Beauty and the Beast Triptych: Re-imagining Stereotypes and Gender Roles

Melanie Magaña

[Ed. Note: At the end of this Introduction, readers are directed by links to the three pieces comprising the triptych.]

Introduction

I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the story of Beauty and the Beast ever since the Disney movie put it on my radar.   On the one hand:  dancing teacups! Catchy tunes! Bookworm as heroine!  On the other hand, the underlying message to girls seems to be this:  You can change him.  If you love him enough, and if you’re good enough, you can change him.   This message is a lie at best, dangerous at worst.  No matter how jolly those dancing dishes might be, or how good or loving the Beauty is, even together they’re no match for a Beast if it turns out that he’s not Prince Charming.

William Trowbridge, poet laureate of Missouri, once introduced his work about King Kong by saying that “[King Kong] just wanted a pretty girlfriend.” That line stopped me in my tracks!  My understanding of the story was that, after being kidnapped by humans and brought to New York City to be made a spectacle of, King Kong needed a friend.  Why did it have to be “a pretty girlfriend?”  Trowbridge went on to state that King Kong was “a classic story of Beauty and the Beast, just like The Phantom of the Opera, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame…”

His examples got me thinking: how many other examples of this story live in our collective consciousness?

  • Family Guy: Brian, the family’s dog, constantly dates svelte yet busty young blonde women who never seem to notice that they’re dating a dog.
  • Knocked Up: The female lead is also svelte and blonde, yet the best date she can get is an alcoholic, pothead slacker?
  • Male rock stars who date and marry female models.
  • Any movie (or real life) featuring Woody Allen as the romantic lead.

All of these examples led me to the conclusion that Beauty and the Beast needed a new flavor, one that women can appreciate.

The retelling and refashioning of stories is nothing new.  People have been recycling myths, legends, bible stories ever since their first telling.  The Disney movies are the most immediate examples to come to mind.  If you look at older versions of the folktales on which they’re based, you’ll see how vastly different they’ve become in order to suit the audience of the day.  Frozen is one of the more altered examples, as the moviemakers took the story of the Snow Queen who steals Kay away from his family until Gerda frees him, and they changed it to the story of two estranged sisters.

The folks at Disney are not the only ones who retell old stories though.  My favorite book ever is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which retells the Cain and Abel story in at least two different ways; Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved retells the story of Jacob and Esau, which in its essence is just another Cain and Abel story.  Anais Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown sets the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in 1930’s America.  Shakespeare’s stories (not exactly original when he wrote them) have been retold in countless ways: West Side Story, Warm Bodies, A Thousand Acres, and Scotland, Pennsylvania to name but a few.

Although some of the examples I’ve given seem to have taken their original tale and turned them upside down (Romeo and Juliet in the zombie apocalypse—what?), they each retain enough of the essence of the original story to make it recognizable as a universal truth, and change the details enough to be accessible to a broader audience. At the heart of Beauty and the Beast, I found the story of a person who feels fundamentally unlovable (and haven’t we all, at times?), but who is given a new mirror in which to see the self.  Have students write about their own favorite story, folktale or myth.  Here are a few ways to get them thinking about the way it speaks to them, and how to retell it to make it relevant to others in the same way:

  • Put the characters in a different setting. What would happen if the characters were part of a contemporary setting, or a futuristic one?  In Alice in Wonderland High, Rachel Stone brings Alice & company to a contemporary high school setting.  In Briar Rose, Jane Yolen takes the story of The Sleeping Beauty and sets it in Nazi-occupied Poland.  If David and Goliath lived in contemporary America, would the stoning be a literal one or metaphorical? If Icarus and his father lived in the twentieth century, would they contribute to aviation or space travel?  When they’re brought down by hubris, how could it come about?
  • Change one or more characters in some fundamental way. In Murder at Mansfield Park, Lynn Shepherd takes the loveable Fanny Price and turns her into a shrew with as many enemies as there are motives to kill her.  In The Lion King, Hamlet & cast are, well, you know!  How would the wizarding world change if Harry Potter, embittered from years of ill-treatment by the Dursleys, teamed up with Voldemort in book 1?  What if Bruce Wayne had a physical disability? What if the group in Lord of the Flies were girls?
  • Insert a character from another reality. In The Eyre Affair, someone has changed the ending of Jane Eyre to pair Jane up with St. John instead of Mr. Rochester.  Author Jasper Fforde sends Literary Detective Thursday Next into the pages to find the culprit. In Lost in Austen, 21st-century Amanda discovers a secret portal through which she can enter the world of Pride and Prejudice…and Elizabeth can enter 21st-century London!  What would happen if Katniss found herself in the forest with Hansel and Gretel?
  • Is there a minor character who might be rounded out? Jo Baker gives a compelling account of life as a servant in the Bennet household; Tom Stoppard brings Hamlet’s childhood friends to center stage in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (see also The Lion King 1-1/2). Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John Grey, a minor character in her Outlander series, became so popular that he now has a series of his own. Many of the fairy tales give little credence to the Prince, whose only role seems to be marrying the heroine.  What might his real motivation be?
  • What happened before Once Upon a Time? What happens after Happily Ever After?  Gregory MacGuire is probably the most well-known current author for writing the story behind the story for tales such as The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella, Peter Pan and others; in these, he also tells these famous stories from points of view of than the main characters’. Jean Rhys does the same for Jane Eyre’s doomed Mrs. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea, and Budge Wilson fleshes out Anne Shirley’s back-story in Before Green Gables.  As to what happens after the final page, Sandra Lerner imagines what happened in the Bennet-Darcy marriage after ten years in Second Impressions. What sort of adult might Holden Caulfield be? Or Tom Sawyer?

The above ideas barely scratch the surface of possibilities due to the myriad facets of the human psyche; what speaks to one person about a story may leave the next person cold. With the slightest change to a story as I’ve suggested, the universal truth inside each tale can become magnified, giving the opportunity for re-examination.  With re-examination, another reader may find a truth that wasn’t readily apparent in the first reading, and could meet a new literary love.

[Ed. note: The three parts of the triptych are listed below. Click each title below to be magically transported to that story.]

  1. “BEAUTY AND THE BEASTESS”
  2. “BEAST’S BEAUTY”
  3. “BEAUTY’S BEGINNING”

The Kite Runner From A Marxist Perspective

The Kite Runner From A Marxist Perspective

by Kristine Putz

[pdf version here: Putz-KiteRunnerMarxistPerspective]

The use of Marxist and other literary theories in the classroom helps students to realize that the subject of English is beyond the rudimentary put your comma here or reading for the sake of fulfilling some predetermined standard (a certain number of minutes of reading per night for example). English is also about critical thinking and analysis, and using literary theory is an excellent way to accomplish this and to engage students: “literary theory can make English about something, transforming texts from artifacts into something vitally social, interesting, significant” (Zitlow 128). Literary analysis gives students the opportunity to study and apply social issues to the text, which gives the text more relevance and meaning. Students are much more likely to be engaged in a text if they can see its relevance to the world around them. Using Marxist literary theory specifically is unique in the sense that it can provide a way for students to analyze the power/class structures in our world: “it helps them and us enter into and understand positions other than our own in a diverse and complex world” (Zitlow 129). Understanding these positions and structures helps to create understanding and to show the realities of the world around us. Therefore, teachers should not be afraid to use theory in their classrooms but instead embrace it. Continue reading

Theory in Practice in the High School Classroom: Using: The Kite Runner to Teach Literary Theory

Theory in Practice in the High School Classroom: Using: The Kite Runner to Teach Literary Theory

By Taya Sazama

[pdf version here: Sazama-Using The Kite Runner to Teach Literary Theory]

Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, The Kite Runner, is one of the newer modern sensations to hit high school classrooms. In a setting where a majority of the studied texts were written before the start of the twentieth century, this is quite an achievement. Especially when that text was written by a first-time author and native of Kabul, Afghanistan, published in 2003 in the wake of the terrors of 9/11, and centered on the experiences of an Afghan immigrant. With these characteristics, it is indeed fascinating, and some would say surprising, that The Kite Runner so quickly became a staple in many upper level secondary classrooms. The novel is rich in character development, figurative language, and historical significance. Yet these are not its only selling points. In an age of educational reform, what I and many other high school teachers appreciate most about Hosseini’s text is its ability to hold up under the close study of multiple critical lenses. While literary criticism has not always been, nor does is continue to be, a major aspect of the secondary English classroom, it is texts like The Kite Runner that prepare the way for high school teachers and students to begin to delve into theory in a way that is both un-intimidating yet still scholarly and enriching. Continue reading

