For Who Could Ever Love a Beast?
Whedon's Take on a Classic Tale
Rob - December 10 2001
It is nighttime, and Buffy proceeds dutifully through one of her regular patrols. But something is different about this night. Music swells in the background; it thumps lightly, yet with a keen sense of urgency and purpose. Suddenly, Buffy does the unbelievable…she sings: “Every single night/The same arrangement/I go out and fight the fight/ Still I always feel the strange estrangement/Nothing here is real/Nothing here is right./I've been making shows of trading blows/Just hoping no one knows/That I've been going through the motions,/Walking through the part/Nothing seems to penetrate my...heart.”
She notices a group of demons, holding a handsome, young price captive. She proceeds to slay the villains, all the while continuing her song. Incredibly, the demons sing as well, commenting on Buffy’s present state of mind. Something just is not right about her lately. She is not slaying with the enthusiasm with which she once did, and seems to be going throughout her business, automaton-like, unfeeling and uncaring.
The preceding scene is from the recent musical episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Once More, With Feeling,” which was written and directed by the show’s creator, Joss Whedon. He himself has commented that he wanted this scene to play like a scene from a Disney musical, but a twisted one. There is, of course, the very humorous inclusion of the fairy tale prince, whom Buffy rescues and then completely ignores. But more than that, the song, of a young girl longing to break free of whatever bonds are restraining her, and find her way in the world, is probably most reminiscent of the opening musical number in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” In it, a young girl named Belle, walks throughout her town, her nose in a book, as all the villagers sing, behind her back, about how strange she is. True, Buffy and Belle are two very different characters: Belle is full of a passion for life, while Buffy feels stilted and as if she’s “sleepwalk[ing] through my life’s endeavor.” But one cannot deny that Belle’s assertion that “there must be more than this provincial life” is very similar to the sentiments behind Buffy’s verse: “I can't even see/If this is really me/And I just wanna be/Alive!” Both Buffy and Belle are similar in that everyone around them thinks that something is wrong with them. They differ in the respect that, whereas Belle sees the flaw not in herself but in the town in which she lives and its residents, Buffy acknowledges that the flaw lies within herself.
But the Disney version was not the first version of “Beauty and the Beast,” and, actually, in most respects, Buffy resembles the Beauty from the first incarnation of this fairy tale more than this one, especially with regards to Buffy’s relationship with her Beast, Spike. To see that, however, we will have to examine the previous versions of the fairy tale.
“Beauty and the Beast” was written by Madame Gabrielle de Villeneuve in 1740. A lengthy and meandering tale that was 362 pages long, it did not reach the height of its popularity until 1756, when Madame Le Prince de Beaumont shortened the story. Her version was not only easier to read, but much more enjoyable for the young girls for whom it was intended. Most young people today are familiar with the story through the Disney version, not even realizing how different the original tale was, both in narrative structure and purpose.
Madame Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast” was originally meant as a lesson for young girls at court, to teach them about what was fast approaching in all of their futures: marriage. Remember, at that time, girls were married at a young age, and had to appear to be mature ladies of court. Of course, in actuality, they were barely out of (or possibly still in) their adolescent stages. Most of them were fearful and shy about the prospect of marriage, and, even more so, what would be expected of them in their post-nuptial beds. To them, their future husbands seemed to be large, hairy beasts, governed only by their animalistic urges. These men would ravage them on their wedding nights like savage beasts, the girls feared. And thus, in the tale of “Beauty and the Beast,” the man whom Beauty will marry is a beast in literal form. And what happens at the end? Right before their marriage, the Beast finally loses his ugly, animal body and Beauty can finally see him for what he really is, a caring, handsome prince. The story suggests more, however, than just the fact that men are truly not beasts; it actually indicates that the young women, who fear the men, are the true beasts!
