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“All the little ducklings had pretty little beaks and bright little eyes but one of the ducklings was ugly. Mother Duck shook her head and said I can’t believe how this ugly duckling can be one of mine”. I stopped abruptly when after hearing this sentence from an adapted version of Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling, my daughter promptly pointed to the grey ‘duckling’ that stood out from the rest of the brood. I tried to explain to her that the duckling was just different and not ‘ugly’. However, every single time that I read the story to her and arrive at the word ‘ugly’, she unfalteringly points to the grey bird. I tried to check if the original tale was different but to my disappointment there too the author had used the adjective ‘homely’ which means unattractive in appearance. Moreover, ‘ugly’ screams at the reader in the tale’s title itself.
The story continues to describe the lonely life of the ostracized duckling which finally finds out one day that it has matured into a beautiful swan, falls in love with a female swan which happens to be swimming around in the pond at the same time as the swan ‘discovers’ itself (how opportune) and they live happily ever after.
So I want to avoid consciously adding words such as ‘ugly’ to my daughter’s vocabulary ( at least this early). But this is just one contention I have with this tale. Having read and thought about this story many times, a question that plagues me is “Why does the duckling need to start looking ‘beautiful’ to be accepted by family, to be respected by other barnyard animals and to be happy in general?”. Contrary to the moral of the tale about not judging others by their outwardly appearance, I think we are harping on the importance of beauty for happiness and acceptance. Indeed as the moral stresses ‘To be born in a duck’s nest is of no consequence to a bird if it is hatched from a swan’s egg’, note his transformation to a swan alone. Imagine if the ‘different’ duckling grew up to be a helmeted hornbill or an owl. Would the farmyard animals be equally awed then by his presence and would he strut his feathers pompously?
While I was grappling with these questions by searching for alternative interpretations of this fairy tale, I came across the Walt Disney animation film by the same name. This version does not portray the ‘duckling’ as homely but merely shows the viewers a white ‘duckling’ with a hoarse call unlike his yellow siblings (or should I say nest-mates?) who quack in unison with Mother Duck. Scorned by the duck family, the to-be swan tries to adapt to a sparrow’s family and later even plays with a wooden toy duck to get rid of its loneliness. Finally he is spotted by a swan family where his fellow cygnets invite him to join them and he finds a family that looks and ‘talk’ like him. I liked this version better as the cygnet (let us just start calling him that) does not grow into the graceful adult bird that is leading the flock but gains acceptance as he is. As I promised myself I would try my best to make the Disney version the familiar version of this tale for my daughter another objectionable adjective popped up. I heard my daughter singing to herself ” Ellie the elephant/Goes this way and that/She’s so very big/She’s so very fat.” Now if only I knew how to say no to that!