Peer Reviewed Article 1: Rhetorical Empathy in the Writing Classroom by Erin Kunz

Rhetorical Empathy in the Writing Classroom

by Erin Kunz

When developing a college composition course, content and methodology are always important considerations, but as instructors we also must consider how we can develop good practices in order to foster an intellectual environment. We try to create community for our students, but because of a number of issues—resistance, apathy, and misunderstanding, to name a few, establishing a community where we can openly discuss the human condition is a difficult endeavor. The ideological nature of feminist writing, feminist theory, and feminist politics can make it even more difficult to create community. Therefore, we must be particular about our approach when teaching ideological methods and topics. Continue reading

Peer-Reviewed Article 2: Social Injustice in Multicultural Literature in an Elementary School Setting by Jongsun Wee and Nicholas Wysocki

‘Why did he get all mad?’: Talking About Social Injustice in Multicultural Literature

by Jongsun Wee
Winona State University, Winona, MN

and Nicholas Wysocki
Winona State University, Winona, MN

Discussing issues related to social justice in multicultural literature can help our children develop an understanding of this concept. (1) These discussions provide a space where children can achieve several Language Arts and Social Studies goals, such as developing critical thinking and comprehension skills concerning social inequalities that require agency on the part of democratic citizens. These goals are important for children to achieve, but social justice issues are sensitive and difficult topics for them to understand, especially when they do not have much background knowledge of them. However, we believe both that teachers should make efforts to bring these social justice issues to their classrooms and that children are able to handle those difficult issues.

In this article, we show how third grade children talked about social injustice issues in the story, The Friendship (2) in small group literature discussions. The children who participated in this study did not have much background knowledge of inequality and maltreatment, which are part of black history in the United States. At first, some children did not notice the social injustices happening in the story, but through discussions, they were able to see the unfairness and inequality experienced due to racial difference. The findings suggest that teachers need to bring multicultural children’s literature with a social justice theme to their classrooms and to create a space and time for children to discuss them. Continue reading

Strategies for Teaching Literature 2: Making Dostoevsky Relevant by Heather Porter

Making Dostoevsky Relevant:Teaching Notes from Underground to College Freshmen

by Heather Porter

Relatively little has been said regarding how to teach Dostoevsky’s novels to students. Even less has been said about how to make his work relevant to twenty-first century American students who exist within an entirely different cultural landscape than the characters of Dostoevsky’s fiction[1]. Notes from Underground  is particularly challenging, but its difficulty is precisely what makes it such a necessary text. If handled correctly, Notes can be an effective medium for self-discovery, illuminating aspects of human behavior students may or not may not have already noticed for themselves. While it is still important to place Notes within its cultural and philosophical context in the classroom, it may be more valuable to focus students’ attention on the universal themes of human nature that figure prominently in the text. Modernizing the way students read Notes is essential for enabling them to relate to the Underground Man and see themselves reflected in his words and behavior. This can be accomplished by updating the process of reading the text to reflect how we as a culture read today. Students may be more accepting of the underlying truths of Notes if they are asked to read the text as though it were part of an online interaction. Continue reading

Strategies for Teaching Literature 3: Redefining Literacy with Graphic Novels by Becca James

Redefining Literacy with Graphic Novels

by Becca James

A line has formed, populated with people holding signs and speaking inaudibly to those that pass by. Move in closer, and it’s evident that the line is composed of high school students. Although they should be in the classroom on this mid-March Friday, they’ve taken to the streets in protest of Chicago Public School’s decision that Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis only be part of the junior and senior curriculum. In previous years, Satrapi’s depiction of growing up during the Iranian revolution was accepted curriculum for both middle and high school classes. Approximately 100 students stand in a cold drizzle of rain outside Chicago’s Lane Tech High School. Move in another step closer and their assertions are now audible. Continue reading