Beauty and the Beast Has Jumped the Shark
I recently read this post about gender swapping the beauty and the beast trope and I was immediately struck by something about all the examples the author of the post gives. All of the women are “beasts” because they had something traumatic happen in their pasts. Traumatic as in actual violence and abuse. It’s as if the only way that they could be an acceptable beastly female character was to have experienced an intimate tragedy that was out of their control. In the original Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, the prince gets turned into a beast because he consciously said “no” to someone. Becoming the beast was the punishment, not the result of another punishment that already happened.
My question is: Why must these female characters have those tragic backstories in order for them to be “beasts”? Can’t they just naturally have disagreeable personalities? We know that in real life that there are men and women who are cranky simply because they just are. Can’t we have those types of female characters in our fiction as well? Or is this going to be branded as unrealistic and illogical in fiction?
I don’t think it should be inevitable that fiction follow some kind of archetypal and moralistic underpinning where every character behaves in certain ways because of Reasons. Characters can be anything and they shouldn’t be pushed into certain types simply because the author thinks the readers would find only certain things acceptable. A successful author should be able to write about any kind of character in a compelling enough way so that people will keep on reading regardless of whether they agree with those characters’ actions or not.
On Twitter, I also speculated that why those beastly female characters with tragic backstories are so popular is because they are a natural outgrowth of a very old notion or stereotype that women can only exist in two states: saint or sinner, virgin or harlot, goody-goody or bitchy. And if a woman doesn’t quite exactly fit in either of those two categories, there has to be Big Reasons. Apparently no female character can exist in the gray area simply because they just do. Instead, only male characters are allowed to be the flawed everyman without any explanation. This is why I gravitate towards “anti-heroines” rather than characters traumatized because the author needed them to be so. Anti-heroines far more resemble believably flawed people than characters constructed out of Reasons.
Anyways, this has really made me think about why the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale isn’t exactly one of my favorites even though it’s very popular with other people. This fairy tale espouses a lot of idealism–that with enough love and going beyond skin deep, you will win. I can see why it can be appealing to a lot of people. Personally, I find it very passive and not very practical. If you want to win at anything, you need to get off your butt and actually DO something. In most cases, just loving something won’t magically make everything okay. It’s probably also why I prefer some of the more obscure fairy tales like The Master Maid or Prince Lindworm where the heroines are clever and proactive. There’s hard work involved in getting to that happy ending, and they’re not just playing nice to get it either.