How Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast' Became the Darkest Tale of All
Despite the musical numbers, the 1991 Disney film is actually the darkest retelling of the popular fairy tale.
Walt Disney Studios
Disney often sands the edges off its fairy tales. Neither stepsister loses a toe in Cinderella; its Little Mermaid doesn't die. This is inevitable—it's the nature of fairy tales to change for new audiences, and every generation has a different idea of what young people can handle. It's interesting, then, that Disney's Beauty and the Beast is among the darkest versions of the tale.
In 1740, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve wrote the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale that's become so familiar, framing it as an allegory of arranged marriage: a beautiful young woman handed off to an ugly, rich noble who demands she leave her father and live with him forever (complete with a lavish bride price). Faced with this separation and with his hideous appearance, it's no wonder Beauty quakes. What makes this story a fairy tale rather than a horror story? Beauty's consent.
To understand the importance of this, look backward. There are echoes of earlier stories in Beauty and the Beast, most obviously the Cupid and Psyche myth, with its enchanted groom, quest, and magical tasks. But while Beauty and the Beast bears some parallels, it's emphatically more domestic in scope. A merchant family's city-to-country exile is an everyday misfortune, the bulk of the story takes place in the Beast's house, and Beauty's only magical task is to return from a family visit in the time she's promised. The story needs no quest; it has a marriage.
The most powerful force in Beauty and the Beast isn't magic, or even love, but consent. Most retellings of Villeneuve's version are careful to keep it. The Beast is clear that Beauty must know what she's getting into. (In Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's 1910 version, it's still more explicit: The Beast warns Beauty's father to "be honest with your daughter. Describe me to her just as I am. Let her be free to choose whether she will come or no...") Later, the Beast asks Beauty herself if she comes willingly. And that first dinner is marked by the Beast's deference to her wishes. Beauty's earliest surprise is how much power she wields. Even in his nightly request that Beauty marry him, he defers. Andrew Lang emphasized the power dynamics in 1889's Blue Fairy Book:
"Oh! What shall I say?" cried Beauty, for she was afraid to make the Beast angry by refusing.
"Say 'yes' or 'no' without fear," he replied.
"Oh! No, Beast," said Beauty hastily
"Since you will not, good-night, Beauty," he said.
And she answered, "Good-night, Beast," very glad to find that her refusal had not provoked him.
Lang was one of many who used marriage proposals for the nightly request (Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's 1756 retelling was the first), but Villeneuve was under no illusions about the story's undertones. In her original, Beast asks Beauty to sleep with him. Beauty's power is the ability to withhold sexual consent.
Beauty doesn't admit love for the Beast until after he releases her (which permits her to rejoin him on her own terms). But this regard for her will is what first softens Beauty's heart. The story's not just reminding young women to look beyond appearance but reminding young men how to conduct themselves. Fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes outlines the story's social mandate in Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: "The mark of beauty for a female is to be found in her submission, obedience, humility, industry, and patience; the mark of manliness is to be found in a man's self-control, politeness, reason, and perseverance."
Disney takes that out, and the story becomes significantly darker. Besides their rocky introduction, he punishes her for refusing to eat with him ("If she doesn't eat with me," he bellows, "then she doesn't eat at all!") and physically threatens her. His temper must be tamed before he can love or be loved—that, not his appearance, is the barrier. It's a decided departure from the courtly Beast, and Belle's now required to forgive his outbursts before friendship can begin—an additional emotional burden. In this, Disney's more akin to 1978 Czech horror Panna a netvor (in which the Beast barely curbs his appetites and Beauty's drawn to him only through loneliness) than it is to the dreamlike tension of Jean Cocteau.
Dark retellings are deeply valuable to the canon; Panna a netvor explores the underbelly of the story's genteel presumptions. And the psychological intimacy of Beauty and the Beast will also lend itself to uneasiness. In the 1921 Old-Time Stories, an A.E. Johnson illustration gives us a telling glimpse of the moment the Beast permits Beauty to depart. Beauty faces away from the Beast, hands folded, brows drawn low. The Beast, hunched childlike at her feet, glares up at her, radiating resentment. Because this story is so intent on the psychology of its characters, the story carries the sense that their relationship is human—that it's imperfect.
But Disney's retelling doesn't acknowledge its darkness. Covering threats with musical numbers doesn't count as exploration of subtext. This wasn't the first Beauty and the Beast adaptation to feature a Beast with rough edges, either; a story centered on power dynamics in relationships will shift to include contemporary concerns. But Disney's retelling asks Beauty to forgive abusive behavior, both ignoring the sovereignty of her consent and erasing the Beast's own obligations. And it's such an influential retelling, it's affected how the archetype has applied. By now, the label of a Beauty and the Beast story applies as much to a relationship in which the woman's love "tames" the man as it does to one about looking beyond appearances. (The CW's recent Beauty and the Beast updated the 1987 series but replaced the scholarly, leonine hero with a handsome man with uncontrollable bursts of violent anger; these abusive undertones are the new beastliness. These days, Beauty is trapped in the Beast's S&M penthouse, and his understanding of consent is decidedly murky.)
This month's live-action Beauty and the Beast seems aware its predecessor charged Beauty with taming the Beast's violent instincts rather than just looking beyond appearances. This new Belle bristles at her captivity—not just declining dinner but also shaming the Beast for demanding her company on top of her compliance—and makes plans to escape. What it doesn't do is change much of the Beast's behavior. He now allows a brief farewell, but his demands and their violent implications are intact. (In fact, this remake removes one of his early moments of conscience. Now it's Lumiere who releases her from the dungeons, not a guilty Beast.)
As if hoping to make up for that missed opportunity, the movie also has a few new beats of a "tamed" Beast providing company for Belle. But its first scene still cuts to the heart of the matter; the handsome prince coolly surveys available ladies and violently dismisses the Enchantress who begs shelter. Despite its good intentions, this new iteration does as its forebear did and frames the Beast's predicament as a matter of personality as much as appearance. (This was by design. In the making of Beyond Beauty: The Untold Stories, story supervisor Roger Allers admitted why some changes were made: "It's basically a story about a girl who keeps coming to dinner and keeps being asked to marry and saying no—that's pretty boring, you know?")
Beauty and the Beast has left an indelible mark on pop culture. (Among other things, it's led to a widespread assumption that beautiful women will find plenty to love in less attractive men.) But Disney redefined a generation's expectations of the story. Under Disney, an allegory of arranged marriage in which Beauty's consent was the fantasy became the story of a woman whose captor eventually softened enough that he didn't punish her for challenging him. The substitution of "softened captor" for "bewitched suitor" has since become conflated in the pop-culture lexicon. Though we know the problems with uncritically accepting those as identical narratives (Fifty Shades Syndrome, among others), they can be fascinating when examined together as a story in conversation. A remake of Beauty and the Beast that took 1991's framing into account might have given us, if not a gentleman husband in disguise, a story that acknowledges its troublesome Beast and echoes the original's contemporary concerns about power and relationships. If nothing else, it would shift the remake out of the shadow of the original, a remake in conversation with its forebear. Instead we get the same old threats and eventually a song about how much he'll miss her—too little, too late.