Fairy Tale Legacy Beauty and the Beast

March 2, 2015

We have this false idea that fairy tales are about weak and passive heroines, damsels in distress. So we are always fighting against a fairy tale legacy that doesn’t exist.

How anyone could consider Beauty a passive heroine is beyond me. She’s actually very typical of the second era of Disney films from the 90s (what I think of as the Golden Era of Disney films). Disney released 4 animated films in 5 years (1989 – 1994) full of independent, feisty, bold and interesting heroines. They weren’t the sort of heroine anyone needed to “fix” with a retelling that made her stronger or less of a princess.

Belle, in particular, seems to be a favorite of the book blogging community. Of course, she’s a book lover so she’s one of us. She also has a slew of great songs and is surrounded by fun characters. But there are so many versions of this story, going all the way back to the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche. And in every one of them, from that myth to the Villeneuve version of the fairy tale to the Disney film, Beauty is a character of courage and compassion and strength.

Like Sleeping Beauty, she willingly makes sacrifices. Like Cinderella she is unfailingly kind (though not as sickeningly sweet). And like many of the old fairy tales, her character, her innate goodness and integrity are her most powerful assets.

Which make it interesting that she’s named “Beauty” because in most versions her character is emphasized more than her looks.

In the Andrew Lang version (attributed originally to Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve), when the family is cast into poverty Beauty is brave and cheerful. When her father thinks he’s recovered some of what he lost and asks what his children want, they ask for jewels and dresses. But Beauty doubts they’ll return to their fortune so she asks for a rose. Because it’s in her nature to make the best of things.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast actually captures her quite well. Belle is bright and cheerful and sees the best in her quiet life and her eccentric father. She’s brave and she’s kind and she really couldn’t be any other way for the Beast storyline to work.

Birds by mariannainsomnia Fairy Tale Legacy
Birds courtesy of mariannainsomnia

That’s the interesting thing about the fairy tale legacy – Belle defies it completely. In every iteration of the story she saves him. She steps willingly into her father’s place. She takes risks for the life she wants. She moves with agency again and again, shaping the story.

You see this even more if you go back to Eros and Psyche (which is admittedly my favorite Greek myth). Eros is portrayed initially as a monster and Psyche is afraid of her new husband. Until her sisters push her to kill him. But when she lays eyes on him she falls in love, as he’s been in love all along. The wonderful thing about Psyche is that she fights for that love. She overcomes impossible tasks to find her way back to him. And then she makes a mistake. She is beautiful and bold and headstrong and still fallible like all of us. Then he comes for her and finally they’re together. It’s a beautiful story of Love and Soul.

And Belle, Beauty, Psyche, whoever she is, she is not a damsel in distress. She is not weak. She does not need us to prove what a fantastic heroine she is because her character speaks so much more effectively than her beauty.

Want to refresh your memory of the fairy tale? SurLaLune fairy tales has an annotated version from Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book. And Angie has a great comparison of the fairy tale and Disney movie as part of her Project Disney.

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10 responses to “Fairy Tale Legacy: Beauty and the Beast

  1. Belle is probably my favourite fairytale heroine because of all the reasons you describe! She’s brave, and kind, and just all ’round awesome. I love that she sacrifices herself for her father, and that she is able to fall in love with the Beast beyond his looks, and that she is so unfocussed on superficial things (even her own beauty does not seem to matter at all to her).
    This post was so interesting, and I really enjoyed reading it 😀

    • Annie

      Thank you! She really is a great heroine and I’m enjoying hearing how and why people love her. There’s a reason this is a great fairy tale to tell to kids and to grow up hearing 🙂

  2. Wonderful analysis of Beauty! I usually associate her with being kind and compassionate (and bookish!), you’ve really brought home to me how exceptionally brave she is to sacrifice herself to take her father’s place. It’s so very admirable of her.

    • Annie

      Thanks! I”m so glad I was able to show some other sides to her virtues. I think I love her a lot more now having studied the fairy tale closer and written this post 🙂

    • Annie

      I’ve been having so much fun digging deeper into these fairy tale heroines and looking at who they are and what they do and what the history of the tale is 🙂

  3. I think I only know of Disney’s version of Belle’s story. I was surprised to hear she was named Beauty in some editions. It seems we definitely focus more on her character than her physical looks (though I guess something doesn’t have to be physically attractive to be beautiful – someone can have a beautiful mind)! I do agree though that she is brave! It takes bravery to make sacrifices and to give someone a chance. 🙂

    • Annie

      I think that’s kind of the thing about Belle (or Beauty). She’s physically beautiful so you think that’s how she got her name, but in the end the story reveals that really her heart and her mind are beautiful. Disney did a very good job with her – it’s a great movie. If you wanted to read a quick novelization of the fairy tale, I recommend Beauty by Robin McKinley. It’s almost a middle grade novel but it captures the story really well.

  4. I totally agree that we’re like raging against ‘weak’ heroines who…aren’t…really….weak. XD I don’t know which is my favourite traditional heroine, but I don’t think any of them just lay down and waited to be rescued! (Except maybe Sleeping Beauty, but she kinda was napping.) And you’ve reminded me of all the reasons I love Belle. x)

    • Annie

      haha – Sleeping Beauty did kind of just take a long nap. Which also means there wasn’t really anything to be rescued from. She slept 100 years and he shows up, doesn’t kiss her, and she basically says, “What took you so long?” Belle is easy to love and more so for me after looking deeper into the fairy tale for this post 🙂