Beauty, in the original version of the story, is shown as a kind, young girl, who is her father’s favorite daughter. He sees his three sons as lazy loafers, and his other two daughters as haughty and self-absorbed. Beauty, however, thinks of others besides herself and does not hold material wealth as the most important thing in the world. When her father, a merchant, leaves on a business trip, he asks his other daughters what they would like him to bring back for them. While they all beg for jewelry and diamonds, Beauty says that all she wants is a rose. What a girl! Upon reaching his destination, Beauty’s father discovers that there has been a terrible storm, and all of his wealth from the ship has been lost at sea. Therefore, he has no gifts to bestow on his other daughters. He does, however, pick a rose from the garden of a castle he found deep in the woods. An instant later, the master of the house appears, furious at what the man has done. He is a beast in man’s clothing. He tells the man that in three month’s time, the man must come back, and the beast will kill him, unless the man would like to send one of his daughters to suffer in his place. He bestows riches on the man before he tells him to leave. Upon returning home, the man tells his daughters what happened. At first, her sisters treat her horribly. If only Beauty had not wanted to distinguish herself by asking for a rose, their father would live! But Beauty refuses to let her father die. She accompanies her father on his return voyage to the Beast, despite his pleas to the contrary.
All of these plot elements are very important in the original story, because it sets up the fact that, while a girl’s father is the most important man in her life, he must be replaced by the husband when the girl reaches a certain age. Further, the distinction that Beauty is the best of her father’s daughters shows that only a girl who is not egotistical and holds others in a higher esteem than she holds herself will reach the rewards that Beauty herself does by the end of the story. True, a young girl may fear the opposite sex, but she cannot let that fear get in the way of her growth and development. In this story, of course, it is an even more dire situation: If Beauty does not grow up and live with this new, scary man, her father will die!
There are some very interesting things to note about the Beast in this story. For one, he is a humble creature. True, his first demand to Beauty’s father seems monstrous, but the author tries to make clear that is really not. For one, Beauty’s father refers to the Beast as “My Lord,” but he is too humble for such words. He knows that he is ugly and unlovable, and so tells the father, “My name is not My Lord…but Beast.” His demand to the father seems almost sad when the reader realizes that no one has ever loved this poor Beast before, and he sees no other way that he will ever find love from a woman than this fashion. This is meant to teach the young woman reading the story that (1) while a man may seem scary and monstrous, from his outward appearance, and possibly manner of speaking, even, he cannot help the way he looks, and wishes that he were not such a beast, and (2) a girl should forgive her man his brutish appearance and manners and try to find the kindness within him. Although Beauty is set apart from the start as a very sweet, lovely girl, even she cannot see the good in the Beast right away. From her first meeting with him, she is terrified. She keeps on a brave front in order to save her father’s life, but it is clear that the Beast repulses her. Even when it is clear that he does not mean to kill her, and lavishes her with gifts and riches, many magical and wondrous, she still cannot get over his outward appearance. And that is the beastliness of Beauty: she cannot see the Beast for the kind man he really is, and therefore she is the true monster of the story. Each night, they have dinner together, and eventually do strike up a friendship. Being the kind girl she is, she is not rude and haughty to the Beast. When he calls himself an ugly Beast, she tells him that that is not so, and that he has great kindness within him. But words can only go so far. When, at the end of each night, he asks her to marry him, she always refuses, with a trembling voice. It is safe to be friends with him, talk to him, and even laugh with him, but still the idea of marrying such a creature strikes fear in her heart. Beaumont tells us that, when Beauty is alone, “…she felt a great deal of compassion for poor Beast. ‘Alas,’ said she, ‘'tis thousand pities, anything so good natured should be so ugly.’”
