Dec 11 2012 9:30am

Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Beautiful: Villains and the Weakness of Beauty in Romance

Charlize Theron in Snow White and the HuntsmanWhen 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.

Beguiling the Beauty by Sherry ThomasIt’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.

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Christopher Morgan
1. cmorgan
I absolutley love this article. Just so you know.

I can see the initial fairy tales, or at least some re-workings of them, the whole "if you are a good person, you are beautiful, if you are a bad person you are ugly" morality and all that. I wonder if the whole sculpted beauty is a respone, or extension, of all the hate magazines recieve for "unrealistic body images" and the like. It's an interesting thing you point out, and well worth a nice long think.
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
I am trying to think if this same situation exists when the villian is handsome--usually the hero is handsomer, like truly handsomer, not just artlessly beautiful the way the heroine is in the way you describe above.
I need to think about it more, but I do love this post. The villainess in JR Ward's Fallen Angels series is stunning, for example. And does what she has to to maintain her beauty. Likewise the beautiful villainess in Lothaire, who shares a body and a face with the heroine, but spends time primping in a way the heroine absolutely does not.
3. Mo
Interesting article. I'm not sure that I agree with you though. I don't think the message is, as you put it, that it is wrong to be confident about your looks or to work to look pretty or wrong to like pretty clothes. I think the message is that using your looks as a weapon is wrong. And, I can't help but agree with that. When you deliberately use your looks to hurt someone else, you are still hurting someone, regardless of the weapon.

Let's be clear, I am not saying that pretty or even beautiful women are inherently bad or automatically use their looks to hurt others. I am saying that in many of the books where this "beautiful villainess" trope exists, the villainess does use her beauty as a weapon.

In the same way that beauty does not equal goodness, beauty does not equal badness either, so I do agree with your final thoughts in the article.

I agree with cmorgan in that, to an extent, I do see this as partly a response to the whole unrealistic body images thing and the Barbie doll syndrome. Authors are tapping into the idea of "natural beauty" (remember that Dove ad campaign?) and I think that, to an extent, this "artificial beauty" of the villainess versus the "natural beauty" of the heroine is still an extension of the pretty=good and ugly=bad. After all, there is an inherent suggestion that without all that artifice, the villainess would not be so beautiful and that she is covering up the ugliness in her soul.
4. Ellie87
Thank you! I couldn't agree more. I think the whole "heroine is obviously morally superior because she thinks she's plain" bit is just ridiculous. There's nothing wrong with being confident in your own appearance and taking pride in the way you dress and present yourself. It doesn't make you vain or selfish to like pretty clothes or wear makeup. I love the phrase "beauty shaming" and unfortunately it happens all too often in fiction and real life. It's a double standard, how many heroes are there who know how ridiculously handsome they are and use it to their advantage? They're not condemned for it, so why should the heroine be? And really, why is the hero so often more attractive than the heroine? Thanks for this thought provoking article.
Jena Briars
5. CutMyTeethOnKleypas
Good article! - This makes me want to check my bookshelves for which romances have a "beautiful" villainess.

I want to read that Sherry Thomas book now!
Anna Bowling
6. AnnaBowling
You can't see it, but I'm giving a standing ovation here.
Lege Artis
7. LegeArtis
Chelsea Cain wrote Gretchen Lowell. Gretchen is sadistic serial killer, who killed about 200 people in every way imaginable. She abducted main investigator on case and tortured him for days, and then she turned herself in. So they have this weird relationship, he goes to her, asks her about bodies... So, nothing new, Thomas Harris did that with Hannibal and Clarice, but main appeal with Gretchen is that she is beautiful. Seriosly, Gretchen has website, and first thing you can read on it, says:" Gretchen Lowell is the best serial killer on the world. Why? Because she is so pretty!" . I think FX is making TV show based on this...
Miranda Mason
8. GovernessInRed
Great post, Elizabeth. I think the only villainess that I simply adore is the Evil Queen (Regina) on ONCE UPON A TIME. She is gorgeous!! She may be evil, mean and selfish but I find myself loving her hair and the outfits that she wears.
Claire Louise Thompson
9. Nefersitra
I think the beautiful villianess thing is linked to the whole Madonna/Whore dichotomy.

By being aware of, using and emphasising her beauty the Villianess is being positioned as the Whore; the phrase painted whore originally refered to the use of make-up/cosmetics to advertise yourself as a "lady of the night". Also how many of us were told as young girls not to wear too much make-up (usually by a well-meaning parent) because "you look Cheap/like a tart/etc"?

On the other hand "natural" beauty is seen as innocent and wholesome.
Ellen Hutchings
10. shadowmaster13
I find the rare heroine who is aware of her looks and proud of them both refreshing to read and empowering. I hate the idea that somehow being aware of yourself is wrong.

I do like that having villainous be beautiful does mean as a society we're moving away from the idea that ugly=evil.
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