When the Villains are Beautiful

Written by Ann Burns

April 5, 2020

When the Villains are Beautiful

“If I’m honest I have to tell you I still read fairy-tales and I like them best of all.”


It is a shame that our children’s stories are on the decline. What once used to take us into a deep encounter with sin, and proved how virtue can always triumph, has become a medium for plotless drivel.  Little to no depth.  Exposés of unmerited accolades and adulation. 

There is little to match the beauty and depth of a good children’s story.  A tale that explores the simple and profound.  It ignites wonder, joy, hope, while also brazenly encountering sin, and ultimately triumphing.  

“A rich man’s wife became sick, and when she felt that her end was drawing near, she called her only daughter to her bedside and said, ‘Dear child, remain pious and good, and then our dear God will always protect you, and I will look down on you from heaven and be near you.’  With this she closed her eyes and died.”

These beautiful and heartfelt words commence the classic story of Cinderella as told by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.  Often when we think Brothers Grimm, we imagine some kind of contorted quasi horror story where the characters are decapitated, blood is spilled, and all kinds of squeamish horrors prevail, while somehow masquerading as a child’s fairy-tale. Quelle nightmare! 

Yes, of course, in traditional Grimm fashion, this version of the story has its notes of the macabre. The step-sisters chopping off their heels and toes to fit into the golden slipper, only the be caught by blood oozing out from the shoe:

“Rook di goo, rook di goo!

There’s blood in the shoe.

The shoe is too tight,

This bride is not right!”

Is this Cinderella or a scene straight out of Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd, blood spilling everywhere, and birds plucking out eyeballs?  It’s easy to be preoccupied with the gruesome fate of the step-sisters, but in doing so, we miss the story’s true brilliance. 

The story of Cinderella is more profound and insightful than simply a bloody massacre. One point that must be addressed is that Cinderella is not the sole beauty in the tale.  In fact, her nasty, evil step-sisters, that we probably all picture with gargantuan feet wonky and eyeballs (thanks, Disney), are exceptionally beautiful women. 


They are beautiful women with “dark hearts.”

Whereas, in the original cartoon adaptation, they are hideous and starkly contrasted with Cinderella.  Remember, the Sing Sweet Nightingale scene?   It’s incredibly obvious that Prince Charming would choose Cinderella over these rather unattractive, foppish girls.  I mean, as long as you have eyes and ears, Cinderella is the girl to choose.  She is the sole beauty of the film.

Yet, the author of Terror of Demons: Reclaiming Catholic Masculinity, Kennedy Hall, points out that the beauty of the step-sisters is a key element to the story because they take on the role of temptresses. They are a foil to Prince Charming to distract him from the good. 

Their beauty, being strictly surface level and corrupted by their own wickedness, can bear no fruit. Cinderella, meanwhile, is truly beautiful because of her virtue. She is interiorly beautiful. She is good–she is pure– and that is manifested through her physical beauty. 


In choosing Cinderella, Prince Charming proves that he is the chivalrous man, able to recognize true feminine beauty and not fall for mere physical allurement. 

The Grimms’ version of Cinderella affirms the idea of the transforming power feminine virtue.  

It reminds me of a point by Gertrud von le Fort when speaking on Dante.  Dante is lead to Paradise by Beatrice, and her beauty and goodness captivate him.  Von Le Fort states that “when Dante looks upon Beatrice, her eyes remain steadfastly fixed upon God.  Here Dante does not see the divine in woman, but he sees God because her glance is upon God.”

We see the feminine as a helpmate to the male, which is what was ordained in the Garden of Eden.  Man and woman working together in complementarity and not as foils to each other. 

Cinderella is, in a sense, a Beatrice.  She focused on God, and thus when the Prince sees her, he sees the Good. He sees the divine. He is inspired to cling to the good and steadfastly search for the good. She is a reminder that there is more: we are created for more. Thus, Prince Charming is determined to pursue her and only her.

“He (the prince) would dance with no one else. He never let go of her hand, and whenever anyone else came and asked her to dance, he would say, ‘She is my dance partner.” 

Cinderella is a beautiful reminder of the call of the feminine and immense goodness it possesses.  All women are called to embrace the virtue of Cinderella and be helpmates, not foils.  It is in this that we are made truly beautiful because in holiness and virtue we become more womanly. 

Related Articles