Part of the reason Beauty so fears marriage, we learn, is that she still has not cut off her ties with her father. Finally, she begs the Beast that he return her to her father for one week. The Beast tells her that a week is all he can allow, for if she is gone any longer, he will die of grief. Beauty promises that one week will be all, and the Beast gives her a magic ring that instantly sends her to her father. But once she is there, she finds that one week is not long enough. Further, her evil sisters keep begging her to stay, hopeful that the Beast will then die. So her own desires to stay compounded with their begging inspires her to remain at her father’s house, but, by the tenth night, she worries about the Beast. She returns to him to find him dying. If only she had not wished to leave him so desperately, and if only she had not stayed away longer than she promised, then the Beast would not be dying! Once again, the fact is pounded away that the girl is the true Beast, who cannot see the good, kind man who loves her so much underneath all that fur and teeth.
In the last moments of the story, however, Beauty sees the error of her ways. She confesses to the Beast that, at first, she thought she could never have more than a friendship with him, but now, seeing what her hateful actions have done to him, she realizes how heartbroken she would be to lose him. She tells him that she loves him and agrees to be his wife, and the Beast instantly transforms into a handsome prince. He reveals to Beauty that he had been cast under a spell by a wicked enchantress, and the only way that it could be broken were for a virginal girl to fall in love with him, despite his ugly exterior. Suddenly, a good fairy appears and congratulates Beauty on her choice, saying “Beauty…come and receive the reward of your judicious choice; you have preferred virtue before either wit or beauty, and deserve to find a person in whom all these qualifications are united. You are going to be a great queen.” And to even further hammer the message of the story into the minds of the young girls who were reading it, Beaumont then has the fairy turn Beauty’s two vile sisters into statues outside the castle, that they might see Beauty’s happiness. Further, these two girls have no hope for redemption, for “pride…[such as Beauty’s] is sometimes conquered, but the conversion of a malicious and envious mind is a kind of miracle.” So what did we learn from Beaumont’s story? That a girl might lose her fear of marriage and sex by befriending the man whom she will marry. Once friendship comes, love will follow, transforming the brute that she first beholds, into a gorgeous prince. And if she does not get over her fear, she is the true Beast.
How different is that from the version of “Beauty and the Beast” most well-known today: the Disney version! Compared to Madame Le Prince de Beaumont’s tale, Disney’s story reads like a Feminist Manifesto! In the Disney version, there is no question that the Beast is the Beast and that Beauty is Perfect, with No Bad Qualities Whatsoever, Dammit!
Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter of the Disney version, liked the idea of Disney doing an animated version of “Beauty and the Beast,” but feared that the original story sent the wrong message to young girls—that they must change themselves before entering a matrimonial relationship, while the man’s personality does not have to change at all. Remember, the inner core of the Beast in Beaumont’s tale did not change—only Beauty’s outward perception of him did. Therefore, Woolverton cast Beauty (or Belle) as the perfect young woman. She is headstrong, industrious, and smart; she is compassionate and loving and wise. The Beast, on the other hand, is cruel, unlovable, and loathsome. He has to change. Belle does not.
From the very start of the Disney movie, we are told that, before the Beast was turned into a Beast, his inner nature perfectly matched the animal he would become. He is haughty and cruel, much like Beaumont’s Beauty’s sisters. All he cares about is wealth and power, and even refuses shelter to a poor old woman during a bitterly cold winter, due to the ugliness of her exterior. A moment later, the old woman transforms into a beautiful, and, more importantly, good, fairy. As punishment for the Prince’s treatment of her, she turns him into a Beast, and gives him an enchanted rose, which will bloom until his twenty-first birthday. To break the spell, he must love another and earn that person’s love in return before the last petal falls, or he will remain a Beast forever. That wording is very important. Remember, in the Beaumont story, the Prince was turned into a Beast by an evil sorceress casting a cruel spell on him, so that young ladies would be blinded by his ugliness and never see the kindness within. The spell would break if one young lady was capable of seeing past the ugliness. In Woolverton’s vision, the Prince’s Beastly exterior matches his Beastly interior, and only if he can change his interior will a young lady ever fall in love with him. “For who,” the Narrator asks, “could ever love a Beast?”
The next important change to the story is the fact that Belle is an only child. This plot point puts all the focus on Belle. There is no time to worry about other sisters with which to compare her. In the other version, they were meant to stand as a warning. Beauty, by rejecting the Beast, was behaving like these sisters. But in the Disney version, it goes without saying that Belle is perfect and beyond comparison. It is not her beastliness that is in question.
The third major change is the method by which Belle saves her father. In order for the Beast to send her father back as he did in the Beaumont version, he would have to be compassionate and kind at heart. But in the Disney version, this is not true. When he discovers that the man is in his house, he locks him in the cellar. No riches and baubles for Belle’s father! Instead, Belle finds out about her father’s predicament because his horse returns to her and brings her to her father. Instead of the Beast demanding Belle as her father’s replacement, Beauty herself demands that she will stay and that her father be allowed to leave in peace. Why does the Beast not demand this? Because he has lost all hope that he can ever be changed into a human. He feels no love in his heart, as Beaumont’s beast did.
It takes the Beast’s servants, who, in the Disney version, have been turned into silverware and furniture, to give him the idea that Belle could be the One. They try in vain to get him to behave more Princely, with common human decency. In the end, it is Belle herself who brings out the good in him. For starters, she is no pushover like Beaumont’s Beauty. When the Beast yells at her, Belle yells right back. When she has been pushed to her limit by her treatment of her, she leaves. When he has to go out into the woods soon after to save her, he realizes for the first time what she means to him, and she starts to see that he might be able to be a good man after all. But the important thing is that it is not Belle’s perception of him that is changing, but the way he is treating her that is inspiring her to care for him. Slowly, we see Belle begin to civilize the Beast.
She teaches him everything from basic table manners to the proper way a gentleman should treat his love. She reads to him, and sometimes even lets her guard down enough to have snowball fights and play with him. When he is hurt, she tends his wounds. And by the time we see that beautiful scene where Belle, in a golden gown, dances with the Beast in the ballroom, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that these two are in love.
When Belle does see the need to leave the Beast, it is not because she misses her father, but because she sees an image in a magic mirror of her father in a great deal of pain. She leaves only to help her father, and completely intends to return. And any delay in returning is not a result of her wanting to stay away, but being impeded by an angry mob, determined to kill the Beast. They are being led by an evil man, Gaston, who is in love with Belle. He is symbolic of all the Beast used to be.
In the end, when the Beast kills Gaston in order to protect Belle, he is symbolically killing every last vestige of his old nature. Belle, for once and for all, at that point, realizes what a beautiful person he has become, and, before the last petal falls, tells him she loves him. The Beast transforms back into a prince. Interestingly, in the old version of the story, the Beast is so hideous that it is a relief for the reader to see him become human. In the Disney version, we have so fallen in love with the Beast that we (and Belle) cannot help but wish that he could have retained his old form. Because it is not the exterior but the interior that counts.
So, to review—in Beaumont’s version, Beauty is the Beast; in the Disney version, the Beast is the Beast. Presently on “Buffy,” the tale of “Beauty and the Beast” is being played out with Buffy, as I stated before, in the role of Belle, and Spike in the role of the Beast. But, in this version, which one of them is the true Beast?
This is not the first time that Buffy has been involved in a “Beauty and the Beast”-type relationship. This is not the first time, she, the Slayer, has been romantically involved with a vampire. Most viewers have accepted Angel, the vampire with a soul, as Buffy’s one true love. But if the pattern of the “Beauty and the Beast” story holds, this may not be so. For starters, Buffy and Angel were really very different from the classic fairy tale.
When Buffy fell in love with Angel, he looked and acted human. In fact, she was shocked to discover that he was a vampire, but this vampiric nature was not truly an issue to begin with, since he was not evil. Once he lost his soul, of course, he became a complete monster, incapable of love or remorse. It was only the restoring of his soul that brought his love for Buffy back. But this was all based on external forces. Buffy did not change the core of Angel’s personality. Ever since regaining his soul, he was a good person. True, she gave him a reason to live and love, and brought happiness into his life again, but his personality did not change to the extent that the Beast’s in the fairy tale did.
