The Ugly Duckling: The Ambiguity of Fairy Tales

canstockphoto17569045It was “show and trade” day in 1st grade. Everyone got to bring a toy from home that they could trade with another student. There wasn’t much I could bring. My mother finally gave in on a doll. It was a large plastic doll, a hand-me-down from another family. It was the kind of doll you put diapers on, except she didn’t have any clothes and one of her arms kept falling off.

Each student would go to the front of the classroom to show and talk about the toy that they wanted to trade. I was shy and it was the first year I had to wear glasses. They were black-rimmed, in the shape of stop signs, magnifying my eyes. I shuffled up in front of my classmates and stood there in plaid jumper and octagon eyes, saying nothing, doll hanging from one hand upside-down. A few awkward moments passed and then the teacher called the next student.

After everyone had shown their items, the trading floor opened, a mosh pit of grabbing and shouting “I called it first!”. I stood off to the side. The teacher gently called me over to the wall cabinet near her desk. “I’ll trade with you.” She dug through a box and pulled out a square envelope. Inside was a black disc, a slightly used 45 of The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. I had just received my first audiobook.

canstockphoto14735381My mother played it upon request, in between her Steely Dan and Simon & Garfunkel rotations. It told the now classic tale of the ugly little duckling who endured ridicule and misery, only to become a beautiful swan. It’s a message I took very much to heart, believing that my day would come if only I were long-suffering and patient.

The ugly duckling story shows up time and time again in popular culture. I just re-watched “Strictly Ballroom”. The movie had a sledgehammer of a theme that with time, a little rhythm and some googly eyes from a boy, a tragically inept and bespectacled heroine turns into a woman of substance/beauty – worthy of admiration and respect.

As a child growing up in the 70s, I watched fictional women become beautiful and substantive through the most artificial of means – Wonder Woman spinning off her glasses and hair bun, Jamie Sommers getting bionic bits and pieces, and the bespectacled librarian calling on the goddess Isis for lip gloss and a miniskirt.

It wasn’t just about superficial beauty created through handicapped vision, bustiers and spackling. It was, under all of that glitz, about being a special little snowflake in a world of dust bunnies. It was a consolation prize for being miserable in the now, for feeling left out, looked over, and shoved aside. It was a selfish sort of martyrdom, a comforting bit of procrastination.

I waited and waited to become something special, to feel like I was in the skin I was supposed to be in and not just an ungainly duck. The magical if-then thinking was a comfort while I waited to outgrow the awkward stage of being me. Nearly forty years later and I’ve given up daydreaming, curtailed wishful thinking, stood in the moment I’m in and thought Well, how about that, ducky?

It’s not a fairytale ending. I wrote this thinking I’d likely end up with some sort of self-affirming bravado, but I don’t roll that way. The bottom line is that there will always be ducks who are ducks. Plain and simple. There’s a pragmatic clarity that I like about that thought. There’s no condescending cheer Be the best duck you can be or you’re beautiful on the inside as some sort of consolation prize.

I re-read The Ugly Duckling recently and it seemed more an odious tale about bullying and an ugly obsession with conventional beauty and conformity, than inspirational fodder for the homely. What we take away from stories can say a lot about where we are in our lives. And the reality is that swans are rather aggressive. If the tale were truer to life, that ugly duckling/cygnet would have kicked those mean ducklings’ asses all over that pond. Now that’s a tale I’d enjoy reading.canstockphoto21971542

I’ve been exploring fable and fairy tale themes in writing. Here are some helpful resources:

Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable by Adrian Room

The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of Grimm Brothers: The Complete First Edition by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

Aesop’s Fables (Oxford World’s Classics) by Aesop, Laura Gibbs (Translator)

43 Comments on “The Ugly Duckling: The Ambiguity of Fairy Tales

  1. Sing it. I think it’s omnipresent because of our obsession with beauty. The idea that not everyone will be beautiful and not everyone needs to be? We can’t cope with that.

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    • It’s gotten downright bizarre – to the point of fetishizing body parts. And it’s very irritating that corporations have taken this “everyone is beautiful” nonsense on as advertising campaigns. Hey, everybody is not beautiful and some of us have better things to do than to give a shit about how we look.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I loved this post Michelle, the imagery of you at the school is just fantastic. I chaperoned my youngest to a children’s theater production of this story a few weeks ago. I forgot the theme of the story and it sort of struck me on a few levels, sitting in an auditorium full of kids. At the end, it was an open mic for questions, that the 7 year olds could ask of the cast. I was really surprised at how deep and insightful their questions were. It’s a reminder, how refreshing the POV can be from a child’s eyes…how clear their view, untethered by all the filters and stuff that crowds in as we ‘develop.’

    You’re right about swans too: where we’re moving in Germany, there are a couple of them that haunt the local river confluence, and I find them a bit proud and self-interested. Perhaps I see too much of myself in them. Ha!

