Women Who Spin: Beauty and the Beast
by Lacey Skorepa
More often than not, when we think of fairy tales, we think of Walt Disney. We are awash with nostalgia, reminiscing on our favorite animated tale. And now that Disney is reviving our favorite childhood narratives as live-action features, we are free to once again, revel unapologetically, in our favorite fairy tales. Yet, what many people don’t know is that the genre’s authorial history is one that is vibrant, complex, resonant, and stretches well beyond Walt Disney.
On the surface, it appears as though the fairy tale canon is dominated by men. After all, in scholarship, the classical fairy tale canon is comprised of: The Grimm Brothers, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen. These are some of the men behind Walt Disney’s adaptations. The fact that women were often—and still are—the wellsprings of fairy tales is not commonly known. Let’s look at “Beauty and the Beast,” for example.
Beauty and The Beast (1991) is perhaps my favorite Disney movie, adored by bibliophiles everywhere for its intelligent, book-loving protagonist, Belle. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (Madame de Villeneuve), a French author, published La Belle et la Běte in 1740 as part of a fairy tale collection, Les contes marins ou la jeune Americaine. This was one of two fairy tale collections published by Madame de Villeneuve. At over one hundred pages, La Belle et la Běte was a novella for adults. Later, in 1756, Jeanne-Marie de Beaumont published an abbreviated version of the tale in Le Magasin des Enfants and this is the tale we are most commonly familiar with today.
French women were particularly integral and influential in the formation of the genre; according to Jack Zipes, “French writers coined the term conte de fée [fairy tale] during the seventeenth century” (14). In the seventeenth century, salons became popular in France and afforded women—mostly aristocratic—a place to gather, tell stories, and entertain one another. In When Dreams Came True: Classical Fairy Tales and Their Tradition, Zipes notes that some of the most exceptional writers of the times were women whose goal “was to gain more independence for women of their class and to be treated more seriously as intellectuals” (25).
Unfortunately, many fairy tales by women have been lost or forgotten. This is in large part due to the fact that writing was considered taboo for women until recently. And while many women did in fact publish work, their work did not receive such wide circulation as their male counterparts. Charles Perrault, a regular attendee to salon gatherings hosted by women, had no such trouble getting his salon-inspired work published and over the years his work became recognized. In addition to this, many fairy tale works by women remain untranslated. Of Madame de Villeneuve’s two collections, only one tale, La Belle et la Béte, is available in English.
Scholars have been invested in the project of recuperation—locating and/or translating—these tales since roughly the 1980s. While recuperation progress is slow, we know more about and have more access to fairy tales written by women than we ever have before. And these women tellers reflect only half of the story as the majority of revisionist fairy tale writers—writers who revise the classical tales, typically bringing new interpretations to the work—are also women. Old and new, many fairy tales written by women play with and question concepts fundamental to women: our place in the world, our identity, our autonomy, societal expectations, etc. There is a vast and rich tapestry of tradition, generated by women just beyond the Disney curtain.
Favorite “Beauty and the Beast” Revisionist Tale:
“The Tiger’s Bride,” published in The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Favorite Alternative-Disney “Beauty and the Beast” Film:
Beauty and The Beast (John Cocteau, 1947)