Beauty and the Beast is officially a box office hit, and so the Disney live-action remake machine will continue to clank merrily along, churning out entertaining movies billed as “reimagining” beloved stories that nevertheless stick close to the company’s own existing animated properties.
Meanwhile, the confluence of modern fan culture and the big business of viral content have conspired to cram every possible remix of the Disney princesses onto your newsfeed. Every new blockbuster and every new article picturing Ariel, Belle, and Aurora as hipsters or breastfeeding moms or activists binds the fairy tale even tighter to Disney, obscuring the source material that little bit more. It behooves us to pause and look at one particular tale’s long history of retellings and consider what we lose by letting Disney dominate.
“‘Beauty and the Beast’ ranks among the most popular of all fairy tales,” explains Harvard professor and fairy tale expert Maria Tatar in her new Penguin Classics compilation, Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World. “It has been retold, adapted, remixed, and mashed up by countless storytellers, writers, filmmakers, philosophers, and poets,” Tartar writes.
The tale we know today is likely descended from the story of Cupid and Psyche. According to The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, this classical tale resurfaced in the late Middle Ages as part of the rediscovery of The Golden Ass, a longer Roman work, and spread across Europe—first in Latin and then in even more popular vernacular versions—with the advent of printing. Psyche takes a husband she never sees, who comes to her at night; her sisters tell her she’s probably lying with some horrible scaly monster and urge her to peek to be sure. She does, he disappears, and she has to clear all sorts of hurdles before they can reunite.
The tale is part of a broader, deeper tradition of stories about women and men disguised as beasts; take for instance Giovan Strapatrola’s sixteenth-century “King Pig,” about a prince bespelled into the form of a pig. He kills his first two wives before landing on his perfect mate. The morning after is described like so: “Not much later the queen entered the bride’s chamber, expecting to find that she had met with the same fate as her sisters. But then she saw her lying in the bed, muddy as it was, looking entirely pleased and contented. And she thanked the Lord that her son had at last found a spouse who suited him.” Ah, l’amour.
But the story you’d recognize as “Beauty and the Beast” wasn’t collected by some roving nineteenth-century hunter of oral folk stories, à la the Brothers Grimm. Its origins are more specific: It was first written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740 as part of her book The Young American Girl and the Sea Tales. Detailed and literary and full of decorative flourishes, it’s nevertheless the classic example of what psychologist Bruno Bettelheim identified as an animal groom story, suggesting these narratives are meant to reassure nervous virgins about sex upon marriage. Even if you are deeply skeptical of Freudian analysis, it’s not hard to believe that a woman running in the educated circles of pre-Revolutionary France would be talking here, on some level, about the very customary practice of arranged marriage as it was practiced in this particular time and place. To put it crassly, forget Stockholm Syndrome—one way to read this story is that it’s about the very good odds that you were going to be married off to some aristocratic old roué and forced to do weird Ancien Régime sex stuff with him. But maybe you’d get lucky and he’d be a total peach.
For all that Villeneuve is the original author of the tale we know as “Beauty and the Beast,” however, she isn’t actually responsible for our knowing it. As Marina Warner points out in her study From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers: “Nearly a hundred pages long, intricately plotted in a series of episodes spoken by different characters in turn, which nest one inside another (mise-en-abyme), this founding text of one of the most popular fairy tales of the modern world has defeated almost all readers; it has hardly ever been reprinted uncut, or unrevised.” Though you can now buy an edition illustrated by the design studio that did graphics for the Harry Potter films.
The story instead comes to what we consider the fairy tale canon and eventually modern American pop culture via a woman named Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, a Frenchwoman working as a governess in England. It’s her stripped down version that popularized “Beauty and the Beast,” introducing the story to an English audience hungry for fairy tales. “If you read any rewrites of this story, they always go back to her version,” Tatar told me.
Leprince de Beaumont was writing specifically for English girls learning French in a collection titled Le Magasin des Enfants, or The Young Misses’ Magazine, “designed to frame stories, history lessons, and moral anecdotes told by a governess to young girls,” writes The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. And so she dropped the explicit raciness—the Oxford Companion notes that in Villeneuve’s telling, “not only does the Beast repeatedly ask Belle to sleep with him (in Leprince de Beaumont’s version he asks her to marry him), but Belle has pleasurable dreams of being courted by a handsome prince.”Her Belle also is the living embodiment of all the feminine virtues you’d want to inculcate in teenage girls you were being paid at least in part to keep from running wild. Here she is, realizing that she must return to her poor Beast:
“Aren’t I terrible,” she said, “for causing grief to someone who has done so much to please me? Is it his fault that he’s ugly and lacks intelligence? He is kind. That’s worth more than anything else. Why haven’t I wanted to marry him? I would be more happy with him than my sisters are with their husbands. It is neither good looks nor great wit that makes a woman happy with her husband but character, virtue, and kindness, and Beast has all those good qualities. I may not be in love with him, but I feel respect, friendship, and gratitude toward him. If I made him unhappy, my lack of appreciation would make me feel guilty for the rest of my life.”
And that, my charges, is why you must not elope with your dancing-master, no matter how handsome.
It is possible to read a more complicated Belle into this story, however. The tale opens with a description of Belle as educated, and notes that her villainous sisters (since dropped from the tale) “made fun of their younger sister, who spent most of her time reading good books.” Christine A. Jones, a fairy tale scholar at the University of Utah, looks at this and sees Belle as a sort of educated Enlightenment figure, as well as a more active character than one might give her credit for being:
“Fate throws her out of her social world and her social class and causes her to kind of reorient toward society and who she is and who she wants to be,” Jones told me. “She’s also thrown out of her gender role because she has to step up where men sort of one after the other fail, not necessarily for lack of trying but because they simply can’t step up and do the work that needs to be done.”
“She is the character who gets to choose, and she is, in fact, a little bit dictatorial in the way she does it,” Jones said. “She is full of resolution, full of courage; she tells her father what they’re going to do and why and she walks that path of her own accord.”
It’s debatable whether Leprince de Beaumont’s version can be considered truly subversive. But there’s enough to work with for this interpretation, and in 1978—more than a decade before Disney would offer up their bookworm Belle—Robin McKinley took the reading and the plot points from de Beaumont and turned transformed the fairy tale into a lovely YA novel, one featuring a bookish Beauty who is in fact a bit of an ugly duckling, perfectly crafted to give voice to the hopes and anxieties of a nerdy adolescent girl in a way that even Disney’s Belle doesn’t quite manage.
The 1991 version, in turn, blended Leprince de Beaumont with elements from Cocteau’s dreamy 1946 version—for instance, the dick competitor for Belle’s hand—to turn the tale into a showdown between a preening macho brute and a troubled, sensitive soul cursed into the form of a monster, the two competing for the hand of a literate young woman painted as having an inner life beyond self-sacrifice. This was groundbreaking stuff for a kid’s movie in the early ‘90s and also a recapitulation of broader cultural arguments about heterosexual gender relations so typical of its time that you’d think it was planted by a time-traveling PhD candidate who needed a dissertation topic for the year 2020.
Tatar notes in her intro that, “Beauty and the Beast stories speak a universal language—the story is as ubiquitous as ‘Cinderella’—but with messaging that is nearly always culturally inflected.” This is no less true of Disney’s live-action remake. But the ability of anybody working on one of these films to inventively play with cultural scripts will always be constrained by the fact that Disney seems determined to remake its own animated movies, rather than return to the source material and do something really new. Obviously, this is a commercially sound strategy—after a string of lackluster and only intermittently successful Hollywood attempts at fairy tales in recent years, Disney is turning out moneymaker after moneymaker. But from a storytelling perspective, it’s deeply disappointing.
This feels especially pronounced with “Beauty and the Beast,” because the cast and crew ran around for months talking up the film’s progressivism as though they were the first people ever to attempt a feminist reread of these traditional stories, ignoring the intense conversations about fairy tales and wave of retellings triggered by the women’s movement.
The source material here is much richer in possibilities than turning Belle into a crusader for women’s literacy—in a single scene—or letting her invent a damn washing machine. There are the totally obvious erotic undertones; the arranged marriage theme could be tackled with more imaginative vigor. In her 1979 short story “The Tiger’s Bride,” Angela Carter has her Beauty turn into a Beast rather than her Beast transforming into a human. In her second run at the story, 1997's Rose Daughter, McKinley let the Beast stay as he is at the end.
That’s without even venturing deeper into the rich universe of animal bridegroom stories, surveyed in Maria Tatar’s new collection for Penguin Classics. “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” is practically a beat-for-beat retread of Cupid and Psyche but with a bear for a husband and a heroine who has more action built into her story than Belle. There is also the parallel tradition of animal bride stories—swan maidens and selkies with a much sharper edge than The Little Mermaid.
The core story of Beauty and the Beast isn’t simply about courtship and marriage and the transformative power of love, Tatar told me in an interview; “it’s also about our relationship to alterity and to monstrosity. How do we react to it?”
“It’s about animals and beasts, nature and culture, self and other, cruelty and compassion. It takes up all of these big cultural conundrums—cultural contradictions, maybe—and puts them into a story, and I think the point of the story is not, Take it as it is and accept it, but, you know, Here’s the story; now what would you do with it?
For that matter, there are the immediate French forerunners of Villeneuve and Leprince de Beaumont. The first flourishing of fairy tales came at the turn of the seventeenth century, and for all that Charles Perrault would be the most famous name from the period, it was overwhelmingly female. “Women writers dominated the vogue, with two-thirds of the tales published between 1690 and 1715 to their credit, which suggests the genre offered them a means of expression and experimentation not available through other established literary forms,” writes Lewis Seifert in The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Women are responsible for “conte de fées,” the turn of phrase that would eventually become “fairy tales.” The first literary fairy tale published in French was the work of Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy—specifically, “The Isle of Happiness,” in 1690.
D’Aulnoy wrote several stories about young women and beasts, including “Le Serpentin vert,” or “The Great Green Worm.” “Interestingly, it is in this story of a fulfilled love between a Beauty and a Beast that the author also emphasizes, at numerous points, the importance of equal conversation between men and women,” writes Warner. Tracking closely with the story of Cupid and Psyche, it the travails of Hidessa, a woman cursed with ugliness who is courted and eventually marries a frightful monster, only to lose him and suffer for their reunion. He turns out to be a handsome prince and marries her, breaking her curse—but not until after he has committed to her, ugliness and all.
“Perseverance wins Hidessa her happiness, after showing the cruelty of society toward unattractive young women, and their loneliness; Mme d’Aulnoy spiritedly fantasticates on the scale of female heroism,” writes Warner. Do that story and leave Hidessa as-is at the end, and now we’re talking about something that might really upend the Disney paradigm.
Instead, beyond naming the village “Villeneuve,” Disney didn’t even take the time to acknowledge the real female French writers who played such a large part in inventing the form they’ve built a multi-billion dollar business on. Belle could have been reading these women’s works; instead, she reads Romeo and Juliet, the work of an Englishman.
The internet as a giant nostalgia machine has made fairy tales somehow even more of a Disney-dominated monoculture. This is a disaster in the making. If we wholly lock ourselves into the Disney versions of these stories and talk only to the collected works of this enormous corporation rather than the broader history of fairy tales, we impoverish ourselves and foreclose all sorts of weird, interesting, and potentially even radical creative possibilities.
Fortunately, if fairy tales teach us anything, it’s that forgotten castles exist to be stumbled across.