    Enjoy the weekend. – Bill

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    • Thanks, Bill! This is something that I’ve really enjoyed about being around children – the opportunity to see everything with new eyes. They can be amazingly astute and direct. Sometimes we become more stupid as adults about things, because of all the battering we get to be mature, to fit in, to color within the lines. I’ve never enjoyed art museums as much as when my daughter is along.

      Swans and geese have a nasty temper when you impinge on their turf, especially if they have a nest or youngsters nearby. I’ll never forget the story out of Chicago a few years ago, when a swan attacked a man in a kayak on a condo pond and continued to attack him until he drowned.

      On that note, enjoy your weekend as well!

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  3. You remind me of the time when, as an adult, I reread “The Water Babies”. I LOVED it as a child – it was such a beautiful fantasy – and I was horrified to see the ugly Victorian theme of class and self-righteousness when I read it again.

    On the other hand, I do think we can interpret the ugly duckling beyond mere physical appearance. I know that’s how it’s usually taken, but I – being relentlessly plain – have always seen it as a story about how a person’s uniqueness and value may take a while to appear, especially in a world where they’re judged by a narrow standard. Hey – it works for me!

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    • Right. I’d have to go reread the story, but I always thought the point of the Ugly Duckling is not “Everyone is beautiful, eventually.” It’s beauty is not always apparent from a superficial glance.

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      • It’s pretty open for interpretation and of course, there are multiple versions. I think the message you get is whatever syncs up with what’s happening in your life.

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    • This is why I used the word “Ambiguity” in the title, trying to make the point that how we, as individuals, interpret messages from stories is more about the person and not the story.
      I personally don’t subscribe to value judgments about someone’s uniqueness, because it’s still all about comparison to others and that is perhaps the more damaging message. In a world of 7 billion people, I find it hard to position myself as being unique.
      I think I’m going to have a tough time with comments today, because what I tried to convey seems to be different than what people are responding to. I’m okay being a duck. I’m very confident these days in my duckness. And also that fairy tales sometimes suck.

      Liked by 2 people

      • You know, I had never thought of it before, but you’re right – focusing on one’s uniqueness is indeed all about comparing oneself to others, which is a destructive thing to do!

        And yeah, I got that you’re okay with being a duck. But as usual your writing stimulated further thought … and the truth is, I’m not entirely happy about my own duckness. Perhaps because I don’t think I’m very good even at being a duck, and still aspire to be a platypus? Ugh … I wish I could just learn to BE, and let it BE ENOUGH.

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        • I think it’s perfectly okay to say, “Yeah, I’m okay with who I am, but I’d like to work on this or this or this” without it necessarily being about dissatisfaction or self-loathing. The challenge is to gently strive for small improvements that matter to you without turning it into an exercise of self-punishment. That’s what I’m working on, because it means that I can feel pretty good most of the time, still make some progress and not set unreasonable expectations. We’re always in progress…

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  4. While I can admire beautiful scenery, buildings, flowers and yes, even people I have never placed importance on looks alone. I have never met you and have no idea what you look like. So I have no idea whether or not I would agree with your assessment of yourself.

    All I have to go on is what you write about (and share) on this blog. I ‘see’ a loving, proud and involved mother, a loving, proud and grateful wife, a woman who cares deeply about issues and the state of the world, a woman who is thoughtful and honest and determined.

    I see a beautiful human being and how you’d stack up in a beauty contest is supremely unimportant.

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    • I feel like I really missed the mark on this post. While I appreciate your kind comment and understand the generous intent, I wasn’t suggesting that I’m still walking around with an inferiority complex. I figure I’m an average person and I’m okay with it.
      As I’ve been rereading fairy tales, this particular one reminded of how far I’ve come as a human being, that it would mean something so entirely different now than it did then. It’s like most stories, meaning is imbued by the reader.
      In a beauty contest, I’d be an ass-kicking duckling. Watch those feathers fly!

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  5. The point in ugly duckling as said in an above comment is Everyone is beautiful in some way or the other…..

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    • To me, this message is not the soup for the soul that some people find it. I think it’s extraneous to just being whatever you are and not labeling things. But I recognize that some people find that message comforting.

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  6. “The Ugly Duckling” is a great tale to shepherd kids through their awkward years… but what if awkwardness is not “just a phase”. Well then, we have another fairy tale for that [fanning through The Brothers Grimm]. How about The Princess and the Frog? No? Hmmm…… How about The Mighty Ducks? You know, plucky inner-city kids take on the best and the boldest…

    The truth is, we need a fairy tale about a shy, awkward duck who finds a crowd to hang with and ends the tale by saying, “F— them!” I envision Janeane Garofalo as the staring role in the Disney version.

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    • Thank you for this comment! That is really the crux of it. I’m all for embracing awkwardness. Seriously, it’s so much more fun than perceived normality. And makes for much better stories.

      The interesting thing about this particular story is that Hans Christian Andersen was dealing with his own inferiority complex. He was raised in a poor family, but sent to private schools and unfounded rumors about his royal lineage persisted through most of his life. I wonder if he attempted to re-write his own story. Maybe that’s the essence of so much writing.

      Liked by 2 people

      • What I appreciate about your responses here in the comment section is that you’re entirely consistent. You’re not just saying “Thanks for commenting!” and agreeing with whatever slice of it a comment brings up. Instead, you’re holding to the actual point that you were making and saying so.

        That kind of spirit has me thinking … I think it would be awesome to make a story where the main character just works on desiring what they already have as opposed to being driven by envy, ambition, pride, or feelings of insufficiency. A husband who continues to win his wife over year after year in their marriage because he desires her even though he “has” her and a wife who reciprocates without expectation. No big aspiration… no huge change… no CEO position that either of them hope to achieve that they believe will make them whole towards the beginning, but later transcend that thinking. No grand dissatisfaction with where they are in life… no dramatic transformations… I want to see people who are actually comfortable with themselves and I want to see them deal with each other with love, grace, and understanding.

        It wouldn’t make for a very “punchy” or “exciting” flick, but damn it would sure be satisfying.

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        • It’s a fine line of diplomacy to appreciate the comments while trying to maintain one’s point of view. And I really do need to ask myself if I conveyed my point clearly.

          What I love about a lot of independent films is that they often use average looking actors to play quirky roles of social misfits. And the endings are usually messy like actual human lives, not sanitized and tied up with a neat bow.

          I think in fiction, as in real life, extreme transformations are not to be trusted as long term happily-ever-after endings. The rate of recidivism for the natures we’re born with is pretty high.

          Liked by 2 people

  7. Hi, Michelle. This post is absolutely stunning. The prose so sharp and understated, the conclusion perfect. This is my day off in Erie, Pennsylvania, and reading this was more than a treat. Peace and best, John (WordPress won’t let me like again. Ugh.)

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  8. I recently went to see Cinderella with a group of friends. I didn’t really know what to expect. Of course I know the fairytale but was pleasantly surprised by the message that came across in the movie. When the Prince realises Cinderella is not the princess he thought she was, she tells herself he will just have to accept her for who she is.

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    • I’m glad that studios are working overtime to bring these up to code in terms of healthy messages. I find myself avoiding remakes, although I know there are a few good ones. I feel hungry for new stories and that does provide some impetus for me as a writer.

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  9. Michelle,

    I loved your piece about the Ugly Duckling. It brought me back to my childhood too.

    When I was twelve, i grew by 8 inches, making me the tallest girl of the whole school. Then came names to go with the height, and then surnames. And then, funny jokes like “how cold is it high there?”, or, “you should deliver the newspaper to the second floor”, or the likes. As I was an awkward child (who would not be at this height), I wished I could vanish. Or turn into thin air. The Ugly Duckling came to me just at the right moment. Except that, instead of swans, I became fascinated with giraffes. After all, I was called a giraffe often enough. I was convinced that they were the most elegant animals in the kingdom.

    Now, I don’t remember any of the details of those days, but I remember growing into my own some years later. Obviously, I am still 5’9″, am still one of the tallest women in whichever room I walk into, but, most days, I don’t pay attention to the looks I get. But some other days, just like I did when I read your piece, Michelle, I still feel the pain of being different when I was a kid. So, I am still thankful to Hans Christian Anderson for his tale, to Disney for showing a piece on giraffes and to life for giving me other challenges to deal with other than my height. What I mean to say is that I feel the same as you do, but it is too deep to feel it every day.

    To answer one of your comment, I don’t know if I got your blog right, but, frankly, I don’t care. You brought me on a path I am happy I revisited. Thanks again!

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    • Thanks! As I mentioned a couple of times, it seems that people read a story and find what they need, depending on what’s happening in their own lives. I think for me, it was a promise of reward after a long period of awkwardness. Which turned out to be untrue, as I never outgrew that!

      I’m glad that you enjoyed this and your trip down memory lane.

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  10. “If the tale were truer to life, that ugly duckling/cygnet would have kicked those mean ducklings’ asses all over that pond. Now that’s a tale I’d enjoy reading.”

    I suppose someone somewhere has already taken up this challenge. But if not, perhaps that’s a tale that you’d enjoy writing?

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    • I thought about that, Maggie! And then my grownup thoughts intruded. As a parent, I cringe a little at the idea that a story would resort to violence in dealing with bullies and if it’s a good lesson to teach kids to beat up their antagonists! On the other hand, I’ve always taught my daughter that if anyone lays hands on her, she’s welcome to implement a little martial arts on their asses. Mixed, ambiguous messages. Still, it would be a fun writing exercise!