Out of love for Buffy, Spike’s personality, however, did change. And, similar to Beaumont’s Beauty, Buffy is having trouble accepting that the Beast could be someone with whom to have a relationship. And that is the brilliance of this “Beauty and the Beast” tale: it combines both the Beaumont (anti-feminist) and the Disney version (pro-feminist) into an entirely new animal. One of the major themes of “Buffy,” throughout its run, has been the subversion of gender stereotypes and labels. Joss Whedon’s core idea at the show’s inception was the “blonde girl who always gets killed in the horror movie” fighting back, and, even more, being a great warrior, trained to battle the demons of the night. The role of the Slayer, in its simplest conception, is the usurpation of a role usually deemed worthy for men only. Therefore, in the Buffyverse version of “Beauty and the Beast,” both Beauty (Buffy) and the Beast (Spike) are flawed. In other words, they both have a bit of the Beast in them. And they both will have to change in order to have the sort of healthy relationship and happy ending that always is bestowed upon Beauty and her Beast at the end of the tale.
First off, to be different, let’s examine the Beast in Buffy. So far, in her current relationship with Spike, Buffy has acted a great deal like Beaumont’s Beauty, minus the fear and revulsion at the idea of sex. She is a more modernized version, capable of seeing possible good in Spike, sometimes, even having long talks with him, late at night, on her front porch and in his crypt, reminiscent of Beauty’s meals with the Beast. But, like Beauty, she has always refused to let herself get too close to him. She cannot get over the fact that he is a vampire without a soul, unlike Angel, and so despite the fact that Spike rightly noted in “The Gift,” that, in many ways, Buffy “treats him like a man,” she still cannot accept the notion that he can be as good as a man. Like Beauty she treats him well, but can’t get over her hatred of him.
When viewing the Buffy/Spike relationship under the lens that Buffy is the real Beast, as Beaumont’s Beauty was, we can cheer Spike on for doing something that the Beast in Beaumont’s tale was never able to do: talk back to Beauty (the real Beast). For all of his good qualities, Beaumont’s Beast is a wimp. He allows himself to be abused by his Beauty, and takes the abuse lying down. Even further, he allows the abuse to fester inside himself so much that he almost dies at the end. Spike, as Beast, chastises Buffy for her treatment of him, perfectly evidenced in his song from “Once More, With Feeling,” entitled “Rest in Peace”: “You know/You got a willing slave/And you just love to play the thought/You might misbehave/But 'til you do, I’m telling you/Stop visiting my grave/ And let me rest in peace/I know/I should go/But I follow you like a man possessed/There’s a traitor here, beneath my breast/And it hurts me more than you’ve ever guessed/ If my heart could beat, it would break my chest/But I can see you’re unimpressed/So leave me be…” Spike tells Buffy that he is tired of being used by her for information, and, really, for friendship, when he and she both know that they have deeper feelings than that. Later, in the episode, she shares a passionate kiss with Spike, but, after it is over, denies the passion. At the end of the next episode, “Tabula Rasa,” she again finds herself making out with Spike, and once again denying its power. And, at the end of the next episode after that, “Smashed,” Buffy and Spike go to the next level: having sex. And still, the next morning, Buffy refuses to acknowledge her feelings for Spike, and refuses to see him as anything more than a monster.
