I have for most of my adult life considered myself a feminist. I believe women are equal to men in capacity for good and evil and should be given equal opportunities to achieve their will. Recently though, I have been frustrated by what I call Noisy Feminists, women who are shouting the movement into places most women don't want to go. I do not hate men. I am married to one. I do not idolize men or demonize them.
But because of this new definition Feminism by Noisy Feminists, many women and girls have begun to shy away from being called Feminists at all. I sympathize. I have begun to consider calling myself an Equalist or Equalitarian. This has been prompted by may things, but the last straw was the attack of Noisy Feminists on my beloved fairy tales. The accusation that fairy tales make women stay in abusive relationships is an unproven misrepresentation and a bit sensationalist.
Let us look at one of stories Noisy Feminists consider an offender, one of my favorites, "Beauty and the Beast." According to Noisy Feminists, love in this story is what keeps women in abusive relationships. "Where?" I ask. Beauty leaves the Beast to die. She goes back to her family. She goes back loaded with jewels and clothes and money. So, how is this story telling women to stay with abusive men who would deny them the basic rights of being a human being much less gold and jewelry?
Was the Beast abusive? Okay, he may have forced Beauty's father to give her up to save his own skin, but who is the bad guy here? The Beast or the father? What kind of father gives his daughter to a beast? You may then say, Beauty sacrificed herself for her dad when her sisters refused. So, she went of her own free will. She made a bargain and had to stick with it to save her father. That's terrible that she had to make that kind of choice, and guess what? That's life. When we grow up, we have to make sacrifices we do not like. Life is not fair. That is a fact. In this world where kids grow up believing life should revolve around them, a dose of reality is a good thing.
Besides, the idea that life is not fair to women is not a new one. It was even more of a fact when this fairy tale was made up. Women had to marry according to the wishes of their fathers or male relatives. They had no choice. They were given away without their consent. Young girls, rich or poor, did not choose whom they married, a male relative did (father, brother, uncle), and his decision was based on friendship, money, status or all the above. When a girl married in the past, she was taken from her parents' home and put into to a strange place, hopefully a better one but not always. This could happen if she was poor or rich, pretty or not.
Pretty young girls were wed often times to "beastly" old men who could afford to pay her father off, This fairy tale could be a comforting story for a girl who found herself in that situation. So, this fairy tale may have some ugly truths in it. Some girls were actually considered lucky if this happened to them. It was better than dying in poverty. A girl might even become a merry widow (like in Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Tale) and get some kind of freedom when her old husband died. This was a fact for a lot of human history. Scary huh? So, when we tell our little girls these stories, we should also remind them how lucky they are to have a choice of whom to marry. They should be told how women fought for that right and how it must be safeguarded and not taken for granted. Now that's a positive feminist message.
Was the Beast really a Beast? The Beast does not verbally abuse Beauty in any of the stories I have read. He does not beat her or humiliate or shame her. Abusers do these things. The Beast never got drunk, never slapped Beauty around. This fairy tale does not show a woman being hurt.. In fact, when Beauty asks to go home, she is allowed to do so. Yes, the fact that the Beast had to give her permission is disturbing, but remember this is an old story and men controlled women in those time. This is a good place to point this out to young girls that freedom of choice is an important right women have not always had.
One can also teach a girl about what abuse looks like. Unlike the Beast, an abuser would not let their victims go free. Abusers want to control their victims and do not want them leaving their sphere of influence. I know. My mother was abusive and did not want me ever leaving the house or having friends. Reading Beauty and the Beast helped me see that love can be kind and generous. The Beast learns to love Beauty and lets her go even though it will cause him pain, and he may die. Love lets you go. Love opens it arms and has faith you will return. Abusers are too afraid to trust anyone to do that.
How deep is the Beast's ugliness? The beast is ugly on the outside but beautiful and kind on the inside. He isn't ugly or frightened on the inside, which is the case with abusers. Beauty's challenge isn't in forgiving a cruel man but seeing the beauty inside the Beast despite his outward appearance. In our shallow, sex-driven, youth-and-appearance-obsessed society, I think this is a very important lesson. Finding a good person, regardless of appearance, who is kind to you is a very significant message for young girls. The inside and heart are more important than appearances that will change. You may marry a handsome guy but after fifty or so years, you both are going to look like frogs, so looking for a good heart and a good person is the best option.
Does the Beast really change? Beauty is blinded by her desire for physical perfection. Let's face it: she is shallow. She is called Beauty after all, not Smarty or Brilliant. In many renditions, she is also a bit slow to figure out that the Beast is cursed and needs her help. She just wants a handsome prince like most girls. To show my point, Cocteau and Disney added a handsome yet cruel counterpart to the Beast to show the contrast between a cruel and handsome guy and a kind and not-so-handsome one. Beauty finally changes and realizes the Beast has given her a good life, so she returns his affection and returns to him. It is her loving heart that sees the beauty inside the Beast, that lets him appear handsome to her . This coincides with the saying "Handsome is as handsome does."
What to do with old fairy tales? Beauty has evolved and gotten a
little smarter, a little feistier over the years, and I am sure she will change even more as time goes by.That is the great thing about stories, they can evolve. Today when women can choose who they wish to marry, and they are not chattel to be given by their fathers, Beauty and Beast can take on another meaning. The idea that none of us marries a prince, that not every guy is going to be drop-dead gorgeous and physically perfect especially as we age, should be understood. It is silly and unrealistic and shallow to expect a spouse to live up to our physical dreams of perfection. To realize that no one is perfect on the outside or the inside and to accept that imperfection (i.e., spouse isn't Brad Pitt, leaves dishes dirty, gets sick, gets tired, gets annoyed, gets sad, has a bad day... is human) as a part of the person and their beauty is still a lesson that is valuable and that we can take away from this story to help empower young girls to make good decisions when dating and choosing a boyfriend or husband one day. I think that is as Feminist as one can get.
The road not traveled. Of course there are other stories one can read to a girl that shows a prince loving her for her inner beauty. Puddocky is a fairy tale where a girl frog, hideous though she is, wins the love of a prince. Or any of the Allerleirauh or Donkey-skin stories by Grimm or Lang that tell of a
girl covered in a hideous fur coat who wins a prince in the end. Sure, it's wrong that the guy has to be handsome and rich for a girl to want him but no story is perfect right? Also, one could argue that girls should not be limited to finding a husband as a goal in life, but since most girls have read fairy tales and have grown up into women who manage to finish college, find jobs, get work, become CEOs, run businesses and find husbands and much more these days, I think its okay to read Beauty and the Beast. I did.
With that said, why are we taking Fairy Tales so seriously anyway. They are fairy tales, exaggerations and fantasies. By the time I was a teenager, I had forgotten all about them and wanted to marry Legolas from The Lord of the Rings or conquer Dune and all the other male-centered worlds in Fantasy and Sci-Fi. ; )
Candice Raquel Lee
Author of The Innocent: A Love Story