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      • It would be fun, and revealing too, in terms of the culture during Grimms and Andersen lives. Have you red the Red Shoes? It involves slippers that won’t stop dancing, even after the vain young thing has her feet amputated! Urp.

        All morning, I’ve been mulling your comments. I don’t think there is an easy answer – how to teach children to protect themselves? “Haters gonna hate”? Is that enough? I definitely shy away from tit-for-tat strategies. I don’t know how parents do it. I truly don’t.

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        • The original tales always seem horrific compared to the prettified, Disney versions!
          Some of the hardest skills to teach kids is when to let things go or when to fight. That’s a hard skill for adults to manage – we see evidence of that every day.

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  11. Most days I feel like I’m in a parallel universe, my duck universe sliding alongside the swans. I can see and hear them, but can’t really interact or understand their language. Most days, that’s just fine with me. Most of the people I know are ducks. A lot of them are hypnotized by the swans, which makes me sad, but one good kick in the ass and they wake up for a while.

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    • That may be a great way of describing where I’m at. It seems like another world – a world that I can neither relate to nor am interested in. I had a conversation the other day with someone about how once you realize there’s no way you’re ever going to be a swan, there’s a level of freedom to be whoever the hell you are.

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    • Living in Los Angeles, you can attend events where swans glide by among we crowds of ducks. They are a different breed, literally, breeding only with their own willowy graceful counterparts generation after generation. They don’t look like us or move like us. They are far, far taller than we are, and many of them become so accustomed to looking down on us that they…look down on us. Many don’t look at us at all, acting as if we are invisible, or something visually repulsive to be studiously avoided.

      Or perhaps I have this all wrong, and they are all lovely people, and merely shy of us.

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      • I don’t begrudge the swans their swanniness (nor my ability to make up words). The problem is when they’re held up by the media, fashion designers and advertisers as some sort of standard of beauty that we should all relentlessly strive to obtain.
        And I’m sure there are lovely swans, as well as ducks that would better serve humankind as pâté.

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        • In the abstract I agree, of course, regarding swanniness, and the media. And some duckies deserving a pâté fâté.

          In the actual, I have met a couple of swans who appeared to be as lovely inside as out, but what I described is what I more often observe. Perhaps the lenses of my misanthropy coupled with the hunch of my self-pity burdened back cause a greater distortion of objects at higher altitudes.

          Yes

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  12. Like that idea about the ugly duckling kicking ass and taking names. Ninja ducklings?
    I think the intent of the story was to help kids, so i guess a little ambiguity is a good thing if it helps more kids cope with things. Agree with you that a turn away from “everyone is beautiful” is not a bad idea either.

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    • Ninja ducklings! Their pond buddies, the Ninja Turtles can show them how it’s done.
      I actually think the intent of the story was some angst and wishful thinking by the author – whatever kids or we, as a adults find in it seems to vary greatly. But I can also be crotchety and unsentimental at times!
      The “everyone is beautiful” thing gets on my nerves since it is now repeated so often as to be devoid of substantive meaning. It seems to also suggest we’re all looking for reassurance from a society that doesn’t actually believe everyone is beautiful. See? Crotchety.

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  13. Here’s some high praise – you made me laugh out loud with the ending. Your fairy tales would be fun.

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  14. Had I known what I know now about swans and birds in general when I read and reread this tale in my childhood, I would definitely had a different take on it 🙂 The imagery of you at school was so “live” I could see you there at the toy exchange. Great post, Michelle.

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    • Thanks, Helen. I love all your wonderful observations about the bird life near you. Animals are as fascinating and varied as humans, I think, even without anthropomorphizing them, like so many fables do.

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  15. What I remember most about reading this fairy tale as a child was that I didn’t get it–I liked the duck better. My grandmother had all kinds of ducks; my sister had a yellow duck named Cheep-Cheep; I had a caramel colored duck named Peanut. I loved the little ducks and loved them when they got big. But clearly the swan was supposed to be more desirable. If I reread the book now, I’m sure I’d probably agree, in more adult terms, that as you say it’s a tale about “conventional beauty and conformity.” And I’d probably still be a person who likes ducks better . . . and chickens.

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    • Well, it’s easy to see why you’d prefer ducks! I’m rather fond of ducks as well and they are much more common here than swans. That’s something to ponder, I suppose – how we value that which we see every day versus the rarities.
      I have a fondness for the Canada geese around here, but they’re not universally liked, due to the droppings they leave everywhere. Their babies are the size of ducks practically, but all fuzzy. And when they all start talking, it sounds like a raucous party.

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  16. Fantastic post, Michelle. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone’s granddaughters got to grow up with ass-kicking duck role models in film? Instead of motorcycle-riding Rescue-Me® swans.

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