Essay: Beauty and the Beast Fairytales and Folklore

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Beauty and the Beast

"Beauty and the Beat": A Feminist Interpretation

Writing in the introduction to Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's "Beauty and the Beat," Maria Tatar notes that versions of the story have been making their way across the world for centuries. This version, however, is the one most known by Anglo-Americans, and it was intended as a cautionary tale for women and girls, according to Tater, who suggested that it was meant to emphasize the importance of virtue rather than intelligence or looks when marrying. Indeed, Tater's interpretation of the story can be taken further, as she also argues that "Beauty and the Beast" was a tale meant to encourage young women who were forced to marry older men. In this interpretation, the fact that the beast transforms into a handsome, intelligent prince after Beauty marries him may signify the fact that a happy marriage can be derived even from those marriages in which there is a great age difference or in which the man is ugly or unintelligence. It may even serve as a way to inform a wife that she can transform her husband. The tone, style, and content of de Beaumont's "Beauty and the Beast" lend to its interpretation as a cautionary tale. A great deal of authorial intrusion informs readers when Beauty has made a good choice and why that choice can be considered a positive one. The tone that emerges in these authorial intrusions is the tone of a wise, motherly figure. Even noting this, however, the actual purpose of "Beauty and the Beast" can be debated. Although it may serve a rather benign purpose, explaining to girls that virtue is the most important characteristic to look for in a mate, the story, when viewed from a feminist perspective, may also be considered quite malevolent. Indeed, one interpretation of "Beauty and the Beast," is that it is a primer for young girls in the art of being a wife -- instructing them that submission and lack of self-expression are the proper characteristics to display, and virtually taking away what freedom they have by demoting them to this lowered position.

Although Beauty, or Belle, from the Disney version of "Beauty and the Beast" can be seen on the apparel of young girls across the United States and into other countries, few parents are aware of the negative values that the story actually teaches to young girls. Instead of showing them that they can be anything they want to be -- a popular moral among princess folklore -- "Beauty and the Beast" teachers girls that submission earns the crown. In fact, Griswold and Griswold write, "Those feminists who object to "Beauty and the Beast" see it as an admiring portrait of a self-sacrificial maiden and argue that De Beaumont's story conveys the objectionable lesson that women should be submissive" (63). From the outset, Beauty submits herself to cruel treatment from her sisters in order to promote mild-mannered-ness as a positive characteristic for women. Although the sisters "made fun of their sister for spending most of her time reading good books," what could be considered traditional sibling rivalry takes a different turn when the family is forced to move to the country (de Beaumont 61). At this point, Beauty is doing all of the housework while her sisters do none -- she gets up at the crack of dawn and suffers greatly physically for this effort at first. Yet despite her sacrifice, the sisters continue to poke fun, are happy when she leaves, and attempt to keep her from happiness with a cunning con that involves her love for them when she returns from the Beast's to visit them. Nevertheless, Beauty never scolds them; she does not make any acknowledgement of anger toward them in any way, and even attempts to offer them gifts.

To De Beaumont, this behavior is admirable. This is shown both in De Beaumont's own description of Beauty, but also in what the townspeople say of her when her father looses his fortune. They say, "As for Beauty, her misfortune is distressing. She's such a kind girl! She speaks with such compassion to the poor. And she is so sweet and sincere" (De Beaumont 62). While this description may, indeed, reflect positively in another situation, realizing that this is a primer for marriage, and was published in a magazine with the hops of attracting young girls for readers (Tater 59) changes this scenario. Instead, how Beauty responds to her sister's mistreatment stands out as a parallel for how a woman should act if she is mistreated by her husband. Faced with all of the housework while her sisters lounge around all day and constantly ridiculed for her actions or behavior, Beauty's submissive response is similar to that which De Beaumont implies a wife must make when confronted with a husband who acts in a similar manner. Furthermore, Beauty's interaction with the Beast is a further testimony to the marriage model based on submission that De Beaumont seems to advocate. Although she physically shudders from his appearance, Beauty says to the Beast, "You are my master" (De Beaumont 71). Even when she goes to marry him, she does so out of a kind of submission to the fact that he is dying of grief for her, but the grief is a feeling that she did not impose upon him. Thus, through these instances, De Beaumont implies that a woman should be forever submissive to her husband no matter how cruel, ugly, unintelligent, or spiteful he may be. This reading is especially harmful to women who may be forced into arranged marriages, thinking that they have no right to enjoying their lives or being treated with respect. Griswold and Griswold mention that agreement with this argument exists when they write, "In Beauty's going to the Beast's castle and in her agreeing to marry him, these feminists also see the situation of women pledged to arranged marriages by their fathers; in that case, the message to young aristocratic girls in De Beaumont's story seems to be that they should acquiesce to arrangements that have been made for them" (63).

This message to women is continued in De Beaumont's story through her implications that women should not only be submissive, but should be stopped from expressing themselves. Put more correctly, De Beaumont's depiction stresses that women should not feel a right to choose for themselves not only their mate but also the characteristics that they admire in a person. This is most clearly shown in De Beaumont's continuous references to virtue as the admirable characteristic in a potential mate. Described as selfish, unfeeling, and material, Beauty's sisters marry men who are handsome and intelligent respectively. Each is unable to change her "beast" to a prince as beauty has, and each end up as a stone pillar at the end of the story. Finding anything redeeming about the two sisters in the story is difficult if not impossible, yet they are constructed to show the horrors of self-expression, of wanting a man who is handsome or intelligent, of liking nice things, and of getting angry when their situations are changed. Although the characters of the sisters are exaggerated to a proportion that one cannot feel sorry for them, it is they who show real human emotions, emotions that are much more human, that are much more authentic, than Beauty's. The message here, then, becomes that showing real emotion, such as disappointment, and preferring certain situations, such as an intelligent husband or a comfortable life style, are wrong. Instead, women must never express that they are unique or want different things. They must be like Beauty, simply willing to take whatever is handed to them. Griswold and Griswold sum up this kind of woman by writing, "In summary, as one critic suggests, when we consider the admirable heroine who gives her name to this tail, we are obliged to conclude that "the mark of beauty for a female is to be found in her submission, obedience, humility, industry, and patience" (63). Indeed, this sentiment is also expressed through Beauty's choice of interests. While she is presented with both a case full of books and a harpsichord, she chooses the more passive of the two -- the books, the method that is least expressive. Thus, it is not a woman who is able to express herself that De Beaumont advocates for the ideal wife, but a woman who has nothing to express, a women who is unique only in her beauty, virtue, and perhaps her ability to turn her brute of a husband into a prince, should she be stuck with this kind of mate.

Finally, De Beaumont's "Beauty and the Beast" continues as a primer to the woman entering marriage by implying that women are inferior to men. Of the eight male characters in the story, only three of them are women, and all of them, even Beauty, are described as less appealing than the male characters. This can… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Beauty and the Beast Fairytales and Folklore.  (2009, July 11).  Retrieved July 19, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/beauty-beast-fairytales-folklore/1295

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"Beauty and the Beast Fairytales and Folklore."  Essaytown.com.  July 11, 2009.  Accessed July 19, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/beauty-beast-fairytales-folklore/1295.