I’m a sucker for fairy tale retellings. I always have been, and I probably always will be. These stories have become so ubiquitous that they are even a part of our lexicon. “That’s a real Cinderella story.” “He’s a Prince Charming.” Etc, etc. Like language, these stories can own a narrative, or they can be subverted to change it.
If you and I and sit down and watch the latest Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, we will walk away having seen different films. Yes, we’ll both love the Beast’s library, but what connects us to the story will be different. Maybe there is a Beast in your life, or a Gaston. Maybe you’re Belle. Maybe you’re one of the other women Gaston blows off, and that’s fine, too. Or maybe you don’t see yourself in there at all. Maybe you’re tired of seeing so many white faces on the screen, or taking your children to see movies about white princesses who have only recently started acting with any sort of agency, or perhaps you’re just bored with watching or reading another tribute to the towering monument of heterosexuality that is our culture. Whatever your dissatisfaction, there’s a retold fairy tale out there for you.
These stories are powerful because we can make them our own, and by making them our own, we, too, become part of the narrative. It is already happening. The princesses need less rescuing these days, and I read an interesting take on Prince Charming’s foot fetish a few years back that has forever changed how I view that paradigm of slightly toxic masculinity. As we change, our stories change, and we can see the changes in the stories we tell the most often.
I always liked Beauty and the Beast, Stockholm syndrome aside. As a child I liked it because Belle wasn’t like the other princesses. She wasn’t even a princess. Belle (and Mulan) seemed more real than the rest of the Disney line-up, but there is also another truth, there, that didn’t resonate until much recently, as I was writing Thorn.
Belle is trapped long before the beast keeps her a prisoner. She is unhappy with her provincial life, despite how appealing Disney makes her village look, and, as a woman during that time, there is little that she can do about it besides marrying up and out. The odds of her finding someone who shares her interests seem fairly unlikely, unless the town librarian is single, and Gaston’s predatory pursuit has to be a little more terrifying for her than the Disney version lets on.
Once she swaps places with her father, she is again a prisoner. Sure, this time the monster looks like a monster, but maybe that is a relief, in a way. It is always nice when the monsters look like monsters, instead of other people. Of course, the beast isn’t actually a monster, which is the whole point, but I wonder if she felt a little bit of relief, for a moment, when her reality appeared to reflect how she really felt.
There is a layer of darkness in these fairy tales that resonates. An evil stepmother. A witch. A captor who you grow to love by chance. They flirt with reality while simultaneously offering escape, and so of course we want to play with these stories. They help us define and redefine the rules, and they teach us how to break them.
Thorn is and isn’t a retold fairytale. It started off there, but it became its own story pretty early on. I feel it is more than just a “lesbian beauty and the beast,” but if that ends up being the sum of its parts, so be it. We need more f/f fairytale retellings, and we need more complicated heroines.
Fairytales aren’t for children. They are for the adults who read them to children, reinforcing their belief systems (for better or for worse) on the next generation, and so it is no wonder that so many writers come back to them. These are the stories that shaped us, and we want to leave our mark on them, too.