The half-buried truth about Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" is that, in the end, the prince is a letdown. At the end of the 1991 cartoon, when the enchantment is lifted, he looks incomplete, vaguely embryonic—a smooth-skinned creature with maidenly bedhead and a tentative smile. Even for a viewer too young, as I was, to grasp the psychosexual undertones of a tale as old as this one, the Beast's physicality—the big buffalo head, the wolf's tail, all pathos and silly roughness—seemed less like an obstacle in the love story than its central object.
The same is true in the live-action remake, which stars Emma Watson as Belle, and Dan Stevens, for most of the movie, as the disturbingly tender human eyes that blink from the face of the C.G.I.-swaddled Beast. Without the layer of abstraction provided by Disney's cartoonists, it's harder to ignore the uneasiness of this particular romantic adventure. During the duet "Something There," Watson sings, about the Beast's suddenly apparent sweetness, "I wonder why I didn't see it there before." (I wanted to yell, as if to a girlfriend across a bar table, that the delay might have been because her man was a bison.) As the song continued, the Beast sang, full of pathetic wonder, "When we touched, she didn't shudder at my paw," and the woman sitting alone one seat away from me, who had treated herself to two wines during our Alamo Drafthouse matinée, started to giggle. When Belle and the Beast met at the top of the grand staircase, and "Tale As Old As Time" started swelling, the woman—a stranger, and a perfect one—leaned over to me. "What's his dick like?" she whispered.
In Anthony Lane's review of "Beauty and the Beast" for the magazine, he noted the glint and tug of sex in Jean Cocteau's 1946 "La Belle et la Bête," in which the Beast, after becoming a man again, says to Belle, "It's as though you missed my ugliness." Lane writes, "The lady preferred the animal. Such thoughts are out of bounds, needless to say, in the Disney garden." And still, at the end of the remake, as Belle is dancing with her prince, who wears powder-blue pants and a hair ribbon, she asks him, flirtatiously, if he'd consider growing a beard. He looks back at her knowingly, and gives a short, beastly roar.
A new book from Penguin, edited by Maria Tatar, titled "Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World," provides some historical context. Belle's story, Tatar writes in the introduction, is a "mere nostalgic remnant of a vast repertoire of stories" about similar pairings—fairy tales and folktales that turn "antagonists into allies," allowing us to pursue an "understanding of what we share with beasts even as we try to discover what makes us human."
Both of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" movies are essentially faithful to the durable, child-friendly version written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont for her Magasin des Enfants, in 1756. That was a morality tale in which Beauty deserves her happy ending—the prince, his riches—because of her modest decency, which just so happens to coexist with her superior intelligence and undeniable good looks. (In the 2017 remake, Watson's Belle is refigured as an inventor working to increase literacy among young village girls.)
The "Beauty and the Beast" story may originally have held appeal because of its relatability. "Many an arranged marriage must have felt like being tethered to a monster," Tatar writes. The many stories featuring a young woman turned over to a beast for the financial or social benefit of her family "may have furnished women with a socially acceptable channel for providing advice, comfort, and the consolations of imagination," preparing them "for an alliance that required effacing their own desires."
The animating question behind these tales of beastly alliances, however, remains: Which desires are quashed, and which are awakened? What is the heroine robbed of, and what is she given—both in the manner in which her story is told and within the story itself? The best-known antecedent to "Beauty and the Beast" is the ancient Greek myth of Zeus and Europa, in which the unfaithful deity transforms into a bull and kidnaps a pretty virgin. It's a story of rape and abduction that's generally framed as a story of rapture, with many a painter depicting Europa in "erotic abandonment and oceanic ecstasy," Tatar writes. In Edith Hamilton's version of the myth, which is reprinted in the Penguin book, Europa is attracted to the bull. "She cried to the others to come with her and mount him. . . . He is so mild and dear and gentle to behold. He is not like a bull, but like a good, true man." The bull leaps into the air and, when Europa becomes afraid, he tells her "she had no cause to fear. . . . He was Zeus, greatest of gods, and all he was doing was from love for her."
Another story, an Italian folktale called "King Pig," is a bit more explicit. A young man is cursed by three fairies, doomed to exist in the form of a pig until he has "taken a woman to wife three times." The pig kills his first two wives, who dislike his "foul and dirty" body. His third wife, however, treats him sweetly. When the pig kisses her, "she was not at all backward in returning his caresses." In the morning, the pig's mother sees the young bride "lying in the bed, muddy as it was, looking entirely pleased and contented." The heroines aren't always reluctant. In a Greek folktale called "The Golden Crab," the beautiful princess announces, "I am married to a crab, and I want no one else."
Even when the heroines begin by resisting, as Belle does, they usually give in to their animal husbands in uneven, complicated ways. In "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," a Norwegian story, a father signs his daughter over to a large white bear in exchange for a promise of riches. The daughter resists and resists, and then, finally, she fixes her hair and puts on a nice dress, and rides away on bearback. In an English folktale called "The Small-Tooth Dog," another father consigns his daughter to the ugly titular canine. When she cries and begs to be taken home, the dog asks her, "What do you call me?" She answers honestly, and he's furious. He asks her again, and she says, "Your name is Sweet-as-a-honeycomb."
Most of the stories about young women and animal grooms follow a predictable pattern. The human brides don't have much choice in the matter. They leave home; they submit to an animal; they often suffer; occasionally they experience flickers of deep attraction and love. In the end, they're often rewarded by riches, and the animal is replaced by a man. But the Penguin book also includes plenty of stories in which the genders are flipped, pairing young men with animal brides. In these tales, the animal women are generally phenomenal domestics, and the plot usually goes one of two ways. Either the spell is broken after the animal proves her worth in the home, and she turns back into a maiden—or the animal is forced to become human at the beginning of the story, when the man steals her feathers or breaks her shell. In this type of story, the woman escapes, turning back into an animal, in the end.
The best-known animal-bride story is, perhaps, the Japanese folktale "The Crane Wife," which is surpassingly beautiful: a tale of mutual sacrifice and betrayal, with a pivotal scene of a young man peeking into a room to see his wife as a crane, weaving a lustrous fabric out of her own feathers and blood. In this story, the crane wife offers herself freely and leaves at will—a fairy-tale outcome if I've ever heard one.