Can Fairy Tales Ever Be Feminist?

Fairy tales exert a powerful cultural influence, particularly when it comes to reinforcing traditional gender roles. Disney’s new version of Beauty and the Beast has undergone a feminist revamp but can such stories ever escape their patriarchal baggage?

In the run-up to the release of Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast, the story’s feminist reworking has been a constant theme. To underscore the film’s progressive credentials, star Emma Watson went so far as to bring Gloria Steinem to view the final cut in London. Watson told Vanity Fair, “I couldn’t care less if I won an Oscar or not if the movie didn’t say something that I felt was important for people to hear… Belle is absolutely a Disney princess but she’s not a passive character – she’s in charge of her own destiny.”

Given the current climate, Beauty and the Beast’s blending of feminism and fairy tale is commercially astute. In the mainstream, feminism of a type is having a sustained cultural moment. Disney’s popular 1991 animation and its various spin-offs remain hugely profitable. All indications are that this version will perform with similar gusto. As the ‘Beauty’ of the title, Watson is an ideal fit for the much-loved heroine, Belle. Alongside her acting career, she is also one of the most high profile proponents of contemporary feminism. To a generation of young women, Watson is something of a princess herself, plucked from obscurity as a child by the dazzling juggernaut of the Harry Potter franchise.

In the press, much has been made of the ways this version of Beauty and the Beast differs from Disney’s 1991 telling. Belle now has an expanded back story, we’re told. She has a career as an inventor. Her corsets have been banished in favour of more freeing attire. Yet, the fundamentals of the fairy tale remain unchanged. Belle still sacrifices herself for her father, is imprisoned and marries her brutish captor. From a feminist perspective, this seems like less of a fairy tale and more of a nightmare.

*

In 1974, Andrea Dworkin wrote, “We have taken the fairy tales of Woman Hating childhood with us into maturity, chewed but still lying in the stomach, as real identity.’’ She added, ‘‘Fairy tales are the primary information of the culture.” The tremendous power of fairy tales caused much debate among Second Wave feminists, a discussion which continues to the current day. Some, like Alison Lurie, found positives in fairy stories, pointing to the presence, albeit limited, of strong female characters and the potential for tales to be read subversively or given a feminist revision. Others, like Marcia Lieberman, were much less enthusiastic. They emphasized that while the folklore from which fairy tales derive might offer a multiplicity of women’s experiences, dominant versions did not. Feminist critics pointed to the cultural lessons imparted by Disney’s Cinderella, Snow White and so on. They argued that these ‘lessons’ endorse, under the guise of ‘romance’, deeply troubling notions of masculinity, femininity and the reproduction of heteronormative, patriarchal institutions like marriage.

While perspectives on the genre’s pros and cons differed, most feminists agreed on the power of fairy tales in shaping cultural mythology and as a tool of socialisation. In the 1980s, feminist fairy tale researchers sought to challenge the male-defined canon, revising existing narratives and uncovering the ignored voices of female storytellers and characters.  Authors like Angela Carter reworked fairy tales or devised new ones, re-establishing elided aspects of popular stories and granting female characters autonomy and sexual freedom.

Studies exploring the fairy tale’s allure to female audiences showed that although women generally enjoyed such tales, the gulf between romantic fantasy and reality was a source of unease. As Kay Stone remarked in her essay The Misuses of Enchantment, “many females find in fairy tales an echo of their own struggles to become human beings.” It is interesting to wonder how much the norms perpetuated by traditional fairy tales contributed to the kinds of struggles Stone observed.

The likelihood of a tale like Beauty and the Beast easily lending itself to feminist reworking is complicated by its very origins. The story comes from the Greco-Roman myth of Cupid and Psyche. Psyche, a great beauty and mortal woman, endures terribly at the hands of her lover, the god Cupid and his vengeful mother, Venus. After much suffering, Psyche becomes immortal and is married to Cupid in a lavish ceremony, with all the gods in attendance. Her triumph is predicated on extreme self-sacrifice and steadfast allegiance to the very person who is the source of her woes. The romantic aspects of the story are twisted and few, taking a backseat to pain and tragedy.

