A savior complex is at the heart of most fairytales. Usually, it’s the woman who needs to be saved. But sometimes, it’s the woman who both needs to be saved and who has to do the saving. This is what happens in “Beauty and the Beast,” which in full confession I know only from film.
I saw the 1991 version when it opened in theaters. This was one of the first films I was allowed to see at the movie theater with friends, without my mother. I remember sitting in the theater with 10 of my closest friends, and watching the candlestick try to make out with the feather duster, and thinking, “This is weird.” But the songs were catchy. (Be our guest. BE OUR GUEST!) For better or worse, the lyrics and story have stayed with me.
I watched the 1991 film last Thursday in preparation to see Disney’s remake during opening weekend, which sold out in my city. I’d forgotten that the beast is a scary, shouty, beating-on-doors beast dude. I had also forgotten that the word “consent” is not part of Gaston’s limited vocabulary.
I found myself holding my breath during tense moments between Gaston and Belle, when he appeared close to assaulting her. Rape is the subtext of these scenes, and I certainly didn’t see that in 1991. Nor did anyone point it out to me. In our family, Disney was not questioned. Its myths were pure.
Still, I found the remake stunning. Emma Watson as Belle conveys a human, no bullshit, no fear female power that a cartoon Belle could never accomplish. When it comes time to save the beast from Gaston, Watson subverts the Prince Charming trope by riding a white horse into the castle. That is one cool detail, even if Belle is tasked with saving the beast. (He’s already saved her from wolves, so this makes them even.)
Their romance is complicated by the pursuer/pursued dynamic and caretaking, with Belle being the prime caretaker.
During one caretaking scene where Belle nurses the beast after the wolf attack, we learn that his rage stems from Mommy and Daddy issues. This backstory was left out of the 1991 film: After the beast’s mother died, there was no one to protect him from his wrathful father. So he became wrathful like his father, and only a woman’s love can change him back to his best self. This is a dangerous myth. Yet we all are meant to celebrate the myth. The film’s final dance scene gives us a sense of order restored, the tragic turned comic. We can all leave relieved. Everything works out in the end.
Except the few curses that can’t be reversed, or the dead who will not come back to life, no matter how fervently they are wished for or loved.
Belle’s dead mother is absent from the dance, from the whole story. Her absence is an unacknowledged detail in the 1991 film, but the remake delves into backstory. Thanks to a magic mirror and the beast being in a good mood, Belle learns her mother died from Plague. The loss has been her life’s unspeakable secret, a secretly actively cultivated by her father.
Maternal loss binds her to the beast. It is the bond that seals their fate, the first magic to erode the witch’s curse long before the last petal falls from the rose.
“Beauty and the Beast” is not unusual in this sense. Mothers are absent from many fairytales. But they are often present too, either working magic from beyond the grave or being invoked through the caretaking roles their daughters assume.
Fairytales testify to the influence mothers enact in children’s lives across time and history and culture. The dead mother has incredible power. Her death is the root of deep transformation. Her love defies death, propels magic.
I am still obsessed with these tales, even “Beauty and the Beast,” despite its flaws. Not because I believe in magic or Prince Charming or happily ever after, but because I believe in my mother’s love.
I need to believe her love survives her.
My mother told me my first fairytales. Cinderella. Snow White. Sleeping Beauty. She read them over and over, rented their cartