Fairy Tale Friday: Beauty and the Beast

October 9, 2009 at 12:00 am 3 comments

“You are very kind,” said Beauty. “When I think of it, you no longer seem ugly to me….I like you better, even with your looks, then men who hide false, corrupt, and ungrateful hearts behind charming manners.”

If you’re a woman of my generation, you were probably raised on Disney princesses. Belle was one of the more appealing ones for the more bookwormish of girls, as she was definitely intelligent, loved to read, and in fact may have loved the library more than the Beast.

But as Corey pointed out last week, and as many of us learned as we grew up, Disney almost never tells the whole story. Whimsical characters and fun sing-a-longs are what they do best, and often the more traditional versions of the tales are put by the wayside in favor of singing teapots and dancing wardrobes.

The Beauty and the Beast story is actually more of a type than one particular story, and an ancient one at that. The first recorded version is the myth of Cupid and Psyche, in which a young woman is doomed to be married to a monster, but later discovers that the so-called monster is actually Cupid. Like Disney’s Belle, Psyche is a remarkable heroine, facing down goddesses and the underworld in an effort to win back her love.

Later, the story evolved to reflect two main elements: first, reassurance to girls facing arranged marriages, and second, the importance of compromise in marriage.

Imagine you’re a girl of about the age of sixteen. You’ve just been betrothed to the farmer next door who is twice your age, twice your size, and looks (and smells) rather like a grizzly bear. You’ve heard older women speak knowingly about the blood and gore involved in a marriage bed, and your entire idea of marriage involves bodily fluids, death, and fear.

Wouldn’t you take comfort in a story about a young girl who is forced to wed a monster who later turns into a handsome prince?

Much like the Disney Beast, the Beast in Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 18th century version of the tale is ugly, but extraordinarily kind.Beauty says throughout the story that the Beast is so kind that his virtue even makes him seem less ugly, and she’s quite happy in his castle until she begins to miss her family. Even then, she realizes she can’t live without the Beast, and at that moment he becomes a handsome prince.

Of course, not even the most naive young girl would believe that her grizzly-like husband would suddenly transform, but a story like this might give her hope that he would at least be kind like the Beast.

An Italian version of the story seems even worse for the young heroine at first: a beautiful young woman is wedded to a prince who happens to be in the form of a pig. He tracks mud all over her gowns, he smells, he’s rude and basically disgusting. But the woman welcomes him into her arms and bed anyway, even though both she and her bed end up “defiled” with mud. Soon, the woman learns that the pig prince can shed his skin and become a handsome young man; he eventually leaves off his pig skin forever, and they live happily ever after.

Sometimes, however, the heroine is not as complacent, and in fact resists the animal’s advances. This is seen as perfectly acceptable in these cases, and actually leads to the animal becoming a prince. The Frog King is one of these tales, where the frog only becomes a king after the princess throws him against a wall; there’s another story of a woman who is married to a big black dog that turns into a prince after she strikes him in the face. Even in the story of the Pig King, the beautiful girl must disobey her husband before his transformation becomes permanent.

This is where the compromise comes in. All of these women have given something up and allowed the animal into their lives, in accordance with their wifely and often daughterly duties. But they are not expected to be the only ones to sacrifice something, and the men must give up their rather boorish bachelor ways before the women can love them completely.

When read that way, Beauty and the Beast is actually one of the more pro-gender equality story types, just as Disney’s Beauty and the Beast features one of their better heroines. These stories are definitely ones I would feel comfortable reading to a young girl who loves princess stories, without being worried that I’m unintentionally warping her little mind with tales of how women should remain unconditionally meek and obedient.

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Entry filed under: Fairy Tale Friday. Tags: , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  October 10, 2009 at 8:05 am

    Delightful review/run-down! Thank you so much for writing this sort of historiography of Beauty and the Beast! It’s really interesting to hear about the various incarnations of the story and then compare it to what made to our modern versions (yes, like Disney). Thank you again!

    Reply
  • 2. Snow-White and Rose-Red « Literary Transgressions  |  January 29, 2010 at 12:36 am

    […] Do you see what I mean about all the German beer? It’s two different stories mashed together, one rather boring one about a dwarf and the other a delightful variation of Beauty and the Beast. […]

    Reply
  • […] Fairy Tale Friday: Beauty and the Beast. I loved exploring the different variations on the Beauty/Beast theme with this post, which was a little more academic than my previous Disney-related FTF. […]

    Reply

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