Beauty and the Beast was one of my favourite fairy tales when I was growing up. It then became one of my favourite retellings (Beauty, by Robin McKinley), and recently one of my most enjoyed live action fairy tale movies. But the story of the brave and beautiful heroine who soothes and transforms the beast into a prince is not just restricted to this tale. In fairy tales alone there are several – from East of the Sun, West of the Moon, to the Briar Rose story. Some of these tales are literal transformations from beasts and others are from ‘beast’ like humans.
What is Disney’s Tangled, after all, but a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast trope? Flynn Rider is the jaded, criminal ‘beast’ (a Han Solo-esque antihero), and Rapunzel the kind and positive and enthusiastic young woman who helps him have a change of heart. It’s possibly why I love it so much (that, and the horse is hilarious).
The beast is either intelligent and cynical and brooding, or a gentle giant. Georgette Heyer’s regency heroes kind of fit this mould also – her Mark I hero was always scornful and cold, until he met the right woman, and her Mark II hero was suave and fashionable and successful. She also had another hero that fell outside her defined Mark I and Mark II types – the one who was funny and irresponsible and kind. It’s interesting to note, though, that often her Mark I heroes, while being brought to life by the heroine, didn’t always change their brusque behaviour to others (eg Venetia and Lady of Quality), and some irresponsible heroes ended up having an influence on their heroines (eg Black Sheep).
Buffy the Vampire Slayer had two beasts to contend with. Both Spike and Angel, apart from being Vampires, had their own monstrous issues to deal with. Both fell for Buffy although Spike was the one who changed the most, and therefore fitting the ‘Beast’ trope better, although Buffy was not as kind to Spike as she was to Angel. The whole ‘sexy vampire’ thing ties directly into the Beauty and the Beast trope – the dangerous, violent vampire who restrains his urges and becomes more human for love of the right person.
TV’s Once Upon a Time has a couple of Beauty and Beast type pairings. The obvious one is Belle and Rumplestiltskin; she falls in love with him despite his violence and evil deeds and scorn, becoming the one thing that keeps him connected to his humanity. But you could also argue that Regina Mills and Robin Hood connect to this trope as well, (although perhaps a bit more of a redemption theme) as he sees behind the Evil Queen’s past and her prickly present to the loving and brave woman beneath. Emma Swan and Captain Hook is another interesting variation – at first you might think it’s Emma who transforms the ‘villainous’ Hook, but the more you get to know them you see that it is his willingness to love, to leap, to trust, that begins to change her. And when Emma becomes the Dark Swan, Hook is the one who helps her stay connected to who she really is. The best bit about Emma and Hook is that they end up helping each other.
Thinking about the undeniable and enduring draw of the Beauty and the Beast trope, I remembered a poem I read in the lead up to my wedding. My marriage didn’t last, but the kind of love I saw in this poem is still something I aspire to:
I love you
For the part of me
That you bring out;
I love you
For putting your hand
Into my heaped-up heart
And passing over
All the foolish, weak things
That you can’t help
Dimly seeing there,
And for drawing out
Into the light
All the beautiful belongings
That no one else had looked
Quite far enough to find
Love, by Roy Croft
(you can read the full poem here and I suggest you do – it’s great.
This poem sums up the power of this trope. We love Beauty and the Beast because we too hope that we can find someone who loves us despite our flaws, despite our problems, our baggage, our grouchiness. We too hope that we can find someone who, simply by virtue of who they are, makes us a better person.
And yes, i know that realistically the only person you can rely on is yourself, and you don’t need someone else to love you before you can love yourself, but that desire to be loved authentically and to become perfect in someone’s eyes, is still one that resonates with so many of us.
But I think it’s even more than that. I think that it’s actually a case of us wanting to be the one to be the saviour, the hero. A lot of romance is geared towards cisgender straight women as a primary audience, and it’s not really a surprise that the ‘reforming’ trope is mixed with that of Beauty transforming the Beast as this places the audience in an identifying relationship with the heroine as she tames her rascally beast. I don’t really think that the majority of people want a partner only to change them, but the idea of being the one to catch the popular person’s eye, the one who, despite apparent inequities in station (princess and scoundrel, poor girl and prince), hooks the heart of the unattainable, is undeniably attractive for many of us.
We also love knowing that we have made a difference in the lives of others. Especially if, as in the case of Belle, we are in a worse off situation ourselves to start off with.
Something to consider in our own retellings of this trope, is that the beast doesn’t need to be broken.
“You only fix something, when it’s broken. And you – are far from broken.”
― Abhijit Naskar,
When we fall for someone we don’t see them as broken. We might see them as needing a boost or a polish or it might take a while to see them as they are, but when we love, we love people for who they are, beast and all. And that’s when the magic happens and the beast is replaced by the beauty.