The main character of the musical The Light in the Piazza is named Clara. She’s blonde. The show is set in the fifties, and she wears gorgeous fit-and-flare dresses. The waists are belted tight and the wide skirts swirl. She’s beautiful. Her tastes are simple—she likes sunlight, hugs, the thought of having a baby one day. Her story goes like this: she and her mother are visiting Italy from North Carolina when they meet a handsome young man named Fabrizio. He and Clara fall in love at first sight. The initial obstacle to their romance is that they don’t speak the same language; the later, and more serious, is that in Clara’s mother’s eyes, Clara is not ready to enter any relationship, as Clara was kicked in the head by a horse at her twelfth birthday party and has remained childlike ever since. But neither of those things matters in the end. Clara’s beauty reflects her essence—her face reveals, at a glance, her pure heart and innocent spirit. What unites the American girl and Italian boy isn’t a shared culture or IQ, but the quality they sing out in their love duet: “You are good, you are good, you are good …”
I watched them sing to each other in a Manhattan theater when I was seventeen years old. I’d taken the bus in from New Jersey to see the show. Four rows from the stage, I sat alone, dressed in black, my head shaved, and cried. Clara and Fabrizio wrapped their arms around each other. It was so romantic—it felt unattainable. My seat wasn’t farther than twenty feet from Clara’s T-strap shoes, yet we seemed to exist in different worlds.
There, I thought, is the woman I will never be.
Back then, no trope provoked me more than a lovely, loving, lovable girl. She was the protagonist of nearly every fairy tale in the complete Brothers Grimm I lugged around as a kid. She was kindhearted, prayed, suffered trials in silence, grew more beautiful every day, and would marry a prince. She was good and she got rewarded for it. Domestic bliss was her due.
When other women appeared in a story, they plotted against our pretty, virtuous heroine. Wicked, ambitious, envious, they were no aesthetic competition for the main character, whose spiritual perfection showed in her countenance. The Grimms’ Little Snow-White, for example, is already more gorgeous by age seven than her arrogant stepmother is as an adult. The little girl is “beautiful as the light of day.” Incensed by her young rival, the stepmother turns “yellow and green with envy.” She’s disfigured by her own badness.
Discolored though she is, that stepmother sure has a lot of creative, cruel fun. She commands a huntsman to slaughter Snow-White for her lungs and liver, suffocates the girl with a bodice lace, uses witchcraft to create a deadly hair comb, and develops a red-and-white apple “so artfully made that only the red half was poisoned.” The red half goes to Snow, who is trusting enough to gobble it right up.
All these schemes, inventive as they are, fail in the end. By the story’s close, Snow-White recovers from her poisonings and finds her prince (or, more accurately, is found by him—she’s unconscious when he falls in love with that gorgeous face). The stepmother is forced to dance herself to death at their wedding while wearing red-hot iron shoes.
The Brothers Grimm made it clear where our allegiance, as readers, should lie. But growing up, I turned the pages raging. Snow’s willingness to take yet one more deadly gift, after three prior attempts on her life, confounded me. Was this what goodness meant—foolishness? Was it really a quality to emulate?
The huntsman assigned to murder Snow-White only aborts his mission “because she was so beautiful” that he “took pity on her.” When she runs to the dwarfs’ house for safety, she falls asleep, and when they come back, they are too amazed by her good looks to wake her up. This is the level of stimulation we get from Snow-White through the story: she stares; she sleeps; she accepts everything passed her way. She spends a good portion of the tale unconscious in a glass coffin. She is the fairest of them all, yes. So, I decided, she is necessarily dull.
This was the binary I absorbed, the one Clara—kicked in the head by a horse!—would seem to confirm that night on stage. A girl can be either beautiful or clever. She can be virtuous or she can be exciting. If she’s beautiful, she will be good, and she will be loved; if she’s not, she will be bad and she will be lonely, but she will also be smart, wild, active, and complicated.
In childhood, I studied the mirror to evaluate my merit. If I was a good person, wouldn’t it show on my face? I weighed my heart and my brain. Was I pious, or was I sinful—did I think, did I lie, did I rage? The answer was as clear as my fifth-grade buck teeth and teenage acne. I saw where I belonged.
Upon poisoning Snow-White, her stepmother rejoices: “ ‘You specimen of beauty,’ said the wicked woman, ‘now you are finished.’ ” I reread it and thrilled. Team Wicked for life.
Beauty, brains, goodness: a girl couldn’t have all three. I sorted the heroines of my favorite books, shows, and movies into their appropriate columns. A beautiful character was easy to identify because everyone around them kept exclaiming over how beautiful they were. They were white, thin, femme, straight, large-eyed, narrow-nosed, with long necks and dainty fingers. They were blonde. Intelligence and virtue were a bit harder to spot. I studied the stories carefully.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda was smart, and her teacher, Miss Honey, was pretty and good. In Little Women, the sisters were smart (Jo), good (Beth), pretty (Amy), and pretty and good (Meg). Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast stumped me for a scene—she was certainly beautiful, all her neighbors said so, and she did seem sweet, and there she was in a bookstore talking about her ambitions. But then she offered to become the Beast’s prisoner to free her ailing father. Pretty? Obviously. Good? Very. Smart? No, I decided, not at all.
