"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?"
Beauty as a motivating factor for fairytale villains is often laughed at. Why would someone be driven to such extreme ends simply wanting to be pretty? There's a lot to unpack about beauty in fairytales - it's never only about beauty in and of itself. And though it is very much indicative of the times in which these stories were written down, that's not to say things have changed terribly much since then.
In a time when death in childbirth was common, so was re-marriage; step-mothers and step-siblings are so present in so many fairytales because these stories reflect the realities of life at the time. The conflict between children of the dead mother and the new step-mother arose largely over money and inheritance issues; step-mothers feared their own children would be looked over in favour of the father's children and it was easier to just hate the dead woman's children rather than try to tackle a society that didn't give women a way to support themselves without a husband. Fear for their own and their children's futures motivated step-mothers to ingratiate themselves as best they could to their new husbands, and being beautiful was considered an important piece of that puzzle. Beautiful women are loved, beautiful women get what they want, so these fairytale step-mothers attempted to make themselves as beautiful as possible to secure their own and their children's futures. And, as you may have read, often led them to abuse their step-daughters, which is not excusable, but you see where they're coming from now.
Not all step-mothers were so family-minded, though. Ravenna from the criminally overlooked Snow White and the Huntsman was an excellent example of fairytale villains who seek beauty for power. Ravenna grew up in poverty and used her beauty (along with a healthy dose of dark magic) to secure a position of power. Of course many fairytales are inspired by poor people dreaming of wealth and security, but generally you're supposed to reach that through being good and beautiful. Ravenna and villains like her are evil partly because they use their beauty for evil rather than good. But beauty is powerful, whether used for good or evil in fairytales; is the beautiful Cinderella raising herself from poverty by marrying the prince so very different from the beautiful Ravenna raising herself from poverty by marrying the king?
The difference there, of course, is in "good" and "evil." Cinderella, we know, is good, and the evil queen is - well, she's what it says on the tin. Cinderella's beauty is not her defining quality: she is kind, she is gracious, she is brave, she is patient. But on top of all of this, she is beautiful, as is every fairytale princess and heroine. Their goodness is only multiplied by their beauty. While their beauty might be what first intrigues their prince or whoever, it's their goodness that secures their happy ending, but it's still important that she be beautiful. Compare Cinderella to her tellingly-named Ugly Step-sisters, who are in fact ugly inside and out in Perrault's story and even more so in adaptations based thereupon, but don't actually do anything in the Grimms' version other than do what their evil mother tells them to do and are ugly. Their mother's desperation to secure their futures and her vile bitterness toward Cinderella has much to do with the fact that Cinderella is beautiful while her daughters are ugly. It would be much, much more difficult for her daughters than Cinderella just based on their looks, not even beginning to factor in personality.
We all know Maleficent has always been my favourite Disney villainess, but I've always held a soft spot for Grimhilde as well. A little girl growing up loving fairytales who's dark-haired & goofy-looking who has a beautiful blonde porcelain doll sister gets attached to the villains. Because as much as I loved the princesses and the heroines, as much as I admired them, I knew that I could never be like them because I wasn't beautiful. And what is the point, I thought, of being good and noble and what have you if you're not beautiful? There are no ugly princesses. The ugly stepsister doesn't get the prince. The goose girl is executed. The evil queen dances to her death in iron shoes. Boys dare their friends to ask you out or tell you they like you. The cute guy you've been smiling at all night asks you for your beautiful friend's number, telling you things about her eyes no one's ever said to you about yours. Is wanting to be beautiful so unthinkable? Do we not still stress to our daughters that sure, all your intelligence and kindness and such is great, but you're not going to get anywhere in life without a full face of makeup and at least the illusion of beauty? I grew up thinking none of my accomplishments would ever mean anything unless I was beautiful. I still put on makeup that I don't actually care for when I'm going to interviews because I have to attempt to look beautiful if I want a shot at a job.
It would be nice to move beyond that. I hope it's possible. I don't think it is for me, it's so ingrained in my head, but I think as a society moving beyond beauty as the most important attribute a woman can have would be nice. And I do think we're getting there; things like A Mighty Girl are promoting stories and media featuring heroines whose most important attributes are courage, kindness, intelligence, etc. But there's still so much of the world rooted in this idea that beauty is what makes or breaks you. Beauty, if you have it, is all you need, and if you have anything or even everything else, it only matters if you're beautiful. It drives entire industries, it keeps prejudice and discrimination alive and kicking, and it still makes certain grown-up women cry themselves to sleep because they are only, at their very best, "cute." Am I expecting a non-conventionally-attractive Disney princess any time soon? Not even slightly. I'm sure we all remember that Frozen animator saying it's too hard to draw women because you have to make them attractive. But I'm glad the stories we're writing now, the retold tales we're crafting for our children are focusing less and less on beauty.