half mad killing mummy machine in T2 😀
    I think the Greeks had it right with Athena – beware a woman with a bow – and it’s about time fiction caught up with reality….erm or is it reality catching up with fiction?