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▶︎ Disney’s animated and live-action Beauty and the Beasts are available to stream on Disney+ and to buy on Blu-ray and DVD.
▶︎ Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête is available to stream on BFI Player, and to buy on BFI Blu-ray and DVD.

The first Beast was the god of love, Eros. The many successive versions of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale have continued to develop him in this role, and the new Disney Beauty and the Beast is no exception.

In the romance the Alexandrian writer Apuleius interpolated into The Golden Ass, Eros makes love, invisibly, to a mortal Beauty – Psyche – who rivals his own mother Aphrodite in seductiveness. Psyche is forbidden to see him; her sisters goad her, warning her that her lover must be a monster, a cannibal, whose “favourite food is a woman far gone in pregnancy”.

This feature was originally published in our October 1992 issue

When Psyche breaks the prohibition, lighting a candle to look at him as he sleeps, he and all his magic surroundings vanish. Her fantasy of his monstrousness proves to be delusory – an important theme in the fairy tale, in which later Beauties have to discover for themselves that the Beast’s beastliness is an illusion lying in the eye of the beholder. Eros, mysterious, unknown, feared, exceeds all imaginable degree of charm when Psyche does look at him, but her failure to trust, and to obey, costs her his presence and his love.

Apuleius’s tale echoes stories of Pandora and Eve in focusing on female curiosity as the dynamic of the sex. Punished for her disobedience, Psyche has to prove her love through many adventures and ordeals; finally, this Beauty is reunited with her Beast and adapts him, a god, to the human condition, to society through marriage, and they have a daughter called Voluptas – Pleasure.

The divine Beast offers writers and filmmakers a figure of masculine desire, and the plot in which he moves presents a blueprint for the proper channelling of erotic energy in society. It is Psyche, however, who has to strive to that end; the story is her journey, the journey of the soul. This makes her the protagonist, occupying the more usually male role of the chivalrous quester, but it also consistently leaves in place the Eros figure as the object of the soul’s quest, again in a reversal of the more expected pattern of chivalry.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

As a female pilgrim’s progress, a rite of passage with a heroine at its centre, the tale of Beauty and the Beast has attracted numerous women interpreters. Linda Woolverton, the scriptwriter for the new Disney animation, follows in a long and distinguished line which includes ancien regime rakes, French governesses, English bluestockings, as well as more recently the Surrealists Leonora Carrington and Angela Carter.

As a female pilgrim’s progress, the tale of Beauty and the Beast has attracted numerous women interpreters.

The earliest writer of true fairy tales to tackle the theme paradoxically challenged the very premises of the romance: at the end of the seventeenth century and beginning of the eighteenth, in one famous fairy tale after another, Marie-Catherine Jumel de Barneville, Comtesse d’Aulnoy, portrayed her heroines struggling with the conditions of arranged matches and arriving at different stratagems of deliverance from unsavoury suitors.

Mme d’Aulnoy herself had been married off in her teens to a notorious libertine, and she and her mother were later charged with plotting to murder him by falsely accusing him of high treason, a capital crime. They were found guilty, but not before M. le Comte d’Aulnoy had spent three years in the Bastille under suspicion. Their sentences were suspended in exchange for spying abroad for the French crown, and when Mme d’Aulnoy finally returned to Paris, she presided over a fashionable salon where the guests played literary parlour games and dressed up in the costumes of characters in fairy tales.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The threat of animals at that time was a real and frightening one; in times of scarcity and hard winters bears and wolves would prey on towns and villages, and animal metamorphosis in the tales could consequently pack menace to a degree that can no longer be felt today, when crocodiles and sharks are sold as soft toys and endangered species outstrip the starving Somalians or the Bosnians for relief funds.

The various Beast shapes to which the unsavoury lovers are confined in the fairy tales embodied Mme d’Aulnoy’s and her contemporaries’ view of marital union. In The Ram, the princess heroine simply leaves the eponymous Beast to die, while she busies herself taking charge of her father’s kingdom at his side.

Animal metamorphosis in the tales could pack menace to a degree that can no longer be felt today.

In The Green Serpent, Mme d’Aulnoy elaborates the Cupid and Psyche story, and the Beast is portrayed as a true-hearted lover cursed with animal ugliness by a wicked fairy; her heroine Laidronette (Little Ugly One) is equally disfigured by an evil spell, but dauntless in her labyrinthine quest. Significantly, when Laidronette comes across a whole circle of hell peopled by men in enchanted animal shape, she discovers that they have been punished for various marital crimes – for wife-beating, rape and so forth – and that their shape corresponds to their offence.

Fairy tales, with their generic commitment to justice, often enclose a simple notion of retribution. Francesco Stefani’s The Singing Ringing Tree (Das Singende Klingende Bäumchen), a family film made in the former GDR in 1957 and largely inspired by the Grimm Brothers’ early nineteenth-century collection, blended a Beauty and the Beast-type tale with another familiar figure: the Haughty Princess who considers herself too good for every one of her dozens of suitors.

The Singing Ringing Tree (Das Singende Klingende Bäumchen, 1957)

Her punishment is ugliness: the live-action film animates the grotesque collapse of her beauty and follows her growing, painful lessons in kindness, humility and love as she cares for the magical creatures she once spurned – a giant goldfish, a golden-maned and golden-antlered horse and a flock of doves. Her pilgrim’s progress eventually succeeds in freeing her mentor, the Prince, who himself has been changed into a bear by an evil magician. Once she has learned to love, her beauty returns.

The Disney Beauty and the Beast adapts a similar idea of retributive justice when, at the beginning, it describes how the Prince spurned a beggarwoman who came to his door; for this brutal behaviour, she casts a spell on him that turns him into a brute for all to see. It’s a piquant example of concurrence in the area of children’s entertainment between the approaches of the old communist state and the doyen of free-market cinema; the fun of fairy tales for grown-ups often lies in wagging fingers at the young, in a secular, ideological variation on the hellfire sermon.

Moral intentions have influenced fairy tales increasingly strongly since the nineteenth century; the Brothers Grimm led the way, as they re-edited and reshaped successive editions of their famous Household Tales to clarify their improving message. Their predecessors were less anxious about the possible effect on children of tales of incest, adultery or murder. The earliest fairy tale actually entitled La Belle et la bête was written by the French aristocrat Mme de Villeneuve in 1740, and it portrays the Beast as the victim of an ancient and malignant fairy who cursed him when the handsome youth turned down her amorous advances. The story encrypts the corrupt and vicious intrigues of court life, of fortune-hunting and marriage-braking, pandering and lust in the ancien regime, and, like many of the first literary fairy tales, it campaigns for marriages of true minds, for the rights of the heart, for freedom for the true lovers of romance.

The Disney film, of course, has abandoned the cynical combativeness of the tale’s first interpreters and remained true to the romantic and idealist yearnings of later tellers. Fourteen years after Mme de Villeneuve’s La Belle et la bête, Mme de Beaumont revised it in a polished résumé; it is her version that has become almost canonical, and that inspired Jean Cocteau’s film of 1946.

La Belle et la Bête (1946)
The nursery story of Beauty and the Beast assumes a female audience who fully expect to be given away to men who might well strike them as monsters.

Mme de Beaumont was a governess who worked for aristocratic families in England; she collaborated with her charges (she believed strongly in young women’s capacities to think and act) on a pioneer pedagogical journal called The Misses’ Magazine, in which she published conversations, fables, cautionary tales – and fairy stories. It’s easy to catch, in her La Belle et la bête, the anxious tones of a well-meaning teacher raising her pupils to face their future obediently and decorously, to hear the hope that inside an undesirable husband might beat the heart of a good man, given a bit of encouragement.

