Taming the Beast: Women and Fairy Tales
The love/hate and submissive/manipulative relationship between woman and man has long been depicted in fairy tales as that of a beautiful, naive and helpless young girl who is seduced by a hideous, controlling, forceful (yet inexplicably kind and gentle) beast. He is at once repulsive and seductive. The damsel in distress is eaten, beaten, ravaged, raped or otherwise tortured and abused by the hideous creature. Even so, more often than not, she willingly manages to miraculously “change” the loathsome yet somehow loveable creature into a handsome young prince through her loving kindness. The “new man” then is compelled to prove his virility still intact by “rescuing” her from…herself. Here we may venture to ask, who writes this stuff anyway?
Distinguished author and analyst Marie-Louis Von Franz, who worked closely with psychoanalyst, C.J. Jung until his death, examines the relationship between women and fairy tales in her book, The Feminine in Fairy Tales. According to Van Franz, fairy tales “express the creative fantasies of the rural and less educated layers of the population”. Thus they have the “advantage of being naïve (not literary) and of having been worked out in collective groups, with the result that they contain purely archetypal material unsecured by personal problems.
Though, initially written for adults, fairy tales were rejected and distributed to the nursery in the late 1700’s because of appearing to be “irrational” and “nonsensical”. However, in modern times, they have become increasingly popular in psychological studies. Von Franz intimates “Feminine Figures in fairy tales are neither the pattern of the anima (Jung’s name for man’s femininity) nor the real woman, but of both….some […] illustrate more the real woman and others more the man’s anima, according to the sex of the person who last wrote down the story…”(4). Many fairy tales do not reflect a woman’s point of view, but the feminine “anima”. This explains the reason why women in fairy tales and in society today “play the role” of the beautiful maiden as portrayed in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm in “Snow White”, “Cinderella” and “Brier Rose”, which is intimated to them by the male anima (feminine part of the male personality.) This is most likely initiated by their fathers…and of course through other countless male-authored or influenced fairy tales.
In regard to the nature of relationships between modern day man and woman and those heroes and heroines in the fairy tales of yore, we are still Beauty and the Beast personified. Von Franz observes that “Just where the man has a most uncertain delicate feeling, the woman places the thorn of her animus; and where the woman wants to be understood or accepted, the man comes out with some anima poison dart”. In light of this truth, can a woman transform a beast into the man of her dreams through domestication, and on a deeper and more intimate level, does she truly even want to? I propose that women do not desire to liberate themselves of the savage brute (Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “beast” as “a four footed mammal…, a contemptible person” or “something formidably difficult to control or deal with”), and, in fact, crave the beast on an erotically sexual and primitive echelon which would explain the immense popularity of fairy tales such as Beauty and the Beast.
According to Christina Bacchilega in Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, “Beauty and the Beast” is one of the most popular fairy tales. Bacchilega states that Folklorists have deemed it a “sub-type C” or “Search for the Lost Husband” fairy tale and they have counted over fifteen hundred versions”. A famous French author of over seventy books, including stories and works for children, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, wrote the immensely popular version of “Beauty and Beast, published in 1757,” (which she based on a longer version penned by Mme. de Villeneuve). Beaumont’s enchanting version is found in Beauty and the Beast and Other Classic French Fairy Tales, which is edited by renowned critic and editor of fairy tales, Jack Zipes. In Le Prince de Beaumont’s adaptation, Beauty is the youngest daughter of a rich merchant widower. Because she possesses a kind, selfless character and great love for her father, she becomes his favorite which generates a great deal of envy and animosity from her two older sisters.
As in so many other fairy tales, such as “The Maiden Without Hands” found in The Complete Fairy Tales Of The Brothers Grimm and “Belle-Belle Or The Chevalier Fortune”, which is alsotranslated in Beauty and the Beast and Other Classic French Fairy Tales, the father either loses his wealth and, whether inadvertently or not, in some manner promises one of his daughters (usually his favorite) in exchange for his life and/or wealth. In Beaumont’s version of Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s father loses his wealth, goes away on a business trip and spends the night in the enchanted castle of the Beast, who threatens to take his life for picking a rose unless he gives the Beast one of his daughters in exchange.
Belle’s love for her father is so great that, although he adamantly prohibits her from going to the Beast in his place, Belle finally persuades him into taking her back to the enchanted castle. After meeting the Beast, Beauty is terrified yet that night she has a dream in which she is told that the “good deed” she is performing to save her father’s life will not go “unrewarded”. However, the next morning, Beauty is convinced that the Beast intends to “eat her that night,” (which could also be interpreted as a sexual connotation).
Beauty soon is attracted to the beast for his “innate” kindness and tells him that this realization causes him to no longer appear “ugly” in her eyes. When the Beast agrees that he is good yet still a “monster,” Beauty admonishes him; “There are many men who are more monstrous than you and I prefer you with your looks rather than those who have pleasing faces but conceal ungrateful and corrupt hearts (Beaumont qtd in Zipes,).” This observation is indicative of the moral in many fairy tales which unfortunately uphold society’s double standard which dictates that a man may be as ugly as a beast and still be desirable as long as he is good-of high moral standards- (and perhaps even more desirable if he is not) however a woman must be both good and beautiful in order to be desirable, or at least what fairy tales and society represent as the “beautiful” archetypal fairy tale woman.
As is typical in this form of fairy tale, Belle finally realizes that she cannot live without the Beast. After she promises herself to him the Beast is miraculously transformed into a handsome prince, and since Belle has broken the evil spell, they live happily ever after because their relationship was founded on “virtue.” However, it is of great significance that Beauty cannot help asking “What happened to the Beast?” And as Bacchilega quotes from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 movie, Beauty and the Beast, “Beauty has a mixed response to Prince Ardent’s looks, and when asked if she is happy, she answers “I’ll have to get used to this” (Postmodern Fairy Tales).
But does a woman really want to get used to losing (or reforming) the beast? Bacchilega deduces “One need not be a Freudian to realize that ‘Beauty and the Beast’ depicts a woman’s struggle to reconcile sexuality with ‘love’” (Zipes, Beauty) Beauty has abandoned her childhood dreams and come to terms with reality as well as her sexuality. Unfortunately whenever she finally comes to “terms” with the Beast (her sexuality) and can conceive a happy future with him, he disappears. This metamorphosis occurs with virtually every new wife and/or in every new love/sexual relationship. Just whenever a woman is ready to settle down and “play house”, her Beast turns monotonous (the sex and the man), and, as Bacchilega quotes Barchilon “Le conte merveilleux” in Postmodern Fairy Tales: “When the fear goes away, so does the beast, a charming irony.” And as Bacchilega adds; “A magic trick which leaves almost no trace of Beauty’s desires and losses”.
So why does a woman continue to endeavor to tame the beast if in the process she loses her passion for him? Women feel that they must tame the beast because in doing so, they tame their own natural and primal desires which they feel is necessary in order to reconcile into a long-term monogamous relationship. However, is this really true? Fairy tales never venture beyond “and they lived happily ever after” because theoretically there is no wild and passionately erotic “happily ever after,” which survives past the electrifying, “virginal” and tumultuous throes of love’s early passion. This is precisely why Romeo and Juliet must die and Catherine must die in Wuthering Heights. This is why Elizabeth leaves John in the immensely popular erotic movie 91/2 Weeks; to stay any longer would have been emotional suicide for their affair since it was primarily based on sexual passion and domination. Courtly love between a Knight and a Lady of the Court was similar; Lancelot and Lady Guinevere could never consummate their love, thus they were assured that their passion would never wither and die.
That is not to say that a man and woman cannot continue to share an erotic sexual and romantic relationship, however the intensity will never be quite the same as in the initial stages. Just as in steamy, passionate love affairs depicted in books, movies, etc., fairy tale romance is also filled with erotic, sexual tension because it teases and tantalizes us with not only forbidden love and lust but sexual taboos such as implied bestiality portrayed in “Little Red Riding Hood”: The wolf “hid himself under the bedcovers and said to her….come lie down beside me. Little Red Riding Hood undressed and got into the bed where she was astonished to see how her grandmother appeared in her nightgown” and in “Little Red Riding Cap,”(the original Grimm version). “After the wolf had fed his desires, he lay down and fell asleep…” (Zipes, The Brothers Grimm). The majority of these fantasy tales are never entirely played out which makes them even more subtly erotic.
It is interesting to note that, according to Jack Zipes, (Brothers Grimm, xxix) most storytellers were women. Perhaps this is due to (most) women’s biological deep intuitiveness and natural openness. In Postmodern Fairy Tales,Bacchilega insists that anthropological and historical research has shown women to be more commonly identified with and closer to nature than to culture. Unfortunately, in a “patriarchal structure [this] makes them symbolic of an inferior, intermediate order of being…by show-casing women and making them disappear at the same time, the fairy tale thus transforms us/ them into manmade constructs of ‘woman’” (Bacchilea). On the bright side, fairy tales allow women the beauty of utilizing the “mirror image” for reflecting, refracting and faming (Bacchilega).
According to Von Franz;
Woman to a great extent-and the less they know about it, the worse it is-rule even life and death in their surroundings. If the husband dies, and the children die, very often women had something to do with it. But it would be inflation and absolutely destructive, if a woman thinks she is responsible…”
It is also Von Franz’s belief that a person is indirectly guilty if [she] hasn’t realized the evil within [herself]. Thus, a woman must be able to look into the magic mirror, so to speak, and see the evil along with the good and accept it. This is what fairy tales allow us to do. For, as Von Fronz infers; “The more one has looked in the mirror and watched one’s own face for hate, jealousy, dissatisfaction, etc., the better one can read the other person’s face and be wise enough to keep out of the way”.
If a woman is truly honest with herself and in touch with her inner psyche, she will likely admit that she is sexually aroused by a dangerous, controlling and forceful man and everyone is fascinated on some level by the “forbidden.” In numerous surveys, women have admitted that a “dangerous” man is highly provocative as well as attractive and this is repeatedly highlighted in literature among heroes such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre and is witnessed by the immense popularity of fairy tales such as the aforementioned “Beauty and the Beast” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” as well as the phenomenal and hugely successful Disney movie trilogy, Pirates Of The Caribbean, featuring seductive bad boy, Captain Jack Black.
And more recently, we see Stephanie Meyers, author of the immensely successful Twilight book (and movie adaptation) series, embraces this identical “Beauty and the Beast” theme. Edward, the forbidden vampire and his nemesis, Jacob the werewolf, are both forbidden beasts. This tale of illicit love and romance carries strong sexual connotations of women’s secret desires for the “bad boy”, the “dangerous and forbidden” and, of course, the all-consuming “beast”. Whenever Bella, the “beauty” finally changes to conform to society’s patriarchal “bad girl”, we note that she also must retain the majority of her “good girl self” in order to be accepted by the same patriarchal society’s standards of the female archetype. Edward and Jacob both can remain in the “dangerous and forbidden self” but they also must possess a “kind and gentle” side as well.
Most women will concede that a dangerous, controlling man is not a good choice for a lifelong mate and therefore she must either “tame the beast” or find one who is already “domesticated.” Bacchilega suggests that since “Cupid and Psyche,” “King Crin,” and “Beauty and the Beast […] all represent marriage as a social and ideological institution (Postmodern Fairy Tales),” and according to Bacchhilega, in the two aforementioned tales, the wives enjoy their husbands “mysterious nocturnal visits” with a “sexual attachment not matched by the trust, sensibility, common sense and intellectual affinities, which by today’s standards would presumably make for a solid marriage.” So a woman with a “dignified, resolute and courageous character” such as Beauty’s, although the “object of an exchange” may turn […] her victimization into heroism”.
Thus if a woman and man are both secure and balanced in their animus/anima, it is entirely possible to live as Beauty (with her masculine side) and Beast (along with his feminine side). Just as women are drawn to a Beast who is in control, men are drawn to a woman with a “wild nature” who is also in control. However, for this union to be successful, both parties must also agree to allow themselves to be “out of control” to a large degree, just as are the characters in fairy tales find themselves.
Above all else, it is imperative that they reconcile their passion with love, for one without the other can logically never survive. Equilibrium in the male/female relationship is difficult to achieve, especially when one must overcome societies archetypal male and female roles such as those which are ironically portrayed in fairy tales such as “Beauty and the Beast.” “There is no love without thorns,” thus; “the thorny hedge growing around the castle blossoms suddenly into beautiful roses in a Fairy Tale (Von Franz.)” Passion does not have to die and the equality in this liaison will reveal a couple’s natural amorous desires and thus prevent a woman from waking in the morning to ask in dismay; “What happened to the beast?”
Bacchilega, Christina. Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. Penn:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
“Beast.” Miriam-Webster Dictionary. 11th Ed, 2007.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Random House, Inc., 1944.
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights.New York: Random House, Inc., 1944.
Meyer, Stephanie. Twilight. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2008.
9 ½ Weeks. Dir. Adrian Lyne. Perf. Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger. Turner
Entertainment Company and Warner Home Video, 1991.
Pirates of the Caribbean. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Perf. Johny Depp, Orlando Bloom,
Kiera Knightley. Walt Disney Entertainment, 2004.
Von Franz, Marie-Louis. The Feminine in Fairy Tales. Mass: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1993.
Zipes, Jack. Beauty and the Beast: And Other Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Penguin Books, Inc., 1997.
Zipes, Jack. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. New York: Bantam
Sharon Lynn Van Meter
Copyright 2009/Revised 2012