On the Nature of Beauty: Dorian Grey, Disney, and Dreamworks’ Shrek

Laziness abounds this week, or perhaps just lack of time management. Because of that, I’m redeeming my “get out of jail free card” and publishing something I wrote last year for college. It’s been trimmed a little, but I think the essence of it is there.

I guess I could’ve posted this without any sort of disclaimer, but the topic is so random I feel like it needs justification. Aside from being ready to go, I was reminded of this piece after ranting to my sister the other day about how Disney princesses/princes are never ugly. So perhaps it is the spark of an interesting conversation. At the least, I hope it’s an interesting diversion.

Next week, fresh content is on the menu!

on the nature of beauty: dorian grey, disney, and dreamworks’ shrek

When I was given the prompt “the unique inner nature of a person or object as shown in a work of art,” you wanna know what the first thing that came to my mind was? The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. A book I have never read, but whose concept I am familiar with. I found that pretty ironic. After all, the picture of Dorian Grey does convey his true nature: as he becomes more corrupt as a person, so does his portrait, whereas he stays young and handsome.

What we find in the case of this fictitious character is a relationship between image and reality that suggests that images have the power to reveal what reality tends to hide—that images can reflect inner nature. That got me thinking about visual representations in society today and how much this kind of reasoning actually plays out in real life—not that we have a Dorian Grey situation per se, but come to think of it, it’s not far off. We are often led to believe that images do reflect inner nature—especially in pop culture—whereas, in reality, this isn’t always true.

When I was little, I thought I’d grow up to look like Sleeping Beauty. No joke—she was my favorite Disney princess, and I liked her blonde hair. Never mind that I hadn’t been blonde since I was a baby. There’s something about an image that arrests the young imagination beyond, perhaps, the bounds of rationality. After all, I knew what I looked like at the time. But my older self, who could guess? Growing up was an abstract concept. For all I knew, I’d turn blonde and look like Princess Aurora by the time I reached adulthood. (For the record, I didn’t.)

If you grew up with a love of drawing—or even if you didn’t—you might’ve developed a habit, as I did, of molding your self-portrait to fit your desired self-image. When you’re a small child, you tend to draw yourself as you are because you haven’t yet been bombarded with as many images from the outside world. But as you grow older—if you keep up with your drawing or self-image-envisioning habits—you may start to realize that the way you are in real life isn’t the way you want to portray yourself. Maybe you have acne. Maybe you have a little fat, or your eyes are too close together. But you don’t have to draw all that, do you? So what do you do? (What did I do?) You draw yourself as you’d like to appear. You change your own proportions because cartoons don’t follow the rules of reality, and you conform your own self-image to the images you see around you—and evaluate yourself thusly.

Okay, is that everybody’s struggle? No, hopefully not. But we live in a visual world, and even though visual media as a whole is a vast and multi-faceted array of perspectives and interpretations, there’s still a dominant imagery that pervades our cultural standards of art and beauty. What we see in an image hardly ever reveals the inner nature of that image, and in fact, culturally we tend to be presented with the opposite: appearance as inner nature.

Take the example of Sleeping Beauty, my childhood ideal of female beauty. Of course she’s pretty—her features abide by the standards of the time. She’s trim but physically mature, as all Disney princesses are. She’s championed as beautiful, praised for her golden hair and rose-red lips (no lipstick?), she has a lovely singing voice, she’s kind, and she’s coy. In the end, she gets her handsome prince. But what if Sleeping Beauty were the opposite of her visual image? Leave her the singing and the kindness, etc., but make her plainer, less trim, and with a visually unremarkable face. Make her actually look her age—barely sixteen, let us not forget. What changes? The story? Is it really still Sleeping Beauty without the “beauty”? Or is the image of the princess so powerful that it overrides the possible merits of the story, if there be merit at all?

Here’s how the story would go, I think. Say the prince is exactly the same (I didn’t think he was such a bad guy to begin with) and finds her the exact same way: in the woods, singing, and pretending to dance with him (vis-à-vis her animal friends, who steal his hat, cloak, and boots and wear them). What happens when he sees her? Keep in mind that in the fateful world of the movie, they feel like they’ve always known each other, “once upon a dream,” as it were. Would seeing what she looked like change his reaction?

This may be a children’s movie, but it’s an artful one at that. Everything is dependent on the visual. The prince’s reaction to Aurora sets the whole course of the rest of the movie. If he were to react the same way, then maybe we’ve got a touching message about the power of true love, etc., and maybe it would change the perceptions of the young, impressionable audience.

