When one thinks of The Wizard of Oz, one of the first lines that comes to mind is when Good Witch Glinda proclaims, “Only bad witches are ugly” (right after she asks Dorothy if she’s a good witch or a bad witch, in one of the most subtly hilarious burns in cinematic history). A simplistic concept that was popular in folktales, fairy tales, and older Disney films, it established the metaphor of an ugly heart seeping into a person’s outward appearance.
Strangely enough, however, that concept has reversed itself in modern literature, most especially in the genres of romance and YA. Now, female villains are almost always depicted as incredibly beautiful, and their physical beauty is depicted as a false lure to the hero, a threat to the heroine, and an indicator of the villain’s inherent moral weakness.
Now, the core idea behind this is pretty harmless—the presence of a beautiful villainess (either a romantic rival or a bitter ex) provides an opportunity for the hero’s romantic enlightenment as he realizes the heroine’s inner loveliness is preferable to the villain’s outward hotness. But the common execution of this concept in romance leads to conflicting, hypocritical, and often misogynist messages about women and the power they have over their bodies and appearances.
Commonly, the villainess’s beauty is a signal of her vanity, because she is consciously aware of it and works on it. She will have flawlessly applied and expensive make-up, a fabulous hairstyle, manicured nails, designer clothing, and a trim figure.
The heroine, however, is always “naturally” pretty. She is just blessed with shiny hair, and voluptuous curves, and bee-stung lips. For some reason, this natural beauty makes her morally superior to the villainess, despite the fact that her looks are not a result of any choice on her part, moral or otherwise.
That, you see, is where the hypocrisy of beauty-shaming begins. It continues thusly: Heroines, despite their tendency to be naturally heart-stopping, are just as frequently oblivious to their good looks. Again, this is seen as a sign of virtue. Heroines are typically unaware of their “unconventional” features, and believe themselves plain or unremarkable. It is up to the hero to discover her innate loveliness and convince her of it.
That sounds romantic on paper, but let’s look at this objectively.
The villainess’s outwardly attractive looks are depicted as a sham because everything about her appearance is attributed to her own choices—she chooses to use make-up, she chooses to wear beautiful clothing that fits her to advantage, she chooses to work long hours at the gym. Because she is aware of her own beauty and devotes time to its upkeep, she is seen as frivolous and morally inferior.
The heroine’s beauty, on the other hand, is “genuine," because it takes a man (the hero) to notice it for her. Any steps the heroine then takes to improve her own appearance are subsequently “genuine” because her cardio workouts, highlights, and backless gowns are worn for the benefit of a man, and not for her own pleasure.
It’s become incredibly commonplace for romance and YA novels to take potshots at well-groomed girls and women by using beauty as a by-word for moral weakness. Why is it wrong to like pretty clothes? Why is it vain to feel confident about one’s own appearance? Why is it selfish to take care of oneself for one’s own happiness, rather than the approval of others?
Thankfully, some romance novels attempt to combat, or at least play upon, this troubling trope. In Sherry Thomas’s Beguiling the Beauty, the hero (Christian) pegs the heroine (Venetia), as a heartless tramp before he’s even met her—all because she is stunningly beautiful (and knows it). In this interestingly reversed Beauty and the Beast tale, Christian has to overcome his prejudice against her looks to see the truly wonderful person she is on the inside.
There’s nothing wrong with a villainess being beautiful, and nothing inherently wrong with having a villainess use her beauty to hide in plain sight or make trouble for the heroine. However, the primary indicator of a villainess’ evil should be her evil actions and decisions, not her looks. Don’t even get me started on romance’s sadly popular tendency to indicate a woman’s villainy by making her promiscuous.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but villainy is not.
Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.