So here’s a thing
No one seems to ever talk about my favorite part of the Beauty and the Beast story, so in light of the disney remake coming out and everything, I’d like to take this moment to tell you guys something awesome. Bear with me for a moment.
First of all, as far as I can tell, Beauty and the Beast is the only mainstream Western fairy tale that was written ABOUT a woman, FOR women, BY women.
If you list whatever fairy tales you can think of off the top of your head, about half of them–Rapunzel, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood–were probably traditional oral folk tales, typically told by women to other women or children while they were all spinning and doing other work.
However, these tales were then collected, rewritten, anthologized, and popularized by men like the Grimm brothers and Charles Perrault.
The other half–The Snow Queen, The Little Mermaid–were made up in the style of these folk tales by modern (male) authors, most notably Hans Christian Anderson.
But not Beauty and the Beast.
Setting aside its roots in the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche and its familial resemblance to East of the Sun and West of the Moon, Beauty and the Beast as we know it (prince cursed to be a beast, a rose, magic castle, a merchant’s daughter) was written by the French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve as a novella length story published in her book La Jeune Américaine et les Contes Marins in 1740. A considerably shortened version written by another woman, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, appeared in a French girls’ magazine sixteen years later, and that’s essentially the version we all know today. In both versions, Beauty is undoubtedly the main character.
But let’s talk about the de Villeneuve version for a moment, because it’s pretty interesting.
(First of all, I really recommend finding a translation and reading it yourself, because it’s a riot: the story you know only takes up about half of the novel; there’s this whole subplot where every night Beauty has these dreams of a beautiful prince, and they talk a lot, and it’s kind of implied that they might be getting up to some dream-world hanky panky, but it’s the 1700s so no one’s saying it outright. And she’s falling in love with him, and he with her. Except he’s constantly telling her “You know, I know you like me and everything, but have you considered the Beast’s offer of marriage?” And Beauty, understandably, is like, wtf. And then after the prince turns back into a prince, his snooty mother turns up out of nowhere and tries to break them up? Idk, it’s weird. Anyway….)
So in the original version, Beauty is at the castle living with the Beast. And every night he asks her to be his bride, making it explicitly clear that her answer is totally allowed to be “no.” And every night, she says no, and he doesn’t push her further.
The interesting bit is although most translations put the Beast’s question as “will you marry me?,” the original version is closer to “will you sleep with me?” And it’s made clear once the curse is broken that only a willing–and not coerced–“yes” on Beauty’s part would break the curse.
tl;dr: That’s right, ladies and gentlemen and otherwise inclined. Beauty and the Beast is a 1700s-era feminist parable about the magical power of women’s consent.