Fairy tales’ stock-in-trade has become didacticism, but Mme de Beaumont in the mid-eighteenth century was a pioneer in using the form to lead the expectations of the young; in spite of the genre’s reputation for happy endings, it tends to teach its audience to know the worst so that they can perhaps deal with it when it happens. The nursery story of Beauty and the Beast assumes a female audience (as, it seems to me, does the Disney film) who fully expect to be given away to men who might well strike them as monsters. The social revolution which has established as the norm marriage from inclination has irreversibly altered the reception of such romances, and ironically transformed seventeenth-century women’s resistance to their matrimonial lot, as well as eighteenth-century lessons in resignation, into romantic – and materialistic – propaganda for making a good marriage.

Masculine majesty

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

When men adopt this material, they often introduce special pleading on their own behalf; Cocteau’s film, for all its delicacy and dreamlike seductiveness, concentrates on awakening Beauty to consciousness of the Beast’s goodness. He does not have to change, except in outward shape; she has to see past his unsightliness to the gentle and loving human being trapped inside. Christian Berard’s designs intensify the Beast’s poignancy; he’s not an animal, but a hairy anthropomorphic changeling, a Quasimodo, a pitiful Elephant Man who deserves love if only women would listen to the imperatives of the heart, not the eye.

King Kong is one of his lineage too, as the last words of the film make plain: “’Twas not the aeroplanes, ’twas Beauty killed the Beast.” This strand in the history of Beauty and the Beast consists of variations on the theme of the femme fatale, on men’s anguish in the face of female indifference, rather than women’s vulnerability to male violence. Ironically, such interpretations make Beauty guilty of fixity, in a story that began as a narrative of a woman’s passionate progress.

Underlying the static serenity of Jose Day’s Beauty in Cocteau’s film lies the Symbolist fetishisation of impassive femininity, as defined by Baudelaire; of Beauty who speaks of herself as “un rêve de pierre” (a dream of stone), with a granite breast on which men (poets) wound themselves and discover love “éternel et muet ainsi que la matière” (eternal and mute as matter). Psyche-Beauty, as woman, is material, she is flesh, however cool and otherworldly her appearance; Eros-Beast belongs to the spirit world, and his enchanted castle, with its spellbinding moving sconces and speaking furniture, emanates from the higher realm of imagination, the dimension of dream and fantasy, where poets – like Baudelaire, like Cocteau himself – are sent through the love women inspire in them.

Cocteau, as a Surrealist, was reinterpreting Symbolist doctrine of the feminine’s role in creativity. Not for nothing had the Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme attributed to Baudelaire its definition of ‘la femme’: “She who casts the greatest light or the greatest shadows into our dreams”. The inflexion on “our” here is obviously masculine. This doesn’t prevent Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête from entrancing a female spectator again and again, but it does divert the story from the female subject to communicate a perceived male erotic hunger for beauty as stimulus to creativity. The ravishing aestheticisation of the film, from the flying laundry at the start to the twilit luxuries of the castle magic, extends the function of the feminine as the Beast’s necessary lifeblood.

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

Cinema, like fairy-tale illustration, has to display the Beast (the word monster, interestingly, derives from Latin monstrare, to show). The narrators of earlier versions of Beauty and the Beast could avoid giving precise indications of his horrible appearance, and describe his enchanted shape in the most general terms: he is merely so monstrous that anyone beholding him is struck down with terror for their lives.

Early illustrators, however, had to wrestle with the problem; and late nineteenth-century printers of children’s books pioneered full-colour illustration. At the beginning, mere animal form is sufficient horror in itself: in the Lambs’ version, the earliest written for children in English, the artist simply visualised the Beast as a swine, like the victims of Circe’s enchantments in The Odyssey. But the trend soon moved towards more anthropomorphic characteristics: two-legged, upright Beasts disfigured by elephant trunks, or boar’s tusks, or wart-hog’s snouts. The less-than-human took the shape of mammals equipped with natural weaponry.

In this, the artists returned to Christian iconography of the devil, multiplying phallic protuberances on face and limbs. But they stopped short, unlike their medieval predecessors, at blazoning monstrous organs in the site of the genitals themselves. It’s significant that women artists – fewer in number – tend not to stress the Beast’s aggressive arsenal, or to focus on his ferocity, but incline towards characteristics of creatures traditionally classed as lower than mammals, visualising the repellent creature as toad-like, fishy, or lizard-like. From a woman’s point of view, the repugnant sometimes looks less-than-masculine, a clammy, flaccid manifestation more like Gollum in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings than the male vision of a fallen angel of priapism. 

Carnal women

Though the early literature offers different approaches to the Beast’s nature, none of it suggests that his monstrousness fascinates and attracts the heroines, that they want to play with the Beast precisely because his animal nature excites them and gives licence to their own desire.

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

The traditional oral material, however, like the Nordic fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, does depict the Beast-heroes as captivating in their very beastliness. The Grimms’ Rose Red and Snow White describes how both the heroines run away screaming when they first set eyes on their suitor, the black bear. But they gradually get used to him, and begin to frolic with him: “They tugged his hair with their hands, put their feet on his back and rolled him about, or they took a hazel switch and beat him, and when he growled, they laughed. But the bear took it all in good part.” Eventually, the two sisters help to disenchant him from the power of a malevolent dwarf, and he turns out to be a rich prince who marries one of them.

Bears became the most popular manifestation of the Beast, and as the twentieth century advances, they grow less fierce and more cuddly, keeping pace with the new values attached to the wilderness and its creatures as well as with the galloping sentimentalisation of teddy bears. In the Edwardian children’s theatre version of Beauty and the Beast, bear costumes are recommended; the bear was known, after all, as the ‘beast who walks like a man’.

In 1982, a television dramatisation of the fairy tale, directed by John Woods, was written by the poet Ted Hughes. It should be much better known, for it develops the theme, implicit in the classical myth of Eros and Psyche, that Beauty’s desire conjures the Beast to her side, and that, after she has lost him, her passion for him brings about their union.

The Hughes-Woods version, though made for children, does not scant the heroine’s erotic fantasy as the dynamic of the story. It begins with the father crazed with worry that every night his beloved daughter, the Princess, is visited by a monstrous and unnameable terror which takes possession of her; invisible, with a huge voice, this phenomenon occupies her dreams and her bed. Doctors are put to watch by her side, and they too are overcome with horror at what they feel, though they see nothing.

Then a wandering musician with a performing bear comes to the palace at the King’s request, to entertain the melancholy and even mad Princess – and the bear charms her. She dances with him, and the King, her father, rejoices that the bear seems to have lifted the mad darkness that was oppressing her. But then, as they are dancing, the bear seizes her in his arms and carries her off. When, after a long search, the hunting-party tracks them down, the Princess begs them not to hurt her bear. They wound him, and she weeps – and then, as in other versions, her tears, the proof of her love, fall on his pelt and he stands up, transfigured into a beautiful prince.

Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton in Beauty and the Beast (1987-90)

Hughes’s intuition that Beauty loves the Beast, even when he terrorises her in the night, reappeared in a more definite form in the popular CBS television series (also shown in Britain), in which the Beast never casts off his hybrid form. A roaring, rampaging half-lion, half-human creature, he reigns over the New York subway system as a defender of women and beggars, an urban Robin Hood who was born from an immaculate virgin and the seed of two fathers, the double lord of the underworld, one a good magus and the other a wicked wizard. Beauty in this case works in the DA’s office, but communicates secretly with her saviour Beast; their love is passionate, chivalrous and illicit. He is the ‘monster of her dreams’, and she likes him just as he is.

It would be easy to dismiss these visions of the Beast’s desirability as male self-flattery, or even, more seriously, as sentimental justifications of roughness, tyranny and rape. But to do so misses the genuine attempt of the fairy tale, sometimes, to face up to the complicated character of the female erotic impulse. The story has always been a great favourite for women: the early writers were followed by Victorians like Mary Lamb, who translated and adapted it for her brother, and Lucy Crane, who worked on it with her brother, the artist Walter Crane. More recently, Leonora Carrington, the Surrealist artist and writer, returned to the theme over and over again in her short stories of 1937-41 and in later images.

Carrington was writing from the age of 19 onwards from the midst of a Surrealist circle centred on Max Ernst, and she responded to Surrealist fantasies about young women – femmes enfants – as the innocent, and therefore pure, mediums of erotic power. She voices Surrealist dreams of sexual freedom for men and women, intertwining the macabre English nursery-rhyme tradition with avant-garde flouting of decorum. Her imagery responds to Ernst’s own collage novels, like A Week of Kindness, in which he imagined savage conjunctions and maulings, as well as celebratory carnal encounters.

Leonora Carrington’s painting Pastoral (Angel Hunters) (1950)

Carrington conjures equally fierce couplings of her feral heroines and their lovers. In As they rode along the edge…, the heroine, Virginia Fur, lives in a forest and travels at the head of a procession of a hundred cats, riding on a wheel. She has a huge mane and “long and enormous hands with dirty nails”. “One couldn’t really be altogether sure that she was a human being. Her smell alone threw doubt on it – a mixture of spices and game, the stables, fur and grasses.”

Virginia makes love tempestuously with Igname, a boar, after he has presented himself to her in “the most sumptuous outfit” – apparel worthy of a wooer: “a wig of squirrels’ tails and fruit hung around Igname’s ears, pierced for the occasion by two little pikes he had found dead in the lake. His hoofs were dyed red by the blood of a rabbit. He hid his russet buttocks (he did not want to show all his beauty at one go).”

Carrington’s stories throw important light on the development of the Beauty and the Beast story in the literature of women, for women. Generally speaking, her Beast represents the energy, hitherto crushed by conventional forces, inside her heroines’ spirits. This motive force, in the manner of post-Freudian optimism, is erotic in character: in the wake of early utopian Revolutionaries, the Surrealists believed that the liberation of sexual desire would lead to wider freedom and fulfilment.

Angela Carter’s short tales, in The Bloody Chamber, show an uncannily similar spirit of mischief to Carrington’s, even though she cannot have known the older woman’s work as it has only very recently been collected. Carter too varied her interpretations of the Beauty and the Beast theme over and over again: in The Courtship of Mr Lyon, The Tiger’s Bride, The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves. These are some of the most shivery and sensual tales about women’s sexual initiation, and they lift the covers from the body usually concealed in the fairy tale. Indeed, Carter herself noted the hypocritical evasions of so many modern versions. In a review of a recent study of the fairy tale by Betsy Hearne, she commented caustically that the story was increasingly set to work “to house-train the id”.

The Company of Wolves (1984)
Angela Carter’s are some of the most shivery and sensual tales about women’s sexual initiation, and they lift the covers from the body usually concealed in the fairy tale.

Beauty’s attraction to the Beast before his regeneration reflects pulp fantasies about abduction in romance fiction, and even pornography’s conjuration of sadism and rape. The territory is heavily mined; one of the reasons Angela Carter’s work, in screenplays as well as books, provokes so many contradictory and powerful feelings rises from her plain dealing with erotic dominance as a source of pleasure for men – and for women. But Carter’s tales are polymorphous, too, and full of rich contradictions. The Magic Toyshop tells the story of a Beast’s defeat: the puppet master makes a monstrous swan automaton to assault his niece, but she rejects him, refuses the part in his puppet show and eventually escapes, with the whole family, from his designs. For The Company of Wolves, Carter adapted several stories to dramatise a young girl’s sexual awakening and the call of the wild. The company of wolves here stirs desire far more profoundly than would the highest pattern of princes.

