Beauty and the Beast | The story of Gabrielle Villeneueve and Feminism 

The Brothers Grimm are, in many ways, one of the most influential writers in the history of literature. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm made it their life’s purpose to travel throughout Europe in the first half of the 19th century, gathering folklore which was largely unbeknownst to the world. The endearing tales like Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, etc., that we have grown up reading have been rewritten and modified quite a  bit through the ages. The original stories were fraught with bloody wars and violence as a testimony to the times they were based in. However, the rise of Romanticism ensured that every story had the element of tragedy, unfounded love and happiness transforming them into the shape that we are acquainted with. Being the most cited names against the origin of fairy tales, it can be a common error to attribute the writing of Beauty and the Beast to the Grimms as well.

In 1731, more than a century before the Grimm brothers were even born, a strong-willed and progressive woman was already publishing and had become one of the most prolific writers of her time. Gabrielle Suzanne Barbot de Villeneueve was born in France in the year 1685 to an influential Protestant family. By the age of 26, she had been through a painful separation from her husband’s family, lost most of her wealth and had later become a widow. With no means to support herself she was forced to leave her home and eventually found employment in Paris. In Paris, she came into acquaintance with Crébillon Père who was popular among the Parisians as a playwright. Through him, Gabrielle came into touch with the rich literary circles of Paris and soon started to participate in censuring and editing literature. 

It wasn’t before 1756 that Gabrielle’s La Belle et la Bête –translated as The Beauty and the Beast – was published by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beumont with slight modifications but keeping the overall story intact. Even though this story is often spoken in the same breath as the stories by the Brothers Grimm, the underlying idea couldn’t be farther apart. When, on one hand, Grimms’ stories feature female characters who are victims of fate and would naively fall prey to traps only to be rescued by gallant men, Villeneueve’s Belle breaks every one of those stereotypes. She doesn’t care about and even aspire to be a beautiful lady or a princess. Her compatriots label her as “peculiar” and “odd” which she wears as a badge of honour upon her personage. She loathes people who have superficial wants and are pretentious in their manner. She hungers for knowledge and books which she always carries with her as adornment. Ironically, the meaning of the name ‘Belle’ translates to ‘Beautiful’, as if Villeneuve wanted to change the very worldview towards the conventional meaning of the word. In her dictionary, Beautiful stood for a person who exuded kindness, compassion and a moral balance in their character. Fundamentally, someone who was ‘Beautiful’ from the inside. 

Belle’s story was also a reflection of Villeneuve’s own life. Growing up in a wealthy family, she must have encountered a culture where looks and status were considered to be of the utmost importance. The shallowness behind those forced countenances would have started to weigh upon her, making it more and more suffocating to live in that society. Her bad marriage would also have reinforced her belief in the corrupting power of money and means. She created Belle in the image of her inner self, as if aiming at redeeming a life that she could not live but had always dreamt about. 

Disney’s 2017 production of Beauty and the Beast is an ode to the utopia we keep obsessing about. Emma Watson’s version of Belle could not have been more authentic owing to the fact that Watson is a known feminist herself, who is never afraid to speak up about the subject. She is an ardent bibliophile as well and is known to secretly leave books in parks and other public places for other people to find and form a connection with. Belle is very much Watson’s brand of feminism – strong-willed and liberating. Villeneueve’s vision transcends years of oppression on women and manifests itself today with the same power that it had years ago. In an age where aggressive and demeaning beauty standards are imposed on women, Beauty and the Beast stands tall as a beacon of self-realization. The misguided patriarchy is a living Beast which stands in their way but is unaware that it can only be saved by the very gender that it dismisses so easily. 

While you watch the masterfully crafted film in theatres this weekend, think about the deeper meaning of the story and the definition of beauty around you. You would see your mind opening up with a clearer perspective of the world and would, perhaps, catch a glimpse of that elusive utopia. 

Disclaimer: The images used in this post are the sole property of the makers of this film and are not owned by us in any form whatsoever. 

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