Thursday Fun: Story – Donkey Skin

I don’t have a lot to add to Tessa’s excellent analysis of “Donkey Skin,” apart from a few thoughts on the convention of female beauty in fairytales.

(And the aside that my child-self was absolutely appalled when the king agreed to have the donkey killed.)

The story of Donkey Skin has some interesting stuff going on regarding standards of beauty. Typically, when princesses are persecuted in Western fairytales, they don’t have much recourse apart from their sweetness and their stunning good looks. Often, they’re asleep somewhere, showcased to best advantage (glass coffin, roses). The going trend is Breathtaking and Sedated, rather than Hardworking and Ugly.

The exception to this is a whole subset of Cinderella-type stories where the worthy girl is relegated to servant class despite her noble birth. From a young age, most of us are familiar with the idea that Cinderella is not immediately recognizable as the girl from the ball because she’s not very clean. Donkey Skin, however, is filthy.

Not only is she a member of the working class, she’s downright repulsive. People in the region won’t even let her in the house, which is a level of unappealing seen more often in male victims of enchantment, like the Frog Prince or the Beast. In those stories, the maiden must recognize her creature’s inner-beauty in order to break the spell and reveal a handsome prince with chiseled features, straight teeth, and minimal body hair.

However, despite a similar setup, the way the story of Donkey Skin plays out is very different. The prince falls in love with her, but—as in the case of Cinderella—he doesn’t encounter her in her greasy black animal hide, but clean, made-up, and wearing the most impressive dress she owns. There’s no question of his coming to appreciate her inner-beauty, because her outer-beauty is blinding (in this case, literally—her dress is made out of the sun).

There’s a gender-studies dissertation in all of this, I’m sure. But for now, quick-and-dirty lesson is, even when the girl in the story is ugly, she’d better be shockingly beautiful, because she only gets one chance to be glimpsed through the keyhole. She has to make it count.

12 thoughts on “Thursday Fun: Story – Donkey Skin

  1. I am just wracking my brain to think of another story in which the girl is transformed into a beast/frog/bear/giant or something almost like it, as in Donkey Skin)… but I’ve got NOTHING.

    It’s interesting to me that Cinderella’s transformation is magical, and Donkey Skin’s is due to the FAILURE of magic. (And the touch of incest – she’s made filthy by her father/mother’s desires.)

  2. There are stories like “Mossycoat” and “Little Cat Skin,” where the situation is similar, i.e., the girl is dressed in something repugnant and works in the kitchen. They tend to play out exactly the same way too, where the girl has three nice dresses and ran away from a marriage and the prince falls in love with her, so maybe it’s all the same story. “Donkey Skin” is the best though, because it’s just gross.

    “The She-Bear” is the only one I know of where the girl is actually transformed, but even in that one, the prince doesn’t fall in love until he happens to see her in her human shape.

  3. You could probably also make a case for “The Little Mermaid.” Her transformation isn’t ghastly or repugnant, but the loss of her voice/tongue does prevent the Prince from seeing her completely, which leads to her broken-hearted death.

  4. I don’t know “The She-Bear.”

    I assume it’s like “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”?

  5. Actually, it’s really close to the other stories I mentioned, except instead of a coat, the girl has a chip of wood in her mouth that turns her into a bear. A prince meets her while he’s out hunting and when she speaks to him and tells him to call off his dogs, he’s so impressed that he takes her back to the palace. At some point, she wants to brush her hair, so she takes the wood chip out of her mouth and accidentally-on-purpose lets him see her and he falls in love.

    I remember “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” as being a kind of it’s-complicated Beauty and the Beast story, but I’m not sure I’m remembering right.

  6. Ooh, that’s right. The transformation-as-fatal-misfortune angle–Hans Christian Andersen liked everybody hurting by the end 😉

  7. so, she had control over her transformation, which definitely puts her in the category of Donkey Skin, and not the boy-transformations where they have to be saved by the girl.

    Huh, that *almost* sounds like female agency!!!

    East of the Sun, etc is definitely a complicated B&B story, a lot like Psyche and Eros, too. With trolls. It’s wonderful.

  8. Huh, that *almost* sounds like female agency!!!

    Hey, you’re right–someone’s doing something! Of course, then I think she turns back into a bear, the prince’s mother decides to have her killed, and the prince has to intervene and save her. But technically, I guess she could have stopped being a bear at any time . . . ?

    These stories make no sense.

  9. Also, she AGAIN has some agency, in that she asked for it.

    In men… transformation is usually a punishment. In women, a means of escape. FASCINATING!

  10. I’m becoming so very educated by reading the posts on this site. Never even heard of “Donkey Skin” before (gasp!). And I’d like to add Tatterhood to the list of gritty maidens who transform themselves into beauties for the sake of love. She rode around on a goat in her torn garments (face smudged) whacking trolls with a wooden spoon–does that count as ugly?

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