Thursday, April 10, 2014

Disappointed by the Prince

by Annabeth Leong

At first I thought I was the only one unsatisfied by the ending of Beauty and the Beast. On paper, the story ought to work. Beauty learns to see through the Beast's monstrous veneer and falls in love with the man underneath. At the right moment, that man—a prince—emerges. I suppose it's meant to play as if the prince is the person she has learned to see, so that his appearance is confirmation and validation of the feelings she develops over the course of the story. There's a moral to that story, the idea that true beauty and goodness are inside, not on the surface.

Except that to me the prince always seemed like an imposter who showed up and usurped the place of the dear beast. I knew my heart was supposed to leap with romantic joy when the thin blond man joins Beauty at the end of the story. But I couldn't make myself feel that. I missed the monster, with his awkward sweetness, his turbulent moods, and, yes, his sexiness. Before I was old enough to put that into words, I sensed that Beauty had a lot more chemistry with the Beast than with that perfect-looking prince.

I know plenty of people hate to see the Beast replaced. In the foreword to Kristina Wright's Fairy Tale Lust, Angela Knight discusses this at length. "Personally," she writes, "I liked him better with fur, claws, and a bad attitude." Indeed, the opening story of that book, Delilah Devlin's "The Obedient Wife," is a riff on Beauty and the Beast and allows the beast to remain a beast.

You could talk about kinky sex and bad boys, but believe it or not, that's not where I'm going with this.

My favorite case of this realization (that the beast should stay) is in the body of work produced by fantasy author Robin McKinley. Her first retelling of Beauty and the Beast, called Beauty, was an early work. I remember liking the book, and recognizing that it had been a heavy source of inspiration for the Disney movie (bookish Belle seems to have been cribbed from McKinley's story). This book follows the traditional script and changes beast to prince at the end.

However, in 1998, twenty years after writing Beauty, McKinley produced Rose Daughter, another retelling of Beauty and the Beast (and one that I consider to be better, deeper, and much more original). I've lost track of my copy and there doesn't seem to be an electronic edition, so I'm afraid I can't pull out exact quotes, but I recall a fascinating introduction in which McKinley discussed why she felt the need to revisit the story. Then, at the climactic moment, the Beauty character sees the Beast beginning to change into the prince and feels loss, because that's not who she's fallen in love with. The Beast's body reasserts itself, however, and she is glad of it. I remember being so pleased by that moment, that revision of the story.

I think it's because it's actually truer to the moral of Beauty and the Beast than the more common ending. "Rewarding" Beauty for falling in love with a monster by replacing him with a non-monster is actually a slap. It disrespects the nature of the sort of love she's experiencing. Learning to love a person as is, flaws and ugliness included, is a beautiful thing, and I think the true romantic vision of it is not just about acceptance, it's about embrace. Taking away the flaws and ugliness, once they are included in the love, diminishes the love.

Not only that, who's saying those things are flaws? To me, the Beast generally looks better as beast than as prince. Correcting his supposed flaws becomes doubly misguided.

The point is that the Beast of this story actually isn't a monster—not in the sense of evil. As people have written on this topic over the past couple weeks, I've realized that this is an important distinction. Garce and Lisabet, for example, both gave examples of true monsters—beings who by nature aren't capable of loving back. A story about loving a monster, as in loving a being of implacable evil or utterly alien disposition, is disturbing to say the least. Stories about loving a bad person and believing that person will become good make me cringe because to me they ring with the rationalizations of victims of domestic violence.

On the other hand, there is Beauty and the Beast, which I think is about loving someone who is considered by society to be a monster—a very different thing altogether. In my vision of this story, Beauty falls in love with someone who doesn't look "right" and has moments of monstrosity, but is deep down a fundamentally good person fully capable of returning love. This could simply be a comment on how everyone is human and all of us have unlovely parts. I think it's more, though, because of the important role that prejudice and societal judgment often play in the story.

Whenever a monster appears, the question is always whether this is a real monster (implacable evil) or something that seems to be a monster because of prejudice (the Beast, beneficial and nonvenomous snakes, and so on). I look at Beauty and the Beast and see a representation of people who don't live lifestyles approved by the mainstream, or who don't look attractive in a traditional way. I really don't want the message of this story to be to transform and conform (to turn into that bland and supposedly handsome prince). I want to see the Beast stay the Beast, because he's awesome that way.

8 comments:

  1. I'm reminded of the amazing film "Fur", about Diane Arbus (played by Nicole Kidman). She meets and falls in love with a man (Robert Downey Jr.) seemingly cursed with hairiness, all over his body including his face. (This hirsuteness is a rare but real disease.) Toward the end of the movie, she shaves him from head to toe (an astonishingly intimate scene). However, without his hair he is diminished and weak, merely another bare man. His power to seduce lay in his freakishness - and that was what she loved in him.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. How have I not seen that movie? That sounds awesome.

      Delete
  2. The beast could be good or evil, the love could be anywhere in the spectrum of what turns us on in others. These ugly duckling tales are the fodder of fiction. The society girl gets it on with the gangster, the 'good' girl goes out with the cad. Yes, it could be the entry into a domestic violence scene, but it just could be erotica too. ;>)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Heh, I fear I am one of those types who always has to analyze...

      Delete
  3. I entirely agree about letting the beast be a beast as long as he (or she) is capable of truly loving. A rough exterior could be a challenge to love, but that can be alluring. (I wrote variation on Puss in Boots for Kristina's second fairytale anthology, Lustfully Ever After, in which the traditional Ogre character was deformed by war wounds which didn't deter the heroine at all.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oooh, I haven't read Lustfully Ever After yet, but this is great incentive.

      Delete
  4. Annabeth, I love the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, but like so many others, I find it disappointing when the Beast (who seems hard to classify in terms of species) turns back into a fairly ordinary prince. One thing that inspires Belle's love in the Disney version is that the Beast has an impressive library, and he is willing to let her read anything in it, in a time when women aren't supposed to take part in literate culture. His own status as a lonely outcast seems to have made him willing to accept "unfeminine" interests in the woman in his life.
    Some of us here are lucky to have the opposite problem (from Belle's previous shortage of books and acceptance): so many good books to read, so little spare time. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice point about what might make him willing to accept her "unfeminine" interests! :)

      Delete