Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Beauty and the Beast

We all talk a lot about Beauty and the Beast—especially me. Of all the fairy tales I’m obsessed with, this has always been my favorite. And right now, I think the Beast is an excellent way to continue this discussion on rape.
What do you know about him, you who grew up on Disney?
The Beast was a jerk, right? He was mean to some fairy, so she turned him into a monster as a well-deserved punishment.
My favorite version of this story is La Belle et le Bete, a novella by a Madame Villeneuve. It’s the version of this story type that our current version is most directly descended from. And it doesn’t focus a lot on this aspect of things, but here is what I have always taken away from this story:
The Beast is the victim.
He’s young. Young enough that he can’t be left home alone when his mother the queen goes off to war. So they leave him with a fairy woman.
The fairy falls in love. The Beast—future Beast—doesn’t feel the same way. That—not wanting a romantic relationship with his guardian—that is what he’s being punished for.
So we’ve got a young man, sexually harassed, at the very least, by a woman he trusted to take care of him. He gets tossed into some new body, monstrous and unfamiliar. But wait!
There’s more. Part of the spell is that he must seem as stupid as he is hideous. You’ve got this child, abused, tortured, transformed, and not even able to properly express himself—able to think just as he normally does, but unable to express those thoughts, unable to communicate effectively, unable to even let the Beauty get to know him as he really is.
I’ve read a lot of weird, intense, depressing fairy tales, but I’ve never encountered a character I felt more sympathy for than the Beast.
Now, let’s talk about what we’ve done to this story over the years, and what it says about us as a society.
This awful thing that happened to the Beast was his own fault, naturally. A very young man is sexually abused, essentially, by an older woman who is supposed to be taking care of him, and we change this into the story of an unpleasant young man being justly punished by a good woman. And then—then we do the exact same thing Beauty spent the entire story learning not to do. We immediately assume that ugliness of body must signify ugliness of spirit, and we adjust the story accordingly.
This is meant to be a story about a girl learning to see past appearances—about Beauty becoming a better person. Instead it’s become the exact opposite—Beauty helping the Beast to become better. It’s a redemption story now. The Beast never needed to be redeemed. He needed to be rescued.
I love Beauty and the Beast, in all its versions. I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with the version we tell now. It’s a good story, if a different one. What I am saying is that the way the story has changed over the years can be connected in interesting ways to how we handle the issues it contains in real life.
How many times have you heard the words “Men can’t be raped?” We have this bizarre inability to accept the idea of the guy as the victim in any situation. Anyone who gets raped, our society tends toward the mindset of “They deserved it.” Or we pretend it didn’t happen. And in the meantime, we’ve got all these people suffering the way the poor Beast does.
Imagine how traumatized he must have been. Imagine going through that, and having everyone siding with the evil fairy, everyone saying you deserved it, everyone assuming that because you’re big and ugly, you couldn’t possibly have been a victim here, and in fact, you were probably the perpetrator.
Let’s think less about magic flowers, and more about the incredible abuses of power at play here. The Beast is magnificent. And so many people are going through the real-life equivalent of his problems. We need more Beauties to see the worth in the people we push off to the side. No one real should ever have to suffer like the Beast.    

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