Beauty and the Beast has always been a feminist fable

PUBLISHED: 12:06 04 April 2017 | UPDATED: 14:59 05 April 2017




The latest film version of the classic tale is said to be infused with a feminist message. But the story’s French roots, and the tragedy from which it was woven, show the feminist aspects of the tale really are as old as time

Diane de Joannis de Châteaublanc, Madame de Ganges, the original Beauty.Diane de Joannis de Châteaublanc, Madame de Ganges, the original Beauty.

Though it is more commonly known these days for its part in the Disney Princess franchise, Beauty and the Beast is an enduring tale which has sparked film adaptations and novelisations across centuries.

Though originally published in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, the most famous version of the tale, La Belle et la Bête, was produced by French writer Jeanne-Marie le Prince de Beaumont in the 1750s.

De Beaumont published approximately 70 volumes during her literary career and was celebrated as a writer of fairy tales. But rather than just fantasy or fable, her rendering of Beauty and the Beast is actually more a critique of women’s rights of the time, hidden behind layers of marital guidance.

Surprising though it may seem – more modernly, some have interpreted Beauty and the Beast as a tale of Stockholm Syndrome rather than romance – when you look at de Beaumont’s other work it makes sense.

Before her Beauty adaptation, the writer translated the tragic tale of Madame de Ganges, based on the real-life tragic history of Diane-Elisabeth de Rossan. The protagonist has an unfortunate story: a wealthy, beautiful and virtuous young woman remarries after becoming widowed.

She makes a poor choice, however, and marries a jealous husband with two villainous brothers, both of whom fall in love with her. When neither succeeds in corrupting her virtue, their anger is so great that they decide to murder her – with the endorsement of her husband.

The heroine is ordered to choose the method of her own death: poison, stabbing or shooting. But in a twist in the tale, Madame de Ganges ends up the victim of all three: she is not only forced to swallow the poison, but when she attempts to escape, she is stabbed by one of the brothers, and shot.

Ultimately, it is the poison which finishes her off: details of the character’s autopsy in a later translated version reveal that it had “burnt the coats of her stomach, and turned her brain quite black”. The beauty of the young woman was transmuted into the beast of a blackened husk.

Interestingly, in de Beaumont’s version of Madame de Ganges’s tale, written as a moral for young women, she seemingly attributes some culpability to the Marchioness in her own downfall. Her husband’s jealousy arises because she “gad[s] about so much”, enjoying being admired for her beauty. This incurs the wrath of her jealous husband who chides her “to stay more at home”.

But de Beaumont almost seems dissatisfied with concluding that Madame de Ganges should have complied with her husband because “lions and tygers are tamed at last; a man must be of a fiercer nature than those animals, not to be gained by a complying, prudent, and discreet wife”. And so she rewrote the tale again, this time as a fairy tale: Beauty and the Beast.

In this version, the “Beauty” is distinctly comparable to the too-beautiful Madame de Ganges. Like the Marchioness, Beauty willingly goes to, but then is forced to submit to the will of a ferocious beast. Unlike the Marchioness, however, Beauty is able to tame the beast by being a “complying, prudent, and discreet wife”, and effect the beast’s transformation into a prince.

It is the conclusion of the tale which is most interesting in de Beaumont’s version, for it is here that she hints at the unsatisfactory nature of the place of women in her society and uses her story as feminist critique. Beauty, the youngest of three sisters, is portrayed as “a charming, sweet-tempered creature” who loved the Beast even though his deformity scares her. Her sisters, on the other hand, are proud and wealthy and refuse to marry anyone less than a duke or earl. The “wicked creatures” are so cruel to Beauty that they rub onions into their eyes to feign crying when she leaves their family home to live in the Beast’s castle.


Beauty, (said this lady,) come and receive the reward of your judicious choice; you have preferred virtue before either wit or beauty, and deserve to find a person in whom all these qualifications are united: you are going to be a great Queen; I hope the throne will not lessen your virtue, or make you forget yourself.

As to you, ladies, (said the fairy to Beauty’s two sisters) I know your hearts, and all the malice they contain: become two statues; but, under this transformation, still retain your reason.


During de Beaumont’s time, “couverture” was law for women, meaning that, in the words of Anne Mellor – Distinguished Professor of English Literature and Women’s Studies at UCLA – “all women were legally ‘covered over’ or absorbed into the body of their husbands, fathers, brothers, or sons”. She might yet still “retain … reason, but she is as a statue, effectively silenced and unable to act for herself”.

The writer seems to be implying, that for the majority of women in the 18th century marriage market, there was little potential for “happy ever afters”, and only the exercise of “judicious choice” would ensure the attainment of one. For Beauty’s sisters, they chose to value wealth and status above all else, making them beasts within and ultimately becoming their downfall.

Like de Beaumont’s Beauty, Emma Watson’s new iteration has become one that reflects the rights and powers of women – but the feminist aspects of the tale really are as old as time. De Beaumont wanted to teach women then that they have more value than just as a wife, and it is a lesson that rings true nearly 300 years on – though now a woman’s “judicious choices” can give far more freedom than an 18th-century Beauty could ever imagine.


Valerie Derbyshire is a doctoral researcher in the School of English at the University of Sheffield


This article originally appeared on The Conversation

Support The New European's vital role as a voice for the 48%

The New European is proud of its journalism and we hope you are proud of it too. We believe our voice is important - both in representing the pro-EU perspective and also to help rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

  • Become a friend of The New European for a contribution of £48. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish)
  • Become a partner of The New European for a contribution of £240. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook
  • Become a patron of The New European for a contribution of £480. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook and an A3 print of The New European front cover of your choice, signed by Editor Matt Kelly

By proceeding, you agree to the New Europeans supporters club Terms & Conditions which can be found here.

Supporter Options

Mention Me in The New European

If Yes, Name to appear in The New European

Latest articles

This was neither up-to-date nor a poll. And not a single participant voiced their support for Hard Brexit

A recent poll by well-regarded academics suggested the vast majority of the British public now backed an extreme form of Brexit. Here‘s why that is not the case.

Parliament is filled with “spineless lemmings”

Brexit may not happen at all – when what we need are leaders, not followers, to win this battle

Leave.EU launch deselection bid in hope of dumping soft Brexit ministers out of their jobs

Leave.EU have launched a broadside on cabinet Remainers Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd in a bid to get the pair deselected.

Edward Enninful brings a new way of fashion thinking to Vogue

Fashion can be considered frivolous and in some ways it is.

My sense of humour failure over Brexit has helped clear Scotch mist

I don’t blame the Scots if Brexit leads them to want another shot at independence

The extraordinary story of how the humble spud created the modern world

The rise of capitalism and individualism in the West, and even the current reforms in China, can all be explained by the rise of the potato

Putin is just waiting for the right moment to spear Trump

Vlad the Lad is the supreme master of the macho man holiday snap...

The lesson of Singapore is not one Brexiteers want to hear

Long considered a lodestar of go-it-alone globalisation, Singapore now needs its neighbours more than ever

Truman vs. Macarthur brought the world to the brink as war raged over Korea

The dispute was an ominous warning of problems for our time over where ultimate power lies in the US

EU funding: Brexit’s other looming cliff edge

The loss of EU funding used to help poorer parts of the UK has had far less attention than other ill effects of Brexit. But it will soon be hard to ignore the problem.

Brexiteers, Trump America and the corruption of nostalgia

Manufactured nostalgia always has a political end. Its aim is to create new foot soldiers for The New Vision.

Generation Brexit: Why the young should fear the old

As the realities of Brexit and its economic impact become clearer, alarming generational splits are emerging

Thunder run to Seoul: North Korea’s war plan

As tensions in the Korean peninsula have risen, various apocalyptic scenarios for how a potential conflict might unfold have emerged.

There is no such thing as ‘fake news’

The news industry has a trust problem.

The Brexit vote has created a united Ireland, at least when it comes to the border

New Irish premier Leo Varadkar will play a defining role

Hamburg is the heartbeat of modern Germany

A seamy, subversive, self confident city, Hamburg is also a symbol of an outward-looking Germany

British industry: Brexit fiddles while the economy burns

Even without the complications of Brexit, Britain’s economy is in serious peril. But with attention elsewhere, is anyone in power actually listening?

Unis have grown fat on fees - what happens when the money stops?

The architect of the Labour’s introduction of student fees says the money charged is now nothing more than vice-chancellors profiteering

Enter the Senex: Leader of the Age of Anxiety

An idea for a movie that once upon a time no one would buy – because it was too improbable.

Oxford and Cambridge unis say Theresa May must confirm post-Brexit rights for EU students

A powerful group of universities is demanding urgent action from the Government amid heightened “anxiety” over Brexit.


Watch us on YouTube

6 excellent reasons to go out and buy The New European this week

Views: 162

The rollercoaster ride of Theresa May's plummeting approval ratings

Views: 576

A year of failure and fiasco in May’s Number 10

Views: 396


Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter