Whether you’ve grown up on the Disney version, or one of the hundreds of novels and illustrated books, the story of “Beauty and the Beast” remains fundamentally similar. A useless father trades/accidentally gifts/is tricked into giving his lovely youngest/only daughter, Belle, (very “King Lear” – you always lose Cordelia and can never palm off the Regan or Goneril equivalent, can you?) to the ultimate symbol of unrestrained, brutal masculinity: The Beast.
However, before truly analysing the gendered power relations of this particular fairytale, let’s back track a bit. I was inspired to write about “Beauty and the Beast” because of the thumping-great rich velvety roses that have been growing alongside my driveway. I picked some of said roses (though I think the bush may actually be growing on my neighbours’ property... everyone loves a good bit of flower theft, right?) and kept them on my desk in an attempt to a) feel like Belle/resolve some latent wannabe-princess fantasy and b) to actually lure me to my fantastic smelling desk so that I might feel inclined to study. Big yay – I achieved both objectives. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually take a photo of these magnificent roses (yes, I’m still very new to this blogging thing) – this is a photo of a somewhat bedraggled bloom, which I took last week (try to imagine it dark, dusky red)...
So anyway, back to “Beauty and the Beast”. I think Disney’s interpretation is one of their most interesting films, least of all because Belle is dark haired (opposed to blonde), likes to read, and unusually, her journey isn’t about escaping from an archetypal jealous stepmother/evil sea-witch/evil sorceress or a combination of the above.* For once, in a Disney fairytale, the female protagonist doesn’t have to struggle against a female antagonist (think Cinderella and her horrible stepsisters and stepmother, Ariel and Ursula, aforementioned sea-witch or even Briar Rose from Disney’s fundamentally flawed “Sleeping Beauty” (she only sleeps for 20 minutes, people!) who has to contend with the sexy, wicked Malevolent. Belle, on the other hand, only has to take on male adversaries.
This is where the gendered power relations of “Beauty and the Beast” become particularly fascinating - Belle has to overcome men. In the Disney version, her first antagonist is the hunter Gaston who embodies ideal form of hegemonic masculinity: he’s big, buff, tough and is utterly repugnant to her. Similarly, Belle’s second antagonist also embodies a clear form of brute, physical masculinity – he’s the Beast who snarls, tears things apart, and generally behaves like a bit of a drunk footballer. Therefore, Belle’s story is not about being rescued by chisel-feature princes, rather, she rejects and has to take on them on. For Belle, though Gaston appears to be the archetypal “beautiful” chiseled prince, his character is actually corrupted and, in the end, turns out to be far more truly “beastly” than the actual Beast.
So back to the Beast. When Belle winds up with him, he is softened, returned to his much-less interesting-than-when-he-was-a-beast princely form. Really, his masculinity is reduced when compared with his hegemonically masculine Beast-form. This change in masculinity is due to Belle, in all her nerdy, bookish and porridge-sipping ways. The story of Beauty and the Beast is perhaps, therefore, about the rejection of traditional masculine stereotypes. Rather, it questions typical masculinity and advocates giving agency and power to the unusual female heroine. For that, I think, it’s tops.
Anyway, if you want to immerse yourself in some interesting (non Disney or picture book) versions of Beauty and the Beast, author Robin McKinley has written two great Beauty and the Beast inspired novels: “Rose Daughter” and “Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast”. “Rose Daughter” in particular takes a much less conventional approach to how Belle deals with the physical form of the Beast.
-- Esther xx
* Plus she also has seriously bitchin’ ball gowns.