The Disney New Man

Linda Woolverton and the team who collaborated on the new Disney Beauty and the Beast have clearly steeped themselves in the tale’s history, on and off screen; prolonged and intense production meetings, turning over every last detail of representation and narrative, can almost be heard over the insouciant soundtrack. This is a fairy tale that’s vividly aware of contemporary sexual politics; it has consciously picked out a strand in the tale’s history and developed it for an audience of mothers who grew up with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who have daughters who listen to Madonna and Sinead O’Connor. Woolverton’s screenplay gives us a heroine of spirit who finds romance on her own terms; and beneath this prima facie storyline, the interpretation contains many subtexts, both knotty and challenging, about changing concepts of paternal authority and rights, about permitted expressions of male desire, and prevailing notions in the quarrel about nature-nurture. Above all, it places troublingly before our eyes the domestication of feminism itself.

Nevertheless, while the Disney Beauty and the Beast ostensibly tells the story of the feisty, strong-willed heroine, and carries the audience along on the wave of her dash, bravery, self-awareness and integrity, the principal burden of the film’s message concerns maleness, its various faces and masks, and, in the spirit of romance, it offers hope of regeneration from within the unregenerate male.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The graphic intensity given the two protagonists betrays the weight of interest: Beauty is saucer-eyed, dainty, slender and wears a variation on the pseudo-medieval dresses of both Cinderella and Snow White, which, as in Cinderella, turn into ancien regime crinolines cum New Look debutante gowns for the scene of awakening love when she dances with the Beast. Her passage from repugnance to attraction also follows a movement from village hall to castle gate, in the conventional upwardly mobile style of fairy tales.

The animators have introduced certain emancipated touches: she’s dark-haired, walks with a swing, moves with fetching fleetness of gesture, and has a certain graceful carelessness about her appearance – the hook is that she’s a bookworm, and the script even contains a fashionable bow in the direction of self-reflexiveness, for Belle likes reading fairy tales more than any other kind of book, and consequently recognises the type of story she’s caught in.

So Belle is an improvement on Cinderella or Snow White. But, compared to the Beast, she’s dull. He has the artists’ full attention; the pneumatic signature style of Disney animation suits the Beast’s character as male desire incarnate: he swells, he towers, he inflates, he tumesces. Everything about him is big, and capable of growing bigger: his castle looms, its furnishings dwarfed by its Valhalla-like dimensions. The candelabra, the clock, the teapot – the three servants who come to life with brio and exuberance – are like Lilliputians lost in a Brobdingnagian’s lair.

We see the Beast enraged, crowding the screen edge to edge; when he holds Belle he looks as if he could snap her between his teeth like a chicken wing. His body too looks as if it’s constantly in the process of burgeoning; poised on narrow hooves and skimpy legs, the Disney Beast sometimes lollops like a big cat, but more often stands erect, rising to an engorged torso, with an enormous, bull-like head compacted into massive shoulders, maned and shaggy all over, bristling with fangs and horns and claws that almost seem belittled by the creature’s overall bulk.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The pneumatic signature style of Disney animation suits the Beast’s character as male desire incarnate: he swells, he towers, he inflates, he tumesces.

The Beast’s sexual equipment was always part of his charm – hidden or otherwise (it is, of course, dispersed by synecdoche all over his body in the Disney cartoon). When Titania falls in love with Bottom the Weaver, the associations of the ass were not lost on the audience. But the comic – and its concomitant, the pathetic – have almost entirely slipped away from this contemporary representation of virility.

Whereas Bottom, even in his name, was a figure of fun, and the Golden Ass, his classical progenitor, a ruefully absurd icon of (male) humanity, the contemporary vision of the Beast tends to the tragic. The new Disney Beast’s nearest ancestor is the Minotaur, the hybrid offspring of Phaedra and the bull and an ancient nightmare of perverted appetite. (It is significant that Picasso adopted the Minotaur as his alter ego, as the embodiment of his priapism, in the vigour of youth as well as in the impotence of old age.) Disney’s Minotaur also conveys the rage of the male at experiencing limits: when the Beast is thwarted or disobeyed he lashes out and roars and ruts, but uselessly. Belle fears him, but his violence has no effect on her, or, it seems, on anyone else. He’s a prisoner of his own powerful bulk, just as he’s a prisoner in his own castle.

The Disney cartoon has doubled the traditional plot by adding a second Beast, Gaston, who personifies another side to the rampant hunk in need of civilising, and refracts the Beast in a second series of mirrors. In French, ‘bête’ means ‘stupid’ when used as an adjective; in Cocteau’s film, Jean Marais’ Beast can only grunt, though his magical palace breathes caressing words in his erotic baritone to Beauty when she moves about her room. The Beauty who confronts and eventually transforms the Beast though love restores him to culture, civility and language, and in the process, discovers herself. Cocteau’s Beast speaks to Beauty through her mirror, for instance, so that she advances towards the knowledge of her desires when she contemplates her own reflection.

The Disney version flatters its heroine with far more profound wisdom; her discovery of the Beast’s qualities does not go hand in hand with any needed growth in self-awareness. She knows her own mind from the start. Nor are all Beasts amenable to instruction: Gaston is a killer – of animals – and remains one; he’s a lyncher who preys on social outcasts (suspected lunatics and marginals), he wants to breed (he promises Belle six or seven children), and he’s capable of deep treachery in pursuit of his own interests.

Gaston in Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The penalty for his brutishness is death: he falls off a high crag from the Beast’s castle. He’s the true beast, Calvinist and unredeemed, socially deviant in his supremacist assumptions; unsound on ecology in both directions (he abuses the natural, the forest, and culture, the library). What is significant about this caricature, above all, is that he’s a man in a man’s shape, a dead ringer for Clark Kent as played by Christopher Reeve. But Supermen are out, and animals are in – witness the success of Robert Bly and his theories of men’s need for the wild in Iron John.

Disney’s Minotaur conveys the rage of the male at experiencing limits: when the Beast is thwarted or disobeyed he lashes out and roars and ruts, but uselessly.

Splitting the male into the good beast and the bad beast adds needed drama to the story, but it’s also a device that helps define by contrast the possibility of a superior, virtuous brand of masculinity, embodied by the Beast. Unlike Gaston, he does not hunt and shoot other creatures; unlike Gaston, he’s aware of his shortcomings, and grieves like a good existentialist at his condition; unlike Gaston, he appreciates books and indeed possesses a huge library, big enough to keep even a bookworm like Belle happy for a while.

Whereas Caroline Thompson’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), the most recent attempt by a woman writer-producer to portray a good Beast, foundered on such a paragon’s capacity to survive in the world and sent him back into solitary confinement in his gothic castle, Woolverton’s revision cuts its cloth to fairy tale’s traditional pattern of heroic optimism and presents a Beast who fits the profile of the Bly-style New Man: virile yet tender, natural yet cultivated, in touch with his emotions, connected to the child within yet mature and responsible in his attitude. All he needed was the love of a good woman. Sometimes – though it seems grudging after clamouring for positive feminine representations for so long – such a huge helping of female autonomy, responsibility, self-determination and powers of salvation add up to a mighty charge for one small Belle to shoulder.

In Edward Scissorhands, the heroine also acts quickly, with gallantry and courage, to save this outcast from a mob; but he is fatally hampered by his hybrid form, half way between the automaton and the creaturely: his weapon hands encumber him with man-made technology and cut him off from the desirable aspects of the human, which derive from what is perceived as natural, as animal.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)
The register of value has been turned topsy turvy and the wild man has come into his own as an ideal.

