The Evolution of Beauty and the Beast

Safari Desktop Picture (1)
Cupid and Psyche carved by Antonio Canova

The very first Beauty and the Beast was a second century A.D. Roman myth. It has, since then, taken various forms. From the first traditional telling in 1740 France to Disney, Beauty and the Beast has been turned over, transformed, reworked, and redone. The story’s characters change to better fit society’s ideals, significantly so after the women’s movement of the 1960’s.

I have analyzed three tales. “Cupid and Psyche” a second century Roman myth by Apuleius, a 1978 traditional adaptation Beauty by Robin McKinley, and a modern-day retelling Beastly by Alex Flinn.

All versions separate and interlace with each other, however, one must ask, “What constitutes a story as a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story?” I have found four main commonalities to answer that question:
The main character is beautiful, courageous, kind, and honest. In “Cupid and Psyche”, princess Psyche’s beauty rivals the most beautiful goddess, Venus. Due to a jealous curse Venus puts on Psyche, Psyche has to trek up a mountain to be given to a monster that, “[…] overcomes gods and men” (Apuleius), not once does she look back. In Beauty the main character willingly takes her father’s place so that he may not be killed. Beastly by Alex Flinn, talks of a girl who is traded for her father’s drugs and yet she remains kind.

Where the Beast lives (or what the Beast has) is enchanted. Whether there are invisible maids or all-seeing mirrors, there is always magic. Beastly, the modern version of Beauty and the Beast, contains a magic mirror which allows the holder to see anyone whom they ask to see. In both “Cupid and Psyche” and Beauty there are invisible servants to cater to the women.

The Beast is rumored to be a monster. While Cupid is not a beast himself but a god, he is rumored to be one by the kingdom’s people that live at the base of the mountain. In Beauty the main character’s father returns to his family talking of a monster that threatened to kill him for stealing one of his roses.

Lastly, there is a transformation as a result of the Beauty proving her love. In Beastly, the Beast transforms as the result of a kiss, in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast it’s an acknowledgement of love returned, in Beauty it’s the acceptance of a marriage, and in “Cupid and Psyche,” Psyche transforms into a god by drinking from the immortal cup once she proves her loyalty to her husband.

Each version of the novel meets these four requirements. As the versions get newer, the plot (girl falls for guy) and general setting (upper-end) remain the same while the main characters change in resilience, personality, and passions. The characters change depending on what is happening in society at the time the tale is being written.

How we know the story to be today, is not how it used to be known. There used to only be beautiful things in the story. From plot, to setting, to characters, in Apuleius’s “Cupid and Psyche,” everything is beautiful. Psyche is a princess that leaves her palace to fulfill the prophecy of her marrying a monster. When she comes across a white palace in the forest she hears a voice that tells her, “‘All that you see is yours […]’” (Apuleius). Psyche is given luxurious gowns, the invisible servants sing and play instruments for her while she takes bubble baths… she’s fine. Especially since her host is the god of love, Cupid. Throughout the story there is no mention of anything ugly. That’s because in second century A.D., Rome was living in the most peaceful and economically sound time it would ever live through: the Pax Romana. During this time the Roman people weren’t at war, they had reached the largest amount of land they would ever take over, and the population grew to an estimated 70 million (Ancient Civilizations). When a people no longer have money to worry about or a belligerent ruler, often times art will portray beauty. If that’s what life is currently like and if attaining wealth, prosperity, and beauty are all ideal, then “Cupid and Psyche” fits those ideals.

Meanwhile, thousands of years later a great cultural and world-wide change was occurring. Women no longer wanted to be valued by their beauty. In 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded with the idea that women should be given all of the privileges and responsibilities in mainstream America equal to those of men (Sink). In 1968 NOW had become so popular that they had rallies and demonstrations. They even boycotted the Miss America Beauty Contest in Atlantic City to help prove their point that women’s worth was not related to their looks (Sink).

In 1978 Robin McKinley writes a new version of Beauty and the Beast titled Beauty. Set in the time of kings, queens, and castles, our heroine, Beauty (or so she is painfully nicknamed) and her two sisters are the daughters of a wealthy merchant. When, one day, Beauty’s father must go to port he asks his daughters if they would like any gifts from his journey. While Beauty’s two sisters ask for jewels and dresses, she asks for a single rose. Considering herself to be plain, Beauty spends her time away from jewels and dresses and is described as having blisters and calluses on her hands (McKinley 48), neither of which are appropriate for a young lady of that era. Before the worldwide movement of the 1960’s the beauty relished in beautiful objects and was thought by the majority of the kingdom to be beautiful. In 1978, she is rewritten as a woman who dislikes being called beautiful and has simple taste. This is because of the well-publicized and strongly advocated voices of women that needed to make it known: we aren’t just beautiful, we’re many other things, too. The positive reaction the women’s movement got from thousands of women since have allowed women in modern day society to freely, and naturally think that their looks aren’t what make them important. As such we get more outspoken, tom-boyish characters in movies, books, and other media.

I’m sure when you first heard Beauty and the Beast you thought of Belle and maybe you thought about how much of a badass she is, but her self-reliance wasn’t always part of the tale. While Beauty relates more to our modern Belle, Psyche was quite different. In order to test Psyche’s love for Cupid, Venus makes Psyche go through three trials, none of which she is able to complete without serious help. When asked by Venus to weave a mountain of grain, Cupid sends ants to do the chore for Psyche. When asked to shear golden sheep, water nymphs warn Psyche she must wait until nightfall or she’ll be blinded, and for the last task had Cupid not revived her with a kiss, Psyche would have been asleep on the side of the road from opening a box she was told not to open in the first place. This isn’t her fault. In ancient Rome, women took care of their husbands and families. They were expected to be loyal and obedient, they didn’t shear sheep, especially not the princesses so Psyche would play a damsel who, even though she goes to meet a monster, is ultimately performing her duties by going to meet her husband.

In Beauty, our heroine is extraordinarily self-reliant and hardworking. She has blisters on her hands, and even though she’s at the castle where invisible maids allow her not to lift a finger, she still does her chores as though she were still at home. Beauty knows how to split, chop and stack wood and she has trained her Clydesdale since he was a colt (McKinley 48). Not something one would find a young lady of a wealthy merchant doing. When Beauty’s father returns, he tells his daughters a magical and yet horrible story of a castle in a wild garden, deep in the woods where they live. He concludes saying that his life is in danger unless he gives the beast of the castle one of his daughters. Beauty forcefully takes the position, confidently asking her father, “Cannot a beast be tamed?” (Mckinley 100). Women at the time Beauty was written were no longer helpless but capable, as such this beauty changed to better fit the changing women around her. Her defining characteristic no longer was beauty but strength. The beauties became women that women agreed with ever since the liberation of the 60’s, therefore, the beauties of the Beauty and the Beast cannon changed to better fit the changes in society.

The beauty is not the only one that changed, so did the beast. After all, how did we get from Cupid, “the most irresistible of the gods,” to a furry beast? When Venus saw that the mortals were calling a princess more beautiful than she, Venus sent her son Cupid to earth to curse this young maiden to fall in love with a “churlish man” (Apuleius). Cupid, after accidentally piercing himself with the arrow meant for Psyche, immediately fell in love with her. When Venus saw that her curse hadn’t taken affect she made suitors stop coming to see Psyche. Her parents grew worried and took her to an Oracle who told them, “‘She shall be given to one who waits for her on yonder mountain; he overcomes gods and men’” (Apuleius). Or Cupid, as we like to call him. He overcomes gods and men because love is the most powerful source on earth, not because he is a monster. So then why is it the beast eventually does become a beast? As described before, “Cupid and Psyche” was written during the Pax Romana. Similar to Psyche’s beauty, Cupid’s beauty comes with similar reasoning. If wealth and status has suddenly become more attainable due to the perfection of the Pax Romana why not make everything beautiful if life at that time is seemingly beautiful? However, as the times became more grisly so did the beast.

In Beastly by Alex Flinn, a wealthy, narcissistic son of a news anchor named Kyle Kingsley truly is a beast. Alex Flinn takes the most attractive boy in the school and turns him in to a monster. As the witch who turns Kyle, Kendra, says, “You will know what it is like not to be beautiful, to be as ugly on the outside as on the inside” (Flinn 37).

In both the traditional and the modern versions of the fairytale, it is a woman that transforms the beast due to their vanity, as though to say, “No boys, we’re trying to go against this notion that beautiful people are better people.” To pull away from the importance of beauty and to better show that personality rules over beauty, we now have an actual monster. Feminism includes both males and females; working together and against each other. After all, if women wanted to make it known that their looks didn’t matter anymore, they were making it known to men as well as other women. As such we get men who are transformed to better see that beauty can be found within.

Where before the beast was not a beast at all, but a kind, quiet god, in Beastly he truly was a beast. Angry, narcissistic Kyle Kingsley cares for nothing more than his social status in high school and his ability to manipulate people through his charm and good looks which is where we get the monster; to better show what should be sought after is an attractive personality.

Speaking of, personality is also a constantly changing factor. While typically the beasts are transformed because they are vain (Beauty, Beastly, Beauty and the Beast by Disney) their personalities differ, often given the time period in which they occur. Kyle Kingsley openly bullies those he deems less attractive, which is extremely similar to what is going on in society now. Looks and size are stressed by mass media and bullying is and has been an ongoing and worsening problem, especially when it comes to today’s youth. As such, making this beast a bully has made the novel more relatable and has collaborated with the women’s movement message: looks are less than personality.

The Beast in Beauty is kind, calm, and intelligent.

In Disney’s version of the fairytale, the beast is angry and yet shy. He doesn’t know how to talk to women, or behave, or… eat.

Even though the beasts recognize the awkward situation they’re in, they enter an unusual trial and error between inviting their beauty to dinner and showing her a library. Vain and angry, the beasts’ intelligence and eventually their thoughtfulness is put to the test on exactly how to get the beautiful, courageous, and strong beauties to fall in love with them. It is not what they have, but how they treat their guests that eventually allow fear to turn into friendship and then love.

From second century A.D. Rome to modern day America, the Beauty and the Beast fairytale has tumbled through the events of society, reflecting current events and current ideals along with worldwide movements forcing people to see beyond a mirror. From Cupid and Psyche’s ever-spanning beauty, to Beauty’s courage, and Beastly’s blunt lesson, Beauty and the Beast has stood for transformation, courage, and kindness.

One thought on “The Evolution of Beauty and the Beast

  1. Here is a works cited/ list of books mentioned in this essay for those people:
    “Ancient Rome: Life of the People.” Ancient Civilizations. Hall Association
    Apuleius, Lucius. Cupid and Psyche. Rome: n.p., 2 A.D. Print.
    Flinn, Alex. Beastly. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.
    McKinley, Robin. Beauty. New York: HarperCollins, 1978. Print.
    Sink, Nancy. “Women’s Liberation Movement.” Women’s Liberation Movement. Ed. Nancy Sink.


Leave a Reply to Mackenzie Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s