Lest we forget the Beast in Spike, let’s now examine the Buffy/Spike relationship with Spike as the real Beast. For over two hundred years, he was a fierce monster, noted for having killed two Slayers in his time, no mean feat, and was rumored to have tortured his victims with railroad spikes. Also known as William the Bloody (although we all know now that that was short for Bloody Awful Poet), Spike was a true monster in every sense of the word. Now, he is not so evil, but, unlike Angel, his soul was not restored. Instead, he changed as a combined result of a secret government operative having installed a chip in his cerebral cortex that makes him incapable of harming a human without a great deal of excruciating pain, and a growing infatuation, and then love, he developed for Buffy. Like the Beast in the Disney version, he started off as a cruel, vile, hideous monster, and eventually changed into a caring, noble person, out of love for a beautiful young girl. And, like the Disney Beast, this change was a very gradual, slow-building metamorphosis. To begin with, he just discovered that he was capable of harming evil creatures, like demons and other vampires, and so he joined in the fight with Buffy against the evil creatures, just for the thrill of being able to harm others. Whether the creatures he was harming were good or bad were of no consequence to Spike, although he did assume he would go back to being his old evil self once the chip was removed. But the chip wasn’t removed, and slowly he began to protect and care for Buffy and her friends. Eventually, the love developed, and Spike became a noble figure, who fought boldly to protect Buffy’s little sister when she was in danger, even under the threat of torture and death at the hands of a demented hellgod, and saved Buffy and other members of the Scooby Gang a numerous amount of times.
So, to recap, under my “Beauty and the Beast” theory, Buffy is the Beaumont Beauty, and Spike is the Disney Beast. Of course, with typical Jossian moral ambiguity, a recent episode did try to shed possible doubt on whether Spike has truly changed. In “Smashed,” Spike did believe, for a short while, that his chip was damaged, and so attempted to kill a human and go back to being his old self. Since the chip was in fact working, he could not go through with killing a teenage girl as he wanted to, so we will never know if he actually would have done it or not. But, regardless, it is clear that this reaction is an exact reaction to Buffy having retracted her earlier, good treatment of him that prompted Spike to tell her she treats him like a man. After kissing him and making him feel that she could love him, Buffy later hurts him by calling him a “disgusting thing.” Not a man but a thing. Spike tries to automatically revert to his old ways to prove to her that she doesn’t control him, but even as he is preparing to bite his victim, he is complaining about Buffy to her. The other thing to remember, that makes this behavior easier to reconcile, is a recent theory of Rowan’s, that patterns of Spike and Buffy’s earlier relationship were repeated in this episode so that, by the end, they could be symbolically smashed, to lay the groundwork for their new relationship.
Another very interesting aspect to the story is Spike’s revelation that Buffy has come back “wrong.” He realizes that he can strike her, and, therefore, she is no longer human, for he cannot harm humans. This puts Buffy and Spike on the same level, and is a symbolic indication of the fact that, in this “Beauty and the Beast” story, both Beauty and the Beast have a little bit of the Beast in them. The Beast is not the better person, as in Beaumont’s tale; Beauty is not a better person, as in the Disney version. Basically, it acknowledges that both of the characters have problems. Buffy has been feeling distant from the rest of humanity lately, like she is “going through the motions,” instead of actually living. Spike has his own conflicts, because as Buffy says in “Smashed,” he “can’t be a human…[and] can’t be a vampire.”
What could save their relationship? If Beaumont had her say, Buffy would have to change her perceptions of Spike and understand that he is not the one who is wrong. She is, for stringing him along and refusing to see him as anything more than an animal. If Woolverton had her say, Spike would have to change completely, and not ever revert back to his old, animalistic ways. After all, every time he acts out and punches Buffy, just because he can, it only proves Buffy’s theory that Spike is a thing. If he hadn’t done that, she wouldn’t have been able to say that.
Perhaps Buffy and Spike need to meet halfway. Buffy has to at least acknowledge her feelings for him; Spike has to be a little more understanding about why she (and he) are acting the way they are.
But I do believe that, like Beauty and the Beast, Buffy and Spike have the capacity to have a happy ending. Unlike in the other two major versions of the tale, where one of the characters is better than the other, I believe it is of great advantage to both Buffy and Spike that neither of them are the “right” one. They both have vital things to learn about themselves, and each other.