Beauty and the Beast is a tale as a old time, that has traveled across several countries, and has been translated and adapted by many authors. It tells the story of a girl named Belle who falls in love with a cursed beastly man. Belle’s love and kindness towards the Beast saves him from the curse that has been placed on him. This tale varies through several adaptations and with numerous twists, however the general plot remains. Beauty and the Beast through each adaptation reflects the role of women in society, based on the cultural values of the time period. In the earlier adaptations, the reflected role of women in society is highly dictated by men through arranged marriages. In the later Disney adaptations the reflected role of women in society has greatly advanced to the point where women are equal to men. This reflection can be seen in several retellings of the tale, such as Jean Marie LePrince de Beaumont’s, and Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s stories as well as Walt Disney Studios movie adaptations.
Linda Hutcheon, in A Theory of Adaptation expands and gives examples of how adaptations are created throughout different time periods. In Chapter 5 of her text she asks the questions Where and When? Within the chapter she investigates how the historical contexts of the adaptations affect the changes made from generation to generation. “An adaptation, like the work it adapts, is always framed in a context— a time and a place, a society and a culture” (142). Hutcheon states that adaptations are based on the culture of the time period which is very much reflected in Beauty and the Beast.
Beauty and the Beast has had many adaptations over several centuries including two authors Satu Apo and David Hackston who briefly touch upon the origins of Beauty and the Beast in their journal that studies the transition between oral and literary fairy tales. Tracing this tale to its origins is a very difficult thing to do as it is believed that the first fairy tales were told orally and then translated to literary tales (24). Satu and Apo specifically were looking at fairytales within Finnish culture, which goes to show how widespread the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast is over the world.
It is possible that this tale is known around the world because it is said to have had its’ beginnings embedded in folklore. Allison Craven provides a summary of Cupid and Psyche in her writing, that includes many noticeable similarities and themes to the tale now known as Beauty and the Beast. It is believed that the story of Beauty and the Beast descended from the Greco-Roman myth Cupid and Psyche (126). The first literary versions were published around the same time. La Belle ete la Bete by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve was published in 1740. Jean Marie LePrince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast was published in 1756 in Magasin des Enfants. Both stories essentially told almost the same tale, with minor changes that reflect the author’s beliefs on a woman’s role in society within the time period.
Villeneuve and Beaumont wrote their pieces within the mid 18th century, where arranged marriage was the common practice. Beaumont, was a woman of an arranged marriage herself (49), according to Jerry Griswold in The Meanings of “Beauty & The Beast” A Handbook, which looks at several adaptations of Beauty and the Beast. Beaumont looked to appease both sides of the time period debate between arranged marriages and romantic marriages. If we look at Beaumont’s version, we can see the balance of the expected role of women in society and what Beaumont thinks should be expected role of women in society.
Belle has conversations with Beast over the dinner table, which is a typical way of courting in the 18th century. After Beast releases Belle, she comes back to the castle. Belle doesn’t come back out of love, she comes back because she is grateful for his kindness and hospitality. Women in the 18th century were supposed to be very courteous and proper at all times to their suitors, grateful to have someone to marry and look after them. This ideal of courtship is seen clearly within Beaumont’s writing as well as in arranged marriages. In order for Belle to save her father she must go with the Beast, an agreement that mirrors an arranged marriage.
However Beaumont also shows the idea of romantic marriages, when Belle saves the Beast she says it is because she can not bear the thought of living without him (Griswold 49). Belle marries the Beast, and he turns back into a man. Belle saying she would not be able to live shows that she was romantically entangled with Beast, and cared so much about him she could not bear the thought of living without him. Beaumont challenged the ways of the traditional arranged marriage in some aspects of her story by creating romantic entanglements between Belle and the Beast but staying in confides of society by showing traditional courting through dinners and marriage. Beaumont displayed the expected role of women in society, to be in an arranged marriage created by men, whether father or suitor.
Villeneuve’s version differs from the balance of Beaumont’s tale between the arranged and romantic marriage debate of the era. Instead, in Villeneuve’s telling she focuses on the role of women depending on their class order. After Belle saves the Beast and he transforms back into a prince, “she is ready to sacrifice herself again by giving up her claim to him because she is merely bourgeois while he is a true nobleman” (Zipes 788). Belle did not believe she was worthy of marrying someone with such higher social status but when she finds out she is actually the daughter of a king, marrying him is proper again. This goes to shows that women were expected to marry men of their same social status through arranged marriages. Villeneuve’s storytelling depicts the role of women in society as also being dependent on the social class of your father, who would place you in an arranged marriage.
These tales of Beaumont and Villeneuve were circulated throughout Europe, eventually translated to English and brought over to America. The tale became an even bigger hit when Walt Disney Studios, made the fairytale into an animated film in 1991, and then 26 years later in 2017 as a live-action film that reflected the 20th and 21st century feminist ideals of women in society.
The films follow almost the exact same plot at Beaumont’s version of Beauty and the Beast but in neither version does Belle have any malicious sisters like Beaumont’s version. Also in the film the Beast does not ask Belle to marry him ever, instead they just kiss and Belle declares her love while she is crying. The film does not reflect the same arranged marriage values of Beaumont’s writing, which is a result of different eras. The Disney films reflect women’s ability to choose their suitor as well as many other women’s rights that came about within the past decade.
In the 1991 Disney film the Beast actually releases Belle to go see her Dad, but does not tell her she has to come back. The Disney film adds a new dimension to theme of women’s role in society by adding the optimity of male masculinity, Gaston. Gaston is arrogant, stubborn, and unbothered by Belle’s obvious rejections of his advances. Belle rejecting Gaston, is acceptable and one might even say common practice of the late 20th century. Not only does Belle have the ability to choose Beast as her suitor, she is also independent, intelligent, and does manual labor.
These character traits that were not seen within Beaumont’s original tale because they reflect society’s ideal of women in the 20th century. Women at this time were now gaining higher paying position in careers that women in the 18th century wouldn’t even dare to think about it. Belle also carries heroic traits in the 1991 version when she is the one who climbs up on to the roof to stop Gaston and try to save the Beast. This was the first Disney movie to have a princess that didn’t need to be saved themselves. Belle came to the rescue of both her father and the Beast. This is a reflection of the beginning of the feminist movement within society, that a woman can be both smart and strong. This suggests that the roles of women in society have changed, and the story is altered in bits to reflect these changes.
Even the 2017 Disney adaptation further challenges the gender roles of women in society by continuing the theme of Belle saving the Beast and her father’s lives, not succumbing to a relationship with Gaston where she would be a housewife, and showing an LGBTQ relationship challenging the fact a romantic relationship does not have to be just between a man and a woman. This scene is very brief and easily unnoticed, but if paying attention, there is a scene where Lefou is dancing with another man. This suggests support or at least acknowledgement of the gay pride movement of the 21st century. This suggests further that women are not expected to have a heterosexual relationship but can love whomever they’d like.
The role of women in the 21st century compared to the mid 18th century are drastically different because they reflect cultural ideals of different time periods. When looking at Beauty and the Beast it is very important to note the changes of women’s expected roles in society over the course of three centuries because we can see that women have gained rights that they were not at first given. No longer considered as property of their father or husband, women are free to love and pursue what they desire in life. When fairytales are adapted based on cultural values of the time period it allows a reader to engage with the story and look at how a culture has evolved. Readers can engage their opinions based on their cultural background by making their own adaptation of the story, pushing new cultural movements that will eventually be seen when analyzing the historical contexts of fairytales as seen with Beauty and the Beast, and the role of women in society.
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