I remember looking forward to the original Beauty and the Beast television show, circa 1987. What I was hoping for was an urban fantasy/adventure, complete with an underworld. What I got was a romance, featuring the handsomest beast I’d ever seen, riding on the top of subway trains. The Beast’s feral good looks were what killed the show, for me, long before it took a nose-dive into sap: I wanted an ugly beast, loved for his character. Unluckily, that’s just not the way things work: in our culture, ugly and love don’t mix.
The original “Beauty and the Beast” story is sad and touching: the Beast pines away as Belle carelessly breaks her promise, only to be rejuvenated when she admits her love. What frustrated me, though, was the ending, where the Beast changed into a handsome prince. Wasn’t the whole point that Belle learned to love him despite his looks – because of his kindness, generosity, and nobility? Doesn’t the ending make light of her journey, by robbing it of the depth of its message? What the heck is “Beauty and the Beast” telling us, anyway?
Love Results in Perfection and Goodness
Our society equates looks with character, in everything from advertisements to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lord of the Rings: beautiful people are good, and ugly people are bad. So what does it say when at the end of “Beauty and the Beast,” the Beast becomes beautiful?
By turning the Beast into a handsome prince, “Beauty and the Beast” reinforces the idea that love washes away your partner’s flaws, and that being in love is a mystical elixir that cures all ills and is the beginning of a long, perfect journey. My experience has been that love is just the beginning – hell, love is the easy part. Sure, you might overlook your partners imperfections, but it’s seeing them as they are and living with them – compromising and adapting – that makes a relationship last. Pretending that love will make our partners perfect, and is the beginning of a perfect life, sets everyone involved up for either disappointment, self-delusion, or both. Is it so hard to imagine that two people could have some differences that they reconcile in order to form a loving partnership, rather than having to fit perfectly together, out of the gate?
Love is as Simple as Two People “Matching”
Humans like things neat – we like to pair like with like. If a handsome man is with a plain woman, it’s easier to assume that she must be rich, as opposed to thinking that there might be reasons they are together that we aren’t seeing. Even the image of a truly ugly Beast at Belle’s side is too much of a disconnect: instead, the Beast is made handsome, just not ideal, so that the pairing can be less jarring.
The idea that pretty people belong with pretty people speaks poorly of Belle’s depth of feeling (and, by proxy, the reader’s), by assuming that if the Beast doesn’t become handsome, their relationship can’t last. “Beauty and the Beast” speaks to our own, innate narcissism, by assuming that when all is said and done, no depth of feeling could overcome even a marginally bestial appearance.
I think that we can do better than the shallow cynicism of “Beauty and the Beast.” I believe that we can see other people not just in terms of how they look, but also as fellow human beings, unique individuals, and products of their environment (cultural, sexual, racial, and so forth). If that seems like too high a bar to set, the alternative is to believe that a beast is a beast and a beauty is a beauty, nothing more. In that world, being beautiful is everything, because that’s all there is.
We Don’t Need to be Good, We Only Need to be Beautiful
In the world of “Beauty and the Beast,” the goal might seem to be love, but that idea is undercut by the Beast’s final transformation, and replaced with the idea that when all is said and done, beauty and goodness really are the same thing. The idea that beauty is something we should all aspire to permeates our culture, but by definition beauty is beyond the reach of the vast majority of people (if everyone became beautiful, the definition of beauty would change). By focusing on beauty – not just the acceptance it will bring, but its conflation with character – are we saying that it’s not important to be good, if you just look it? Is setting an unattainable standard of beauty an allegory for the difficulty of cultivating a good character?
Leaving Beauty Behind
“Beauty and the Beast” tells us that, though a beast can be noble, he is still, ultimately, a beast, and though a beautiful person might love an ugly one, they can’t be expected to live with them. I’m still waiting for a version of “Beauty and the Beast” where the beast isn’t lionine and attractive, with warm, gentle eyes, but instead crawls on the ground, drooling. Belle doesn’t have to be beautiful, either – she could be a monster, herself, or just a mess. Or both of them could be regular people, just trying to figure things out. After a certain point, of course, I’ve changed “Beauty and the Beast” into something it isn’t. Maybe the truth is that I just don’t like “Beauty and the Beast” very much, at all.
Do you think that the struggle to be good is something that we replace with the pursuit of beauty? Do you think that it’s possible to see people as complex individuals all the time, or is it too much to ask?