Monday, June 13, 2005

Ugly Ducklings

I feel kind of repetitive because I seem to start so many blogs this way...over the weekend, I watched a couple of movies that got me thinking. And I suppose it is very unoriginal, but watching movies *does* get me thinking. About storytelling, which is what I do albeit in a different format. And usually other topics which provide good fodder for blogging.

Anyway, I watched two fairly forgettable movies this weekend that I'm kind of embarrassed to admit to. Oh, all right, since you was She's All That and the other was The Prince & Me (and if you check out the links, you'll notice that both movies only earned five stars out of 10, thus why I'm kind of sheepish about having watched them). I know, I know. Didn't I have better things to do with my time, like, oh, say, writing? Really, though, these were kind of educational.

Because besides both movies being classic examples of horrible storytelling, they both demonstrated a similar theme that pervades movies and books alike and that I just so happened to adore - the story of the Ugly Duckling.

Quick snapshot of each movie. In SAT, super-stud high-school all-star Zach Siler (played by the adorable Freddie Prinz Jr.) gets dumped by his bitch-on-wheels girlfriend, makes a bet with his best friend that he can turn plane-Jane art student Laney Boggs (Rachel Leigh Cook) into the prom queen, and proceeds to go about the task. Of course all it takes is a haircut, some makeup, and a strappy little red dress to turn Ugly Duckling Laney into a swan. I don't think I'd be spoiling the movie by telling you that Zach - naturally - falls in love with Laney, regrets the bet he made, and breaks her heart before the HEA and credits roll.

TP&M takes a slightly more subtle approach to the Ugly Duckling story. Playboy crown prince of Denmark Edward (Luke Mably) heads to an un-named university in Wisconsin after he sees a College Girls Gone Wild Wisconsin commercial on TV. Figuring he'll party hard and ratchet up the notches on his bedpost, he's quite surprised to meet straight-laced med-student Paige Morgan (Julia Stiles) who sees him for the spoiled little rich boy he is. The two fight, befriend, and fall in love. She chases after him to Denmark where he proposes and Paige discovers the trials of becoming sudden royalty.

On the surface, this doesn't seem to be an Ugly Duckling story. Paige isn't ugly, and she's not really a nerdy geeky type. She's actually very self-confident and focused, which is what keeps her from being a swan. Edward brings out the free-spirited woman inside and gets her to loosen up. So a very light touch of the Ugly Duckling syndrome.

Funny how so many stories, once stripped down to their essence, are Ugly Duckling tales, My Fair Lady (originally Shaw's Pygmalion) being the classic example, of course.

Movies like Pretty Woman and Grease feature a twist on the theme - the transformation of an "undiserable woman" into a "desirable" as defined by the men who come into their lives. Granted, hooker Julia Roberts was already gorgeous - hardly an Ugly Duckling - but the attentions of handsome, rich man Richard Gere brought out the class in her. In contrast, Grease's Sandy was the good girl who couldn't manage to keep her man in line until her love for him inspired her to let out her inner vamp. While neither of these movies is the standard retelling of the Ugly Duckling, each involves a woman who undergoes a transformation because of who they love.

Even the Brady Bunch took a turn, allowing us to use the phrase "pulling a Marcia Brady" to refer to any attempt to cool someone up.

Problem with the Hollywood versions of the Ugly Duckling story is that nine times out of ten, the duckling isn't really ugly to begin with. Usually the actress is uglied-up by giving her glasses, a really bad hair-do, and some baggy, formless clothes. The transformation is hardly miraculous given the raw material the hero has to work with. You'd think with the success of shows like The Swan that movie casting directors might be willing to hire actors who are actually fairly plain looking, knowing that they can easily transform them into a goddesses with some artfully applied makeup and a great haircut.

The other requirement of Ugly Duckling heroines that isn't relegated to movies or tv is the innate inner goodness she possesses. Despite her outward appearance - or perhaps because of it - the Ugly Duckling heroine is always either extremely good-hearted, stubbornly resolute in her beliefs which are always of an altruistic bent, and/or highly intuitive. Beneath the geekiness she has the ability to see the hero for what he really is (and he's never simply what he appears to be to everyone else). She's unwilling to change her own beliefs even if they go against popular opinion, and she stands up for the underdog. In short, she's a very lovable person, once you get to know her, except no one ever gives her more than a passing glance.