But what if he reacted differently? What if he only cared about her beauty, initially? I imagine it would go something like this:

[Prince enters scene]

Prince: Hey, uh, excuse me, that’s my cloak. And hat. And shoes.

Aurora: Oh! I’m sorry, I just… got carried away.

Prince: That’s okay. You have a lovely singing voice.

Aurora: Thank you. You have a lovely… taste in riding clothes.

Prince: Well, thank you for finding them. It was nice meeting you. So long!

Oh, that’s pretty harsh, though, isn’t it? We need the story to end the same, after all, so let’s add a little depth to the conversation:

Prince: Well, thank you for finding them. What were you singing about, if I may ask?

Aurora: Oh, well… I was singing about true love. You see, I have this reoccurring dream about it… come to think of it, the man in my dream kind of looks like you. I know how that sounds, but…

Prince: I’m flattered, but I’m actually engaged to be married. [This is true of the plot.]

Aurora: Oh. Well, Congratulations.

Prince: I’ve never met her, though.

Aurora: Oh, well that sucks. [Obviously, replace “sucks” with G-rated equivalent.]

Prince: At least you get to search for true love. I envy you for that.

So on and so forth, they bond over their mutual life goals, they part ways, the story tracks on, the prince realizes he wants to be with her, he saves her from her slumbering fate, and plot twist! She is his betrothed! Happily ever after.

But instead of the flowery, romantic scene in the original version where they fall in love instantly, they actually have to get to know each other on a personal level and overcome their preconceived ideas about love before they can rightly say they’re in love. All because in this version, Sleeping Beauty is not drop-dead gorgeous by conventional standards.

In hindsight, I now realize I have essentially revised the plot to match that of the DreamWorks motion picture, Shrek. You know what, come to think of it, despite my generation’s tendency to turn that movie into a nationwide inside joke, Shrek is actually unique in that it directly challenged people’s assumptions about fairytales and the relationship between images and inner nature. After all, the movie’s protagonist/namesake is an ogre—ugly, unfriendly, and incredibly misunderstood. Princess Fiona starts off as a pretty standard-looking fairytale princess, but in the end, she herself turns into an ogre—a curse that becomes her true form after she and Shrek share “true love’s first kiss.”

Though arguably she’s still probably the cutest ogre around, the important part is that it didn’t matter to Shrek what she looked like in the first place—their relationship developed as they got to know each other and forged a bond based on their commonalities. That’s actually a really powerful message for a movie that otherwise seems saturated in pop culture references and overtly sexual innuendos. Shrek totally flipped the script in the world of visual media by showing that images don’t necessarily reveal the inner nature of something—in fact, it’s often the opposite.

So, would I change Disney’s Sleeping Beauty if I could? No, not necessarily—it’s just a movie. But just by comparing its visual messages to that of Shrek’s, I think the contrast speaks for itself—and I think that even today, producing visuals like that of Sleeping Beauty still outweighs producing visuals like that of Shrek. Because visuals are so powerful, I think there’s a tendency to gravitate towards a concept that actually comes from ancient Greek thinking: that beauty without equals beauty within. In other words, if you’re pretty, you’re a good person, and if you’re ugly, vice versa. Basically, the irony that The Picture of Dorian Grey plays around with. I’ve never seen a clearer example of this than in cartoons, because the easiest way to establish a character without taking actual time out of the script to develop them is to portray them the way the audience is supposed to perceive them.

But how does that translate to more complex notions about art and beauty, non-pop culture types, perhaps? Maybe it’s recognizing that whereas art of any type is mainly visual, people are only partially visual—appearances and perceptions can be misleading, and in an excessively visual world, perhaps we shouldn’t take the visual for granted.

Deep or dumb? Comment below with your thoughts!

P.S. Isn’t that featured image awesome but also kind of jarring? It works so well!

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

2 responses to “On the Nature of Beauty: Dorian Grey, Disney, and Dreamworks’ Shrek”

  1. I kind of glanced at the first part and the next thing I knew, it was over. It’d be interesting if the message of Shrek had writing like Sleeping Beauty or if Sleeping Beauty was stylized like Shrek. They both work in their respective ways. I quite appreciated the in depth analysis (far more depth than I expected to read on an early Saturday morning, lol)

    Anyway, good read!

    1. I agree! Very different styles, but I would definitely like to see one done like the other. Glad I could supply a little brain food on a Saturday morning! 😂

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