In the first 24 hours after its release last May, the teaser-trailer for the new Disney live-action film “Beauty and the Beast” was viewed a record 91.8 million times — beating out teasers for the likes of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (88 million views in its first day), “Captain America: Civil War“ (61 million) and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (55 million). This alone seems to indicate that the movie, a remake of Disney’s own 1991 animated version of the classic fairy tale, is going to be a mega-blockbuster, thus compelling us to ask what makes this story so resonant with the zeitgeist.
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A movie intended for the delicate ears and eyes of innocent children may have more to tell us about Donald Trump than is immediately apparent. The man elected 45th president of the United States has in the past boasted of having grabbed women “by the pussy,” has called other women “pigs,” “slobs” and “dogs,” and has expressed contempt, mockery and derision for women who by their weight or appearance do not conform to the strictest standard definition of beauty.
This man garnered 53 percent of white women’s votes in the election last November. According to The New York Times, many of those women have “said his demeaning comments about women mattered less to them than their belief that he had the independence and business experience to bring about change, restore well-paying jobs and protect America’s borders.”
Heterosexual relations are based on and even defined by the overwhelming power advantage men possess over women.
Hence the question: Are women drawn on an unconscious level to male “beasts”? We cannot imagine 53 percent of African-Americans or Jews voting for someone who had used similarly insulting words about their respective groups, or who had ridiculed or demeaned them. Yet many women supported an apparent sexual predator who thinks little of their dignity as human beings. Perhaps “Beauty and the Beast” can offer some clues to understanding this disturbing fact.
Sociologists of popular culture are fond of studying hit movies. They reason (somewhat tautologically) that if something “works” – that is, is widely popular – it must be because it mirrors deep values and social structures, and articulates a level of social experience that elicits anxiety or, at least, perplexity. By this theory, blockbusters are enjoyable because they often offer a symbolic manner of dealing with some unconscious anxiety, caused by unresolved aspects of social experience.
“Beauty and the Beast” is one such narrative. Although the fairy tale that the movies are based on was written in the 18th century, and it employed themes and motives already present in late antiquity, it resonates with some perplexing aspects of contemporary heterosexual relations.
The earliest modern version of the “Belle et la bte” tale was written in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, but it contains elements of the ancient narrative of Eros and Psyche from Greek mythology. The latter is the story of the stunningly beautiful Psyche, a mortal who is held in quasi-captivity by the god Eros, and falls in love him, thinking he is a man. She waits for him all day long in an empty castle, consuming herself with love and longing.
“La Belle et La Bete” was also inspired by “The Pig King,” a popular, 16th-century Italian tale by Giovanni Francesco Straparola, about three sisters who in succession are persuaded to marry a pig. The first two sisters, who express disgust for their husband-pig, are killed by him, but the third, who is kind and loving, is rewarded for her forbearance by the transformation of the pig into a handsome prince.
“La belle et la bte” uses many of these same motifs, and the fact that the tale has undergone so many literary and cinematic adaptations seems to confirm that the myth articulates some important issues related to the culture of love. (To date, the story has been the subject of 11 cinematic productions.)
The plot line is straightforward enough. The father of three daughters goes off on a distant journey. On his return, he brings each of his daughters a gift. The youngest girl has requested a simple rose, but when the father stops off to pick one for her, a monster appears and threatens to kill him. He will be spared only if one of his daughters is willing to take his place. Belle, the youngest and most beautiful daughter, volunteers for the task, and insists on heading off to meet her destiny at the enchanted castle of the Beast.
There, she is provided with the most refined foods, clothes, furnishings, servants. At the same time, however, the only company she has is that of the Beast, the hideous master of the place. Yet her initial fear slowly morphs into fondness, and Belle feels a growing affection for him. When, on a short visit to her father, she learns from a magic mirror that the Beast is about to die, she precipitously returns to the castle, intent on saving him. She kisses him tearfully and lovingly, and her tears liberate her captor from an old curse, transforming him into a beautiful, human prince.
This story fascinates us because it expresses and resolves a fundamental female anxiety about their domination by men and their dependence on them.
To understand what I mean, let us define heterosexuality. Heterosexual relations are based on and even defined by the overwhelming power advantage men possess over women. The very idea of “masculinity” is defined by men’s capacity to display and employ their power over other men, but mostly over women. This power generally takes one of three forms: men have command of material and political resources (almost all of the world’s wealth and political power is held by men); they are the ones who hold the most significant forms of authority over people (for example, the authority to kill by means of organized armies is held almost exclusively by men); and men have more freedom than women in all domains (sexual freedom is one example).
Through love, an ugly face can turn into a sweet prince: his is the core of the female fantasy.
In heterosexual relationships, the power differential is everywhere and readily apparent: It is generally men who initiate sex and courtship; it is usually men who propose marriage; it is men who define who is a feminine woman; and it is for men that women dress and groom their bodies. (“Femininity” refers to a standard determined by men, whereas “masculinity” is not shaped by women.)
It is men who are more often than not emotionally silent, self-controlled or distant, while women provide physical and emotional nurturing. It is men who are more likely to beat and rape women and threaten women physically. Men are far more likely to rape or beat women than the other way around.
In short, we cannot conceive of heterosexual relationships without acknowledging the many large and small ways in which inequality, power asymmetry and power struggles are intrinsic to it. Men and women are constantly struggling with the power differential between them without even knowing it.
“La belle et la bte” follows a pattern of romantic fiction written by women, in which the men initially appear to be cold and cruel (see, for example, “Pride and Prejudice”; “Sense and Sensibility”; “Jane Eyre”). The Beast is only one of myriad examples of aloof literary heroes who turn out to be soft and loving.
Christian Grey – a sadist turned devoted lover and husband, in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy – is a recent and famous addition to this list. Both the Beast and Grey hold (or want to hold) a young virgin captive, and, in the end, can express their desire and love only by conquering her. But in both stories (and much of women’s popular romantic fiction in general), love manages to overcome male ugliness, which serves as the metaphorical expression of the male’s desire to control and imprison the woman. Through love, an ugly face can turn into a sweet prince: his is the core of the female fantasy.
In this vein, “La belle et la bte” is full of reversals that give expression to the female fantasy of overturning men’s power and its scary face. The father and the Beast conclude the classical male bargain (arranging the exchange of a woman between themselves), but Belle’s sacrifice for her father actually undercuts her father’s masculinity twice: Parents usually sacrifice for their children, rather than the other way around; and it is usually men who fight monsters, not young maidens.
Belle not only inverts her role as a daughter, but also her role as a helpless young maiden. At the end of the story, it is her tears and her kiss that save the monster and give him the life of a beautiful prince. In that sense, she takes on the traditional male role of the prince whose kiss can bring a princess back to life and love.
But these reversals – which enable the woman to imagine herself and her love as saving a man – only make acceptable the key messages of patriarchy: the social structure in which men control the terms of the economic and emotional bargain with women.
“La belle et la bte,” like much of women’s romantic fiction, teaches women their proper role and identity: that women should sacrifice themselves; that their love should be unconditional; that only such unconditional love will melt away a man’s cruelty or coldness; that ugliness in a man is acceptable, but women should be beautiful; and that a man’s repulsive appearance is only an invitation for the woman to overcome her repulsion and bring out the prince from the beast.
More than that: In Eros and Psyche, “The King and the Pig” and “La belle et la bte,” the girl who is ready to sacrifice for the sake of a man, however hideous he may be, is the only one who is virtuous. The selfish older sisters are either killed or punished because they refuse to sacrifice their life to a monster. Feminine virtue is defined by the capacity to withstand a man’s cruelty (and ugliness) and to accept captivity at the hands of the monster.
But what makes captivity so tolerable and even acceptable to many women? The Beast – like Christian Grey and like Donald Trump – is rich, and as a rich man he provides Belle with what rich men usually provide beautiful women: jewels, a beautiful wardrobe, sumptuous food and servants. That is, what women excluded from social and economic power cannot get on their own. The story offers the basic formula of the heterosexual bargain: economic security, social status and luxury in exchange for the unconditional attentions of a beautiful woman.
In such a story structure, love becomes a deeply confusing experience. On the one hand, love holds out the promise to women of the overcoming of the power struggles, inequalities, and anxieties intrinsic to their relationships with men. It is not surprising thus that throughout history and even today, women have embraced the ideal of love so feverishly. For them love is an experience of redemption. Through love, women hope to enjoy the dignity, autonomy and equality they are denied in so many other social arenas. But that fantasy is bound to come up against the bitter and cold reality of inequality. More often than not, love actually reflects and prolongs the power struggles that constitute men and women’s relationships. This is why heterosexual love is so deeply confusing for women. Women are steeped in a culture that mixes and blurs the difference between care and captivity, love and power, self-sacrifice and submission, masculinity and cruelty, a Beast and a Prince Charming, a sadist and a lover, a man who assaults women and a man who provides them with material security.
Ultimately, “Beauty and the Beast,” like many other expressions of patriarchal culture that could give rise to a Donald Trump, is a story that helps us become familiarized with the Beast, learn to accept its hideousness, deflect its cruelty, and imagine that behind its exterior is a beautiful soul. That so many women in the United States and around the world marched on January 21, 2017, against a modern version of the Beast may give hope that many are now willing to confront the ugliness of raw power with their eyes wide open. The next step is for Hollywood to create blockbuster fantasies about love between equals.
A somewhat different version of this essay appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.