With the recent success of the re-make of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, I became curious about the origin of the fairy tale. There has been some debate as to whether the story itself can be adapted into a feminist work; Emma Watson has gone to great lengths to present the 2017 film as championing women’s rights, even calling on the advice and approval of Gloria Steinem. However, in an article for Quartz, Olivia Goldhill criticizes the use of feminism as a marketing strategy, when, in fact, the film does “diddlysquat for gender equality” (though I assume she means sex equality).
Without having seen the movie myself, I’m inclined to agree – based entirely on the premise of the story itself, and the ways in which Disney tends to remove socio-political context from fairy tales to appeal to a mass market. Like the saccharine-sweet Disney tagline, “a tale as old as time”, the concept itself is nothing original. In Greek mythology, for example, Zeus takes the form of an animal to seduce women; in many bestial fables throughout history there is an element of reducing females to the animal kingdom – to a creature other than human.
That the beast she comes to love is male does not mean he is a human man. He later transforms to a human, or returns to his original human form, but the woman remains the same; capable of romance with a beast, she herself is reduced to something other, and never transcends her status as an animal. It is for her to love indiscriminately, to embrace in herself the part of her which is also not human; which is to say, the love from a woman is equal to the love of an animal. And so it does not seem odd, this inter-species trope. When Zeus becomes an animal, it is because he is a god. When a woman loves an animal, it is because she did not have to change her form: woman is already profane.
Yet in the original publication of the tale, Beauty herself was a magical creature, arguably more powerful than the Beast. She was the daughter of a king and a fairy – the same fairy that placed the curse on the Beast. It seems a minor detail to have been omitted, but one which would have placed the romance into a more sensible, if fantastic, context, while changing the power dynamic of the relationship.
The earliest known publication of The Beauty and the Beast fairy tale dates back to 1740. Written by Madame Gabrielle–Suzanne de Villeneuve, La Belle et la Bête was intended to be read by adults, but was quickly shortened into a children’s version only sixteen years later by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756 for Magasin des enfants (The Children’s Collection).
At the time of publication, women in France had few legal rights. Arranged marriages were common. Women could not control property, and girls were married off around the ages of fourteen or fifteen, often to men decades older. A girl who failed her role as a satisfactory wife risked being imprisoned in a mental asylum. In this context, the Beast represents the fear of young girls for their future marriage prospects: would the man be a monster? Would he abuse her?
Mme Villeneuve’s version can be read as a tale intended to prepare child brides of 18th century France for their role. Though the man appears to be a monster, she can learn to love him and accept her fate. Alternately, the story be seen as subtly critical of arranged marriages and an attempt to address the lack of choice girls faced within the arranged marriage system.
In her novel, the Beast does not become a man until after they wed, and Beauty wakes up in her marriage bed to find a prince – the implication of which seems obvious: she is reassured that the man she has married is not, in fact, a terrifying monster.
We can also interpret Mme Villeneuve’s story as instructive to men who entered into arranged marriages. Since it is Beauty who teaches the Beast manners and kindness, the message to the male reading audience may have been: be kind and patient, and do not use force. The main element supporting the idea that Villeneuve was critical of arranged child marriages is her emphasis on love and respect. In a subversive way, she proposed the idea of being free to marry for love, and for women to have at least a modicum of choice in their own fate.
It is common for criticisms of the modern version of Beauty and the Beast to make a connection between Beauty and the condition of Stockholm Syndrome, though in its original context, this is not entirely accurate. Throughout a majority of the history of patriarchy, women have had little choice in their marriage circumstances. That women and girls without options may have appeared to love their captor pathologizes women for whom keeping up this image was necessary to their survival. It’s also telling that no term immediately springs to mind for the type of psychological condition which prompts men to abduct and attempt to seduce a woman. A woman must have a syndrome to show affection to her captor, but the nature of the man who abducts her carries no instantly recognizable syndrome.
When we ask, “Is Beauty and the Beast feminist?”, we are asking the wrong question. Feminism had not yet won women the right to express themselves freely at the time of its publication. Direct feminist action was punishable by death: decades after La Belle et la Bête, Olympe de Gouges was executed by guillotine for writing Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne (“Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen“), and for proposing a more equal marriage system.
A better question might be, did the story appropriately draw attention to the conditions of women and girls in arranged marriages? And in what ways is the story currently being used outside of its intended social commentary, to reinforce the notion that appearances are a priority in order for women to be loved, while men are allowed to be measured by their character – to be taken as fully human, in spite of their appearances or personal failings?
The film I imagine for this fairy tale includes the context of child marriage. Beauty would have a name, not just the French word for beauty (Belle). She would have friends; she would see her friends being married off to older men who mistreated them. She would be afraid, unsure of her future. She would see women around her imprisoned in mental institutions for rebelling. And love would become fully her own choice. She would find herself with an option of living her life without marriage. Such a film would say all of the things that Villeneuve was not allowed to say directly at the time. The romance of it would be a background element, not the story itself. The main story, and the one I’m concerned with: the prison that the marriage system was to young girls in France, and continues to be for an untold number of women and girls.