A Tale as Old as Time: On the Enduring Value of Beauty and the Beast Stories | Features


The most easily dismissed criticism is disdain of the archetype for being popular with teenage girls. Actually, appealing to the masses involves craft, and mocking something because teenage girls like it is just sexism and ageism in a trench coat.

Other criticisms come from genuine fear that monster romance is inherently and unavoidably antifeminist. A few accuse the archetype of depicting Stockholm syndrome, a term with its own problems: “Stockholm syndrome—a dubious pathology with no diagnostic criteria—is riddled with misogyny.” Some even call the archetype harmful, particularly to teenage girl readers. To any teenage girls out there who enjoy this archetype, I have this to say: there’s nothing wrong with you. The stories you like are not harming you. In fact, there are solid reasons to find them compelling.

Critics who dismiss this archetype wholesale without analyzing why it is popular end up also demonizing what teenage girls like without trying to seriously engage. Writer and folklore teacher Nancy Willard illuminated that amongst the theories for why similar stories appear across time and cultures is the idea that perhaps they spring from prevalent human experiences at particular life stages, and that fairytales can be concrete representations of anxieties about those experiences. The “monster” in these stories usually has some physical trait that makes him frightening and alien to the heroine and the audience; sometimes, the particular “monstrous” features reflect an ableist dehumanization of disability and physical difference (as with Quasimodo, Eric, and V), and other times the features are purely magical (as with the Beast, Jareth, and Edward), but in all cases, the beast’s “monstrous” appearance can be analyzed as a symbol of fear. With all that in mind, what specific anxieties could monster romances speak to?

First, monstrousness can often be a metaphor for the experience of queerness—of being othered, loving the other, being painted as monstrous by society. This idea has been thoroughly explored by James Somerton in his video essays including “Monsters in the Closet” and the book of the same name by Harry M. Benshoff.

The beauty and the beast archetype also evokes young adult anxieties regarding romance and marriage. In particular, monster romances speak to the anxieties of a young woman faced with marriage to a man in a heteronormative patriarchal society that gives him greater power than her, and sometimes even power over her. For much of western history, marriage has been considered an important coming-of-age milestone, particularly for women. Naturally this would generate great anxiety because a woman’s most acceptable social position required her to surrender herself to a man’s legal control—and what if he was a monster? In fairytales, the abstract fear about a future spouse becomes embodied in the beast’s monstrous appearance. Even today after feminists have fought for women’s rights, that fear lingers in the gendered inequalities that remain. So long as there are patriarchies, monster romances will resonate. Suzana Rowantree writes:


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