Revisiting Beuty and the Beast

With all the fervor around Disney’s latest live action classic, Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, it seems fitting to revisit my experience of this story. And yes, before it was a Disney animated “classic” in 1991, it was a story by Madam Prince de Beaumont, first published in English in 1783.
Years ago, I went to Beauty and the Beast, The Musical, with my kid’s. We were sitting close to the front, and Belle entered from stage-right. As the actor started singing, I had a horrifying moment as I thought they had dubbed the voice of the Disney Belle in for the actor’s voice. Just as quickly, I realized it was actually the actor. That stopped me muttering to my daughter, for there was Belle, come to life on a stage in Edmonton. She was amazing. None of us has ever forgotten that performance of Beauty and the Beast.
I’ve watched the film many times over the years. I’ve taught the story in conjunction with the film in my folktale classes, and I’ve often thought it the best animated feature Disney has ever produced. I may be a fan, but I’m also a teacher. I remind my students what happens in this story and this film—details easy to forget if you approach either just as an enthusiast.
Remember, the prince in this story is under a curse. In de Beaumont’s story, it’s a wicked fairy who curses the prince, but in the Disney film, the prince mistreats an old woman who comes to the castle in a storm. In the language of folktales, which Disney understands, being nasty to strangers is always bad news.
The Prince, now the Beast, imprisons another stranger, this time the merchant, for plucking a rose. He makes a deal with the merchant—the merchant’s life for one of his daughters. The merchant isn’t stupid enough to agree to such a thing, but he wants to say farewell to his children before he is killed by the Beast. But Beauty, Belle in the Disney film, comes to the rescue. She willingly agrees to become a prisoner so the Beast will spare her father’s life.
Disney, even more than de Beaumont, turns this story into one of burgeoning love, but it’s hard to get around the fact that Beauty, or Belle, is the prisoner of a selfish, cruel, and monstrous beast. Is the story, not to mention the film, simply romanticizing the abuse and incarceration of women?
Because I have daughters, and because I can’t help, in part, reading the story through a modern lens, I wonder how the story would go if Beauty wasn’t so willing to sacrifice herself. How’s this?
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Beauty, or Belle, now aware of her father’s predicament, decides to act. She goes into her father’s study, where she takes his hunting rifle from where it hangs on the wall. She dresses for travel, saddles her horse, and rides away to the Beast’s castle, the rifle under her arm. When the Beast appears at the castle gates to take possession of Beauty in exchange for her father’s life, Beauty shoots him. End of story.
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This would never work—I realize that. For one, such a fractured retelling overlooks the gradual transformation of the Beast’s character, but even more it misunderstands the fundamental nature of the story. “Beauty and the Beast” is a fairy tale, and it has many antecedents. The story, “Cupid and Psyche” is probably the oldest form of this tale, while Asbjornsen and Moe tell a similar story in “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”
These are stories of transformation, of monstrous male power that needs taming. It’s up to a young woman to take control and humanize the beast/lover. Humanizing the male monster through love, compassion, and suffering is the way for the fairy tale to resolve imbalances and return the world to a state of equilibrium. But even in the world of folktales, it’s not always possible to humanize the male monster. And everyone who goes to see Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast should bear this in mind. Just ask the young woman who married that Blue Beard fella.