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fantasticalnonsense18 asked:

Lately I've been pondering the development of Beauty and Beast's relationship, chiefly in Villeneuve/Beaumont's and Disney's versions, and of course you're own; each retelling is unique in its own way, and each has different lessons to teach. My question to you is, how has this relationship developed over the centuries (i.e. how we interpret it), and who do you think learns more from the other, or has more character growth, due to this relationship: Beauty or Beast?

Ooh, that’s a GREAT question, and not one I can really give a short or glib answer to…

Most older variants of the story are interested in Beauty getting what she deserves —wealth, station and an appropriate mate. This makes sense, as it’s a story about a woman told by women —first at great length in Villeneuve’s novella, and then in a much shorter bowdlerized form by Beaumont. The primary concern of the story is Beauty being respectfully courted by a remarkable patient and good hearted, but ugly, individual. This is, heartbreakingly, a deeply romantic fantasy when we consider that its authors were women who had been foisted into loveless political marriages with less than kindhearted men — it’s the story of hoping the man with whom you are forced co-habitate will turn out to be a kind prince, in spite of first seeming to be an unknowable monster.

The details of the characters aren’t precise —these are fairy tales after all. The Prince has no name, and neither does the heroine (she is so pretty people call her a beauty — this isn’t actually her name). Villeneuve glories in setting her stage and painting her set details, but never gives us much idea of the characters’ emotional lives. Beaumont trims the fat (and the backstory) but leaves us with even less to build upon. All we really know is the Beauty is kind, optimistic, hard-working and good, and her Beast is patient, self-effacing and perhaps a touch melodramatic.

It’s when we begin moving into cinema and the modern trend towards broader retellings that we start to see some digging into the character’s emotional state;

Cocteau’s film gives us a remarkable sensual Beast, and a stern, restrained Beauty. The story, abstract in places, relying on metaphor and surrealist imagery, can be taken as an emotional one — Beauty’s strange journey towards realizing her own sensual desires, as depicted by a man who seems to be an animal… or is he her brother’s friend? She’s not sure. They run together in her mind. Although Cocteau’s Beast is a powerful image with his smoking claws, his diamond tears, and his stalking bloodied through Beauty’s bedchamber, the emotional journey is not his.

Robin Mckinley gave us our next step in her fully realized novel, Beauty — a straightforward and no- nonsense story told from the heroine’s straightforward and no-nonsense point of view. Here, Beauty’s interior life is on full display. It is most definitely her story, her growth, and her revelations we care about. Her Beast is already more or less a complete person — one who is happy to rediscover his love of horses, yes, but not with any great emotional journey to make. Once more, it is Beauty who must grapple with herself, while the Beast waits patiently for her to come him as the inevitable conclusion.

When Disney arrives (borrowing much of McKinley’s Beauty for their own bookish, horse-loving Belle) they begin an exploration we haven’t seen before —one into the Beast’s interior life. Gone is the gentle patient soul waiting for the girl to open up to him. Here, suddenly is the angry young man raging against circumstances and lashing out at the world. For the first time, we have a Beast who is every bit as beastly as he appears. For the first time, we have a Beauty who is awaiting the maturation her partner, her own journey already complete.

Leading up to this point, we’d seen a number of explorations of the story that allowed the Beast to become a metaphor for Beauty’s awakening sexuality, her exploration of unconscious desire, or her self actualization. We hadn’t seen a Beast who was a person in and of himself since Beaumont trimmed away Villeneuve’s backstory of a boy cursed by a caregiver-turned-predator.

Since then, we’ve seen a number of adaptations concerned with the Beast’s journey back to humanity — Donna Jo Napoli’s “Beast”,  Alex Flinn’s “Beastly” , and Disney’s Broadway adaptation of the animated film among others. Rare is the appearance of the patient and polite monster suitor we originally knew. The Beast has become a masculine metaphor for self-loathing, for fear of one’s desires and impulses, and for the conquering of one’s aggression. His winning of love and subsequent return to shining humanity is a promise that even the most unlovable of us can grow and change and be redeemed. It is an interesting cultural shift, that this once very female-centred story is now often one of masculine growth and change.

So, in trying to sum up, traditionally Beauty and the Beast has been a story about a young woman’s journey to accepting an unconventional male partner. In the twentieth century, it become a popular metaphor for the awakening of female sexuality and power. Now, more and more, we see it as a metaphor for the channeling of negative masculinity into positive masculinity. The story evolves. We pull new meaning from it, stretch it this way and that, examine it in the mirror, and take it apart to see how it ticks. It changes to suit our cultural needs, and it will continue to change.

In my own work, I’m trying to move a step further — to write a story about equals. Two people growing in complimentary ways, rather than one partner awaiting the other. We will always have our separate initiation rites, but for now I’m interested in seeing how a relationship blossoms. A particular quote has stayed with me through the development of the comic adaptation of Beauty and the Beast and it is this:

“A generation ago, great writers and editors like Jane Yolen, Ellen Datlow… reclaimed the traditional heritage: dismissing soft-focus, Disneyfied Snow White and Cinderella, rediscovering grim truths and quick-witted, resourceful heroines. That’s fine, that’s excellent work. But what I’ve wanted to do is to reclaim the relationships. To bring the prince and the princess together, instead of sending them off on segregated initiation trials. To let them meet as human beings, as friends, and fight side by side.”

—Gwyneth Jones”

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