Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 10: Beauty and the Beast

For who could ever learn to love a beast?

The "Beauty and the Beast" story is, indeed, a tale as old as time. The myth of Cupid and Psyche, "The Girl Who Married a Snake" from India, and A Midsummer Night's Dream are some of the early precursors to the French versions with which we are more familiar. The French "Belle et la BĂȘte" was first written by Madame de Villeneuve, but the condensed version which is more popularly used and adapted was edited by Madame Leprince de Beaumont. Interestingly, this is to date the only fairytale Disney adapted which is most popularly attributed to women writers; though, of course, most if not all of the Grimms and Perrault's versions were told to them by women, the names of these women are largely lost to history. "Beauty and the Beast" retains its link to female storytellers, and to this day it is one of the most often-used fairytales in feminist retellings, such as Angela Carter's "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" and "The Tiger's Bride," and Emma Donoghue's "The Tale of the Rose."

I think by and large Disney's adaptation of "Belle et la BĂȘte" is their best fairytale adaptation. While it isn't as widely criticized as The Little Mermaid, it definitely has its detractors. There are some definite advantages to the primary source material being written by a woman, so I think this film had a bit of a head start compared to the Grimms-, Perrault-, and Andersen-based movies. But I also think that what Disney tried to portray with the characters in this film was truly excellent and well-executed to boot. That isn't to say it's perfect, but for me, it is definitely the closest to perfect of all Disney's fairytale adaptations.

Let's start with our heroine. In the various fairytale versions, Belle (also called Bella or simply Beauty) is the youngest of a number of children (some versions condense this to three daughters, others simply have "numerous" sons and daughters), and most beloved of them all. Her father, a merchant, leaves on some business reason (again, each version varies) and his children ask him to bring them back all sorts of fancy and expensive things. Belle asks for nothing but a single rose. On his return journey, the merchant rests at what appears to be an empty castle, but runs into the Beast when attempting to take a rose from the garden for Belle. At this point in some versions the Beast tells the merchant he may go but must return with the first thing he sees upon returning home (which, of course, is Belle, running out to greet him), but in the Villeneuve and Beaumont versions, the Beast insists that whichever of his children he brings back must come willingly. This is echoed in the Disney version when Belle volunteers herself in her father's place as prisoner, despite her father's protestations. Disney choosing to use the version in which Belle makes the decision highlights one of the most important aspects of her character, both in the film and the early French versions: her bravery. In fact, in the Villeneuve version, it is repeated several times that Belle is "brave and cheerful" and that she "bravely answer[s] that she will stay." Belle's very posture in the scene in the dungeon shows that she is steadfast and courageous, and that she is making this decision herself. This is a common trait in the Disney Renaissance princesses, in stark contrast to the early princesses.

Belle's steadfastness also manifests as stubbornness, but this is not portrayed as a flaw, per se. At the Beast's brusque and gruff treatment, she refuses to see him or interact with him, despite his angry threats. Belle does not put up with this treatment from the Beast and it is not until the Beast changes his behavior that Belle chooses to interact with him. Belle did not put up with Gaston's behavior, nor does she put up with the Beast's. The difference is that the Beast changes, with much nudging and assistance from Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts.

Many adaptations do focus on the Beauty learning to love the Beast as he is, which is where the Stockholm Syndrome accusations come in. If the Beast continued to treat her the way he did at their first meeting and she "learned to love" him despite him bursting into furious tantrums when she refuses to eat dinner with him, that accusation might have some merit. And indeed, in other versions of the story where the Beast changes absolutely nothing about himself and the heroine is expected to just change her mind about him and learn to deal with his atrocious behavior, that diagnosis rings truer. But Disney actually took the right route here, having the Beast be the one to learn to be gentle, kind, patient, and loving. This is the kind of behavior to which Belle responds. Does this still kind of imply that Belle is a reward for good behavior? Sure, and that's troubling. But I think it is way more commendable to portray the Beast changing his behavior than simply the Beauty changing her mind. Both versions have fairytale precedent, and Disney chose the right one.

Disney's version also includes many other female characters, notably the Enchantress and Mrs. Potts. The Enchantress is an interesting case, as I've discussed before. We don't see much of her in the film at all, and her moral alignment is a matter of debate. In Villeneuve's story, she is referred to as an "evil fairy." (Beaumont leaves out the character entirely and refers only to the "terrible enchantment," not the enchanter.) I've seen some speculation about the Enchantress being Belle's mother in disguise, making sure her daughter's future husband was worthy of her, and I've also seen speculation that the Enchantress was just plain evil, putting this curse on a young boy who didn't know better (or was just not allowing strangers into his home, which - fair enough). I can't say I much care for the headcanon of the Enchantress being Belle's mother, creative though it is; reliance on fate and destiny in storytelling tends to bore me. But as we have very little canon to go on for Disney's Enchantress, it is interesting that people are debating it so much. Other female characters such as Mrs. Potts and Babette get more screen time but aren't really fully-developed characters. Mrs. Potts in particular is instrumental in the Beast's journey, of course, but this makes her more of a plot device than a completely realized character.

This being a Disney film, ultimately the Beauty and the Beast, of course, end up with each other, the Beast having transformed to avoid any untidy bestiality implications. Interestingly, some adaptations either leave the Beast as he is or have the Beauty disappointed when he turns into a human. Neither of those would have worked for a family film, though. As mentioned previously, it is troubling that the prince is essentially rewarded with Belle, and that is something direct from the fairytale itself. Women as trophies for good behavior is a trope that's - wait for it - old as time, and fairytales ending in romantic togetherness is pretty much something that happens across the board. Belle is a strong and admirable character - I'm biased, obviously she's my favourite - but the journey here is the Beast's, not hers. She saves him, she is truly the heroine, but it's not her story, really. Disney's story is about the Beast learning to love himself as well as others, and it's a wonderful story well-told with funny, interesting, lovable characters. I don't think Disney's done as well with any other fairytale adaptations, and though I hope for more in the future, sentimentally this one will always hold the highest place in my heart.


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