It continually amazes me how people can read the same tale completely differently-some view the traditional Beauty and the Beast as a sad remnant of a culture that expected women's only purpose was to serve the males around her. Yet others see it as an example of a strong woman who for once has the power in a romantic relationship and, through wisdom and courage, earns her own happy ending.
In Jerry Griswold's The Meanings of Beauty and the Beast, he claims that Beauty and the Beast is the "dominant myth" of our time-the story that, for whatever reason, we tend to keep reinterpreting through our media, mulling over the different meanings of the story. He cites many examples, mostly movies, that are in some way a beauty and the beast motif, from "Phantom of the Opera" to "Shrek" to Michael Jackson's "Thriller".
Why such a strong pull towards this tale? Griswold discusses the tale as an exploration of Otherness-the Beast can mean different things to different readers. Coming across a literal talking hairy suitor isn't likely to happen, but the Beast could be a person of a different race, social status, age, etc.-anything we might have a tendancy to shy away from, or the people around us might be judgemental of. In this age where we are questioning many of the social rules that once dominated romantic relationships, this message is something many people jump on, including the gay and lesbian community. And yet the exaggerated difference between Beauty and her Beast is also an example of the appeal of heterosexuality-("hetero" meaning "other")-the mystery and appeal of the other sex.
Yet Griswold brings up an interesting theory of Freud's that claims that the more we as a society become civilized, the more we miss an essential wildness. This makes sense when looking at the multiple modern "twisted" versions of the tale where the Beast does not transform into a dapper, socially approved gentleman, but Beauty herself embraces her inner animal. Authors are challenging us to examine what we judge to be beastly, and why.
And, since it's a particular interest of mine, Griswold also mentions the fact that, among the plentiful cultural explorations of beastly men, it is extremely rare to find examples of beastly females. He cites a few examples, but in each case, the female is initially unattractive not because of looks, but social status (and thus making the stories variants of the Cinderella tale, not Beauty and the Beast). We as a society apparantly cannot even tolerate the thought of an ugly woman as the heroine.