Because if she wasn't all or most of these things, why would the hero ever fall in love with her despite the fact that his original intention was to win a bet or show up an ex-girlfriend or some other selfish motive but certainly never love? Yeah, she turns out to be a babe once she ditches the glasses. But if he loves her simply because she looks hot, then he's not a very likeable hero.

Besides, the Ugly Duckling has to have something that makes her different than the other babes. By being so mistreated in her non-swan-like state, she reaps the reward of not only becoming a swan and getting the handsome prince, but actually having us readers (viewers) want her to have it all. She's a nice girl who deserves happiness, so we are glad when she finds it. Especially if there is some plastic swan villainess who falls on her ass in the process.

And isn't it true in the Ugly Duckling story that the hero changes as well? He always gets to know the Ugly Duckling in such a way that he falls in love with who she really is, not just her outward appearance. Because he's usually established to be a fairly shallow guy - after all, why else would he even get involved with her if it weren't because of some bet/revenge/selfish need - his falling in love shows how he's become Sensitive and In Touch With His Inner Emotions. He's no longer a jerk because he realizes it's the Ugly Duckling he loves, not the Swan that she becomes.

When I think about it, seems that all Ugly Duckling stories work the theme in two different ways when as it applies to the hero and the heroine. Both make a life-changing transformation but in completely different ways.

The heroine usually undergoes a physical transformation to go from UD to Swan. Her inner beliefs and feelings don't generally change that much - she remains as good-hearted and altruistic as ever. It's all about how she looks - ugly before, gorgeous after.

The hero, on the other hand, undergoes an internal transformation when he leaves behind his UD self. Usually he's a jerk, but a damn good looking jerk. At the end of the story, he's still good looking but he's no longer a jerk. His inner ugliness has been made beautiful.

I personally love the Ugly Duckling theme. What better dream is there that even the most hopeless of us out there can become a dazzling beauty capable of capturing the hearts of a prince? Granted, I can't say that I'd want to be the victim that most of these Ugly Ducklings start out as, the object of someone's joke or bet. But usually by the end of the story, the dues she's paid are worth it.

When it comes to She's All That, sadly the theme can't make up for the weak storytelling. As viewers we never get to see the relationship between hero Zach and Ugly Duckling Laney develop. Rather, it's entirely implied. All of the sudden Zach is showing up at her house, asking her to the beach. She's all of the sudden popular even though we never see when or how that happens.

Which is very sad, because the best part of the Ugly Duckling story is watching/imagining the hero's expression when he comes to realize that the beautiful Swan he's created is also the woman he's come to love.


meljean brook said...

Loved loved loved! your PPP entry.

I'm a huge fan of the UD story, too -- but you're right, it has to be pulled off just right. He has to like/want her beforehand, or it seems all surface; but too much before and then the change itself seems arbitrary. But I LOVE that moment when the hero realizes the total package, what he's looking for is right there in front of him. It's like the big Reveal on HGTV or something :D

I do like when the transformation helps someone like themselves better -- it seems like a shallow reason to build self-esteem, but (and this is one of the reasons I love watching WHAT NOT TO WEAR) the way people look at themselves, and the way they know other people look at them, can affect self-image.

I think one of my favorite UD stories is actually CARRIE -- there's no HEA, which is too bad, but she sure grows into herself in a big way.

Oh! and also in NEVER BEEN KISSED, there are almost two UD stories -- Drew Barrymore's character doesn't change her physical physical appearance as much, but she grows and accepts that geekiness which she always thought was an ugly part of her; and then there's the other UD, the Leelee Sobieski (sp?). She also doesn't have a dramatic change, but there's a moment when she sheds the geek-defense mode, and she looks absolutely gorgeous.

Uh, sorry for blabbing. Love this topic.

tsjourney2 said...

Great post. And very thought provoking. I loved Never Been Kiss and Ever After is also another *ugly duckling* movie I enjoy.

Lynn M said...

Thanks, Meljean, about the PPP entry! Kind of hard submitting it because (and you'll appreciate this as a fellow fanfic dabbler) I'm used to posting stories and having a place to get feedback (good and bad). I have no idea if anyone is reading, loving or hating it. *g*

Never Been Kissed is a great example that I'd forgotten about. I love that moment after her cover has been blown and she strides into the boys locker-room all confident because she's a grown up and they are kids and she doesn't have to act like the geeky high schooler anymore.

When I was writing up this blog, for the life of me I couldn't think of any UD movies. But I know there are a million of them. Now they'll start coming out of the woodwork.