The Ugly Duckling: The Ambiguity of Fairy Tales
It 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.
My 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.
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)