Today’s guest entry from Rebekah Fitzsimmons’s “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” course comes from Abigail Davis, who looks at how one fairy tale has permeated almost every corner of popular culture.
By Abigail Davis
A tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme. “Beauty and the Beast” does indeed seem to have been a part of human culture for hundreds of years, whether you’re looking at the ancient story of Cupid and Psyche or the beloved Disney film. But why has this story survived so long and in fact become an ingrained part of our culture? At its basis the story follows the path of having a lovely youth be taken into the possession of something Other. Then they are eventually married and depending on the version they either live happily ever after or the youth is in some way separated from their beloved. Not exactly a complicated plot but maybe its beauty lies in its simplicity. Every girl can imagine the horror of being forced to marry, or even just date, someone they don’t like and this lets the story become relatable by reflecting that fear and showing how it can be false. The story endears itself by allowing the readers to put themselves into the shoes of the beauty and have them overcome this fear alongside her. At least on one front this may explain the continued success of “Beauty and the Beast” but is it still portrayed this way in popular culture?
The most widely recognized version of Beauty and the Beast is by far the animated film by Disney. This film features a plucky young girl who’s longing for adventure is only matched by her love for reading. Belle, through a series of mishaps, seeks out her father at the Beast’s castle and trades away her life for his, keeping with Mme. de Beaumont’s version of “Beauty and the Beast”. There Belle and the Beast slowly build a friendship and, to the hopes of the cast of household furniture, the beginnings of love. Let’s be honest though, a guy gives you sweet library like that, what can you do?
Seriously, sign me up.
So they start crushing on each other a bit but then Belle is forced to leave to go to her sick father’s side. A few more mishaps occur to Belle, her father, and the Beast due to Disney’s addition of a villain, Gaston, who is an arrogant man who was once spurned by Belle and now seeks to… kill the beast and win Belle’s hand? Get more horns for decorating purposes? Oh well, what’s a fairy tale without a good old fashioned villain? The Beast is stabbed by Gaston who then plummets to his death while Belle professes her love to the Beast. This love then saves him and allows him to transform back to human form. So Belle and the Prince formerly known as Beast are presumably married and live happily ever after.
“Beauty and the Beast” is also thriving on TV. The CW’s Beauty and the Beast is a crime drama where Beauty is a detective at the New York Police Department named Catherine and the beast is a soldier from Afghanistan named Vincent. Vincent is experimented on by the US government in their quest to create the super soldier. This experiment backfires and makes him beastly. You can find the trailer for this show here. Catherine witnessed her mother’s murder by criminals who then attempted to murder her but instead she is saved by what Catherine describes as a Beast. And so their relationship begins. Throughout the show’s first season Vincent and Catherine have a tense relationship on the brink of romance while Catherine also solves crimes using the information Vincent gathers. The show doesn’t follow the classic Mme. de Beaumont’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” but it does involve a young beauty who looks past the monstrous qualities of a man to see his true self. As the show progresses it will be interesting how they continue to handle the fairy tale concept.
This story has also been retold numerous times in books, such as Beastly by Alex Flinn and Robin Mckinley has done multiple retellings titled Rose Daughter and Beauty. Beastly tells “Beauty and the Beast” through the eyes of the Beast from his cursing to his salvation. Beastly was also adapted into a movie. Robin McKinley’s novels tell the tale in a very similar way to Mme. de Beaumont with some modification and elaboration. McKinley really fleshes out the characters and I appreciated that the two sisters were more than an evil plot device and instead were individual women with pride and imperfections. Also her version of Beauty was no longer an annoyingly perfect girl with more virtue than anyone person should have; she has a personality and ideas, no longer accepting her fate because that’s apparently how you prove your love in fairy tales. Personally I liked Rose Daughter the best of these three versions but they all provide an interesting take on the classic fairy tale.
Beastly by Alex Flinn
“Beauty and the Beast” is an extremely popular story that has been engraved on the hearts of hundreds and hundreds of people, whether it was their love for one of the original versions of the tale or that Belle and her Beast captured their hearts. It has been retold and re-imagined countless times. Here I barely even scratched the surface of influence in pop culture but it does give you some idea of how varied its reach is. I’ll leave you with the most recent reference to it that I can think of: Justin Bieber’s “Beauty and the Beat”, a play on words that may not actually have anything to do with the fairy tale but I think it’s entertaining to see how these stories can be bent and changed to suit our society and culture.
Abigail is an undergraduate at the University of Florida.