In the 1991 Disney animation, ‘feisty’ Belle was taken to symbolise a break with traditional, more ‘passive’ Disney princesses. She rejects Gaston, the local heartthrob, who proposes marriage, preferring to spend her time alone, reading. This earns the scorn of her fellow villagers, who call her ‘odd’, as if a bookish girl is an aberration. But Belle is rebellious. She expresses a desire for adventure, making the Beast’s imprisonment of her to secure his own liberty all the crueler. He is violent, petulant and threatening, taking his frustration out on a bewildered Belle. Still, her love for him is depicted as inevitable. Although he saves her from a pack of wolves, it is his temper that sends Belle fleeing into the woods in the first place.  At every juncture, her fate is orchestrated by external forces and the needs of others. She can only choose within patriarchal structures, never outside them.

In many ways, the reworking or ‘repackaging’ of traditional fairy tales is an inevitable consequence of feminism’s infiltration of public consciousness since the Sixties. These stories may be considered childish but they are ever present in our language and awareness, from ‘fairy tale weddings’ to ‘ugly old crones’, from Ella Enchanted to Unreal’s ‘Everlasting. Unsurprisingly, feminists continue to challenge their dubious lessons on romantic love and feminine identity. But the degree to which repackaging renders stories like Beauty and the Beast feminist is, at best, debatable. This is further complicated by the current fad for a commodified, politically-defanged brand of feminism that is often sprinkled on the most questionable of subject matter.

In Disney’s new version of Beauty and the Beast, much has been made of the fact that Belle’s back story has been expanded. Now, she has a ‘career’, which happens to be that of an inventor, just like her father. She designs a washing machine, which leaves her more time to read. This is positive – education is important, books are fundamental; Belle is shown helping a young girl to read – but, in feminist terms, it doesn’t do much to challenge gender norms in her wider community. In a scene from the film, weary women doing washing by hand at the local well look on as she waltzes by. Belle’s interest in freedom it seems extends mostly to herself.

“When I finished the film, it kind of felt like I had made that transition into being a woman on-screen,” Watson told Vanity Fair. Her evoking the idea of ‘transition’ is interesting and revealing. Feminist scholars of the fairy tale argue that it is precisely the daunting transition from girlhood to womanhood that many of these tales seek to address. Specifically, they function to ensure the continuation of the patriarchal order. Young women’s curiosity about the world and sexual awakening are safely directed down a path towards maternity and matrimony, thereby reinforcing the status quo.

In Beauty and the Beast, this process plays out through the use of familiar fairy tale tropes. Marriage is presented as inevitable, the only path to feminine happiness and fulfilment. Belle is desired primarily for her youth and normative beauty, ‘assets’ which serve to foster hierarchies and exclusions amongst girls and women. Her prince, once revealed, sweeps her into a world of privilege and wealth, with no question as to where such things come from or at what cost or why one would desire them in the first place. Romantic love is presented as all-conquering; necessarily difficult but ultimately rewarding.

Despite the Beast’s imprisonment of her and his often woeful behaviour, Belle loves him.  She is not undone by his ugliness or his abusiveness.  At a moment when issues like coercive control and gaslighting in romantic relationships are finally getting the attention they deserve, this alignment in particular is striking and troubling. If an aim of feminism is challenging harmful patriarchal ideas about love, then how can a film that upholds them claim to be feminist? It is a difficult if not, perhaps, an impossible line to walk.

In a contemporary context, it could be argued that blending feminism with popular fairy tales is a way to make the movement more palatable, by showing that it is not incompatible with traditional notions of femininity. What this approach forgets is that feminist criticism is about interrogating the very origins of what we understand as ‘femininity’ so as to dismantle the roots of systemic sexism and discrimination. The longstanding role of the fairy tale in the reproduction of this system is unlikely be revolutionized by the liberal application of feminism-lite.

Beauty and the Beast’s use of feminism is savvy and it is understandable why Watson views the film as a vehicle for changing perceptions. To a degree, it might. Of course, if it were marketed as a straightforward fairy tale, it would leave itself less open to criticism but in this age, that would be missing a trick. The film offers a narrative that is somewhat improved and makes for good press but in it, feminism is largely used as little more than feel-good window dressing.

In sticking closely to the original story, Beauty and the Beast undercuts its attempts at progress by restoring the patriarchal order faster than you can say “and they all lived happily ever after.” In trying to meld feminism with the fairy tale, what this retelling of Belle and her Beast perhaps does best is reveal abiding tensions and contradictions. This factor will hopefully spark some necessary conversations and whet appetites for new, more radical popular narratives that take us beyond endless retellings of princesses, princes and lands far, far away.