The further the cinematic outcast lies from the machine, the more likely his redemption; the beast as cyborg, as in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), represents the apocalyptic culmination of human ingenuity and its diabolical perversion. Whereas, to a medieval spectator, the devil was perceived as close to the animal order in his hooved hairiness, and a bloodless angel in gleaming armour approximated the divine artefact, the register of value has since the eighteenth century been turned topsy turvy and the wild man has come into his own as an ideal. The evolution of the Beast in fairy tale, and his portraits in film, illustrate this shift in cultural values as well as sexual expectations.

Post-patriarchy

The most significant plot change to the traditional story in the Disney film concerns the role of Beauty’s father, and it continues the film’s trend towards granting Beauty freedom of movement and responsibility for the action.

The traditional fairy tale often includes the tragic motif that in return for his life, the father promises the Beast the first thing to greet him when he returns home; as in the story of Jephte in the Bible, his daughter, his youngest and most dear, rushes to the gate to meet him, and the father has to sacrifice her. In the eighteenth-century French fairy story, which focused on the evils of matrimonial custom, the father hands over Belle to the Beast in exactly the same kind of legal and financial transaction as an arranged marriage, and she learns to lump it with her new husband. Bruno Bettelheim, following in the governesses’ footsteps, takes a strict line in The Uses of Enchantment, where he analyses the story as a lesson in female maturity: Beauty learns to relinquish her Oedipal attachment to her father and discovers her own sexuality with the Beast; furthermore, she should be grateful to her father for making the discovery possible.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Linda Woolverton’s script sensibly sets such patriarchal analysis aside, and instead provides subplots to explain away the father’s part in Beauty’s predicament, as well as supplying Beauty herself with all the determination to make her mistress of her own fate. In the last successful Disney animation, The Little Mermaid (1989), the heroine teaches her father, the God of the Sea, to respect her desires, somewhat in the manner of Madonna’s song Pappa Don’t Preach. A few years on, the Disney studio, sensitive to the rise of children’s rights, has replaced the father with the daughter as the enterprising authority figure in the family.

The tales in the Beauty and the Beast cycle number among the most eloquent testaments to women’s struggles – against arranged marriage, towards a definition of the place of sexuality in love. The disenchantment of the Beast has long been a theme in the stories women have made up, among themselves, to help, to teach, to warn.

Liking a Disney film doesn’t come easily; admitting to enjoying a fairy-tale cartoon from the same studio that made Snow White and Cinderella, that held up simpering, gutless, niminy-piminy idiots as paragons and introduced children everywhere to expect malignancy from older women, goes against the grain, like accepting all of a sudden that John Major has developed dress sense, or the Pope become a feminist. But this version of Beauty and the Beast is funny, touching and lively, and communicates romantic hopefulness with panache and high spirits. It’s a true inheritor of a long literary tradition of romance, sieved through the consciousness of 70s feminism, which asked for plucky fairy-tale heroines and got this: a Hollywood belle who prefers books to hunks.

Further reading

All I desire: women watching men at the movies

By Christina Newland

All I desire: women watching men at the movies

Beauty and the Beast review: a magnificent monster with no teeth

By Kate Stables

Beauty and the Beast review: a magnificent monster with no teeth

Beast review: a fairytale with more than one monster

By Philip Kemp

Beast review: a fairytale with more than one monster

The Elephant Man archive review: how the Victorians dealt with the unacceptable and the inexplicable

The Elephant Man archive review: how the Victorians dealt with the unacceptable and the inexplicable

The Shape of Water review: Guillermo del Toro’s magical anti-fascist fairytale

By Nick James

The Shape of Water review: Guillermo del Toro’s magical anti-fascist fairytale

WolfWalkers redraws the bounds of old Ireland’s hunters and hunted

By Andrew Osmond

WolfWalkers redraws the bounds of old Ireland’s hunters and hunted

Sight & Sound June 2021

In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.

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