Ariel in The Little Mermaid was beautiful and good, and Ursula the sea witch, who presented Ariel with a contract to forsake her voice, family, and life, was smart. In the end, Ariel got married and Ursula was killed. So who should we root for? I jammed the rewind button on my VCR to listen again to Ursula’s anthem, “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” As the song plays, Ariel widens her blue eyes, struggling to understand. The prince is supposed to fall in love with Ariel but she’ll be mute. “Without my voice,” she says, “how can I … ”
Ursula interrupts her.
You’ll have your looks, your pretty face.
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language!
On land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word …
It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man.
It was that simple. Beautiful Ariel signs over her voice because she knows: you can be pretty and sweet in love, or you can be witty and interesting all alone.
This theory of womanhood, formed out of fairy-tale princesses and Disney tunes, stuck with me for way too long. The more media I consumed, the more exceptions I encountered, girls and women who didn’t slot as easily into “virtuous” or “clever.” So, like the wicked stepsisters (smart) in the Grimms’ story of Cinderella (beautiful and good), I lopped toes and heels off characters to make them fit where I wanted. I jammed them into place and ignored the blood.
In the same way, I regarded the most popular girls at school as both pretty and morally superior. They got along with the teachers who called out my attitude problem; they made smooth small talk with parents who squinted at me during car rides home. They landed handsome boyfriends with ease, while I crushed on classmates I would never touch.
I was lonely. And, like so many teenagers, I felt ugly, weird, and bad. So I took comfort in the categorization: Team Wicked meant loneliness, that was no surprise. But it also offered wit, excitement, and complexity. Why bother mourning when so much other fun was possible? Those evil queens, vicious stepsisters, ugly orphans, and know-it-all witches were inspirations. They didn’t lie down in glass coffins or flirt in the school cafeteria. Instead, they seized power, worked magic, created things. Before they got their comeuppance, they could, for a while, make their mean, brilliant dreams come true.
So I lied and broke rules. I worked to be wild. In the shower, I practiced cutting remarks out loud in order to better wound some good girl later on. I talked loudly about my ambitions, which were to leave New Jersey, become a writer, and tell everyone I’d ever known to fuck off.
Wickedness and intelligence were heady powers to try to tap into. In the hierarchy of high school, they let me feel I wasn’t less-than. The beautiful, sweet, generous girls I admired had to be Snow-White types: simpleminded. Their kindness was a weakness. In my mind, I forced them into place. It didn’t matter if several of them were single or got better grades than me or wept in public, because the facts of our lives were nowhere near as compelling as the system I clung to. If a girl was nice and pretty, then she was happy and dumb. To manage my own sadness, I needed that to be true. They could be pretty, good, and adored, but they couldn’t be interesting. If they were interesting, then I didn’t know what I was.
By the time my high school graduation approached, I’d spent years honing my beliefs to a science. Beautiful? Kind? Loved by others? How banal. Goodness was the mark of a fool. But sitting in the audience of The Light in the Piazza, seeing Clara sing her way into joy, I cried. She was a straightforward character under my system. Watching her, though, I didn’t feel straightforward anymore.
“This is wanting something, this is reaching for it,” she sang. “This is almost touching what the beauty is …” There on stage was the girl on the opposite team, but she was fraught, desirous, aching. It had been easy to think Clara’s happily-ever-after was predetermined: she wore those dresses, she smiled, and therefore she would marry by the curtain call. I had wanted to deny her agency, ambivalence, isolation, curiosity. Then the show snuck inside me. The music soared.
Clara was interesting. My dismissal of her seemed cruel. For a long time, cruelty had appealed as a symbol of an active mind, but in the theater, in the dark, it lost some of its luster. Being bad felt bad.
Exploring my new sympathies, I tested the boundaries of the lanes I’d marked so long before. Could lovely, loving Clara still, at the end of the day, even in a relationship, be sad? Could her goodness come not from being born perfect but from working to act right in the world? Could she be capable of change, of surprising herself, of defying the expectations others put on her?
I pushed against that thought. Could I?
Could I be kind? To this fictional girl, to the real women I knew, to myself. Could I be loved?
I don’t know why the show hit me so hard that night—why wickedness crossed from fun to petty, why misery seemed less certain, why virtue began to seem like something one could learn. Maybe the swells of the songs were pitch-perfect or the actress playing Clara brought out her tragic backstory just right. Maybe the romance overwhelmed me. Or maybe I finally grew up enough to start questioning the assumptions I’d learned as a child.
The actors bowed. The lights came up. The rigid places in myself ached from strain. While the other audience members stood, I stayed in my seat, wiped my face, and checked my pocket for the bus ticket back to Jersey.
At seventeen, at last, I wanted the women in stories, the women I’d known and the woman I was becoming, to be something more than what I’d called them all this time. Beyond beauty, brains, and goodness, what else was there? I would have to find out. Who else could we understand women to be—complicated, surprising, defiant—in order to love each other? Who else could we be and still be loved?
Julia Phillips’s debut novel Disappearing Earth was recently published by Knopf.