“Welcome, Beauty, banish fear,
You are queen and mistress here.”
Beauty and the Beast is one of the few fairytales that can be traced back to a single author. In 1740, Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, a poor widow trying to earn money, wrote and published this story. It soon became popular in French salons, places of social gatherings meant to inspire, amuse, and educate. Since these salons were the province of amateurs, they were often frequented by more women than men. Men dedicated themselves to more ‘serious studies”. In other words, it was the perfect place for a story like Beauty and the Beast to circulate because it was being read by young women who were looking to soon become brides.
The idea of marrying for love is revolutionary to traditional marriage. It was only in the 1700s that marrying for love became seen as desirable, and even then arranged marriages still occurred. Thus, Beauty’s arrival at the castle and the dowry paid to her father are very much like a traditional arranged marriage. Later, when she returns home and discusses her options, her father’s advice that she should marry the Beast also rings of practicality and typical marriage advice. In fact, at the time, if the consent of Beauty’s father was not given, it was considered to be rape, which was punishable by death. His consent gives Beauty her freedom.
But what truly makes this a fairytale is Beast’s respect of Beauty’s consent. Each night at dinner, he asks her to marry him; each night, she refuses, and he leaves her alone. So, while de Villeneuve’s Beast cannot speak to Beauty in person, his dream self woos her by night, and she finds herself falling in love with him. Now, this show of respect for Beauty’s agency is astounding because in France, marital rape was only fully criminalized in 1994, nearly 300 years after Beauty and the Beast’s publication. Proceedings were begun in 1990, and, interestingly enough, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was in theatres in 1991. In the United States, marital rape would only become illegal in all fifty states by 1993.
While there are stories similar to Beauty and the Beast prior de Villeneuve’s publication, hers is the codifier. It crosses the line from fairytale to novella by including the backstory of the Beast’s curse along with Belle’s secret origins as a changeling, half-fairy princess. In 1757, Madame Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont edited and condensed this story into a fairytale published in a magazine. She emphasized Beauty’s need to see the man inside the Beast and her moral purity. De Beaumont was an educator, and her story reflects both the understanding of children and the desire to influence them.
Nothing compares, though, to Jean Cocteau’s gorgeous cinematic masterpiece that was published in 1946. La Belle et la Bête is truly magical, transposing several of the original details to film and always firmly centering on Beauty and her experiences. In contrast to de Villeneuve and de Beaumont’s renditions, Cocteau’s Beauty is almost disappointed when the Beast turns into a human prince. There seems to be, of late, a tradition of making the Beast more and more manlike. In de Villeneuve’s version, the Beast is stupid; in de Beaumont’s version, he’s able to carry on an hour’s conversation; and, in Cocteau’s version, the Beast is also a magician. This version also introduces Avenant, a predecessor of Disney’s Gaston and a character that is more beastlike than the Beast himself.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is probably the best known version. It’s unique in giving Beauty her own name, Belle, and in giving the Beast his own character arc. He begins as an immature boy who breaks the laws of hospitality. The witch disguised as a beggar curses him to become a beast until he learns to love and be loved in return, and the way he learns that is through his relationship with Belle. Heather Stevens argues that this change takes away the original story’s focus on Belle as her own character. It begins with her wanting adventure in the great wide somewhere, but it ends in a fight on a rooftop between Beast and his shadow, Gaston. Far from respecting her wishes, the Beast locks Belle in her room. She’s not a mistress; she’s a guest.
Beauty and the Beast is often accused of supporting a “Stockholm Syndrome” romance. In reality, it reflects what arranged marriages were often like at the time, and the Beast is much kinder than husbands had to be. Disney’s film updates the story for a modern audience, but it does so problematically. The drama of the original story was drawn from Beauty discovering that things are not always as they appear while Disney’s drama is drawn from Belle taming Beast.
Ultimately, my theory is this: As long as you understand what the problem is and can talk about it sensibly, you shouldn’t worry about enjoying something that has issues. And honestly, Beauty and the Beast is definitely something that everyone can enjoy.