by Kristin, of Tales of Faerie
[Kristin is a long-standing fairy tale blogger, and I consider her the authority on Beauty and the Beast among the fairy tale blogging community. So consider how honored we are that she is writing a guest post for SSiG on that very topic! Kristin writes very thoughtful, scholarly reflections, complete with quotes, sources, and references, and is always well read and well informed. If you're not a follower already, there's plenty more from her on her blog, Tales of Faerie.--Christie]
One of the fascinating aspects of common interpretations of Beauty and the Beast is how people can come to such vastly opposite conclusions on its messages concerning gender roles.
There's the camp who finds it anti-feminist. Among these arguments, there are some that come from those who are only familiar with the Disney version, and those that are actually familiar with the French version. A common complaint I've heard about the Disney movie is that it promotes abusive relationships--the Beast is so selfish and violent, and girls shouldn't be encouraged to go for the "bad boy" because in real life it won't end so happily ever after.
While it's definitely true that modern girls tend to be fascinated--probably too much so--by the thrill of a dangerous relationship (hello, Twilight?), I think the Disney version does a pretty good job of showing us that the Beast modifies his behavior towards Belle BEFORE she falls in love with him. More convincing, in my opinion, than Flynn's "transformation" in Tangled. . . Plus, I do like the interesting twist it brings the story that the Beast's appearance is dictated by the state of his heart. At the time the Disney movie came out, this was a creative choice, and now it's the only interpretation of the Beast's curse most people are familiar with. (The children's book by Marianna and Mercer Mayer had used this concept, before Disney--I don't know how widespread that version was at the time.)
Then there are those who actually know the story on which the Disney version was originally based--the famous one by Madame de Beaumont. In this version the Beast was cursed not as a punishment for his behavior, but out of spite (the Beamont doesn't explain much more than this, but the Villeneuve version, on which the Beaumont is based, goes into much more detail. . .). However, many feminists dislike the concept that Beauty is rewarded over and over again for being submissive. She was so willing to sacrifice her life for her father, and some people think he doesn't put up enough of a fight about his daughter going to what he thinks will be her death. I personally think that for the purposes of moving the plot along, however, he does his fair share of protesting. Other animal bridegroom tales feature fathers that are far too willing--even eager--to sacrifice their daughter to an animal for material gain, but not the father from Beauty and the Beast.
Jerry Griswold explains: "A first generation of feminist critics condemned the tales as reflections of a patriarchal culture and found abundant evidence in them of the victimization of women. However, a second generation of feminists...came to endorse them as female stories and saw in these "old wives' tales" visions of feminine empowerment."
Especially when we look at the tale in context, the female empowerment is really quite shocking. The idea that a woman should love and obey her father was the norm for the time, but throughout the story Beauty demonstrates something that was NOT the norm--her power of choice. It is she who insists on going to the Beast's in her father's place, DESPITE his protests--rebelling against her father's will, which was very counter-cultural. The Beast cannot force her to marry him--he simply asks patiently, night after night, if she will marry him, and quietly (submissively, even!) accepts her rejections.
Betsy Hearne points out that Beaumont's/Villeneuve's version of this story is different than its predecessors in that there is no episode where the female, like Psyche from Cupid and Psyche, is given a command to follow, and because of her disobedience and curiosity, she must complete impossible tasks and undertake a difficult journey to earn back her husband. In Beauty and the Beast, it is the Beast who must do the earning.
Also significant is the fact that Beauty is educated and intelligent, which would not necessarily have been assumed for a woman in the 18th century.
Beaumont's tale, however, is just one version in an evolution of the Animal Bridegroom tale which has been circulating among humans for at least thousands of years. In certain cultures, such as feminist writers in 18th century France, but also especially today among fairy tale writers, the plot was used to explore gender roles and expectations. In cultures where daughters were denied autonomy and often sentenced to miserable marriages, the idea of a girl being given over to an animal as his wife may have been a way of protesting against cultural standards. Villeneuve, Beaumont, and many modern authors (Angela Carter and Robin McKinley for starters) have used the plot to explore different possibilities for romantic roles and relationships. Versions that end with the Beast turning into a proper gentleman use the idea that the woman has the power to free her man, according to the literal details of the story, or perhaps change a brutish man into a kind and loving husband. Yet more recent versions play around with the idea of the Beauty character accepting the Beast for who he is--in some versions he doesn't transform--in others Beauty becomes more animalistic like him, an idea usually linked to the female being free to indulge in her own sexual desires. Marina Warner says, "At a fundamental level, 'Beauty and the Beast' in numerous variations forms a group of tales which work out this basic plot, moving from the terrifying encounter with Otherness, to its acceptance, or, in some versions of the story, its annihilation. In either case, the menace of the Other has been met, dealt with and exorcised by the end of the fairy tale . . . the terror has been faced and chased; the light shines in the dark places."
So this fairy tale is about romantic love, but it is also about much more. Though some people argue we should not expose children to the old-fashioned value systems of the canonized fairy tale literature, I think it's essential to remember how far we've come as a culture, and not to take for granted our current situation. But ultimately, it is simply a beautiful story. To quote Betsy Hearne again, "The strong story is greater than any of its tellings. The core elements remain because they are magnetic to each other, structurally, and to people, variably but almost universally."