Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why Feminists love modern versions of Beauty and the Beast

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.

A. L. Bowley

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.

Griswold discusses the 80s tv show version, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton, and why that show, though not exactly the best script, was so immensely popular with women. He describes how Vincent, the Beast character, is the ideal husband for the modern feminist-he "makes no demands on Catherine, gives 110 percent, and is so attentive to her and her needs that he reads her thoughts" (I'm pretty sure Griswold would have cited Twilight as a similar phenomenon, if the movie had come out before his book was published.) Catherine is a successful working woman and Vincent essentially her stay at home husband-and most versions of the Beast are confined to the house because of the nature of their deformity. The woman is now the one who goes out and experiences the world, not the naive housewife whose ignorance on worldly matters causes her husband to chuckle good-naturedly and pat her on the head condescendingly.

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.


  1. Ahhh, fascinating stuff! I wish the book wasn't so expensive or was at least available as an ebook--it'll have to stay on my wishlist a little longer! Thanks for extracting enough for a thought-provoking post.

    As to female beasts, I can think of two -- and they are extremely similar stories: The Frog Bride, and the White Cat. Both are transformation stories where the woman has been transformed rather than the man. And I think in both cases they both need to be rescued AND help the man in an animal-helper capacity.

  2. Have you seen the anthology called "The Beastly Bride," edited by Ellen Datlow? All kinds of modern retellings of stories where the women become animals. I wrote a lot of fox-wife poems in my second book, She Returns to the Floating World, from Japanese folk tales in which animals become women, and turn back into animals again. The White Cat was one of my favorite fairy tales from childhood, and one of my favorite fairy tales in adulthood is the Melusine myth (discussed in AS Byatt's Possession) about a woman who marries a human who is something more than human...and becomes a dragon.

  3. Thanks for the suggestion! It appears my library doesn't have that book, I'll have to keep my eye out for it. And while there are certainly plenty of stories of animal brides, they've virtually all been forgotten by our culture. And even then, the animals women turn into tend to be beautiful animals-swans, cats, etc.-a few exceptions to that, like frogs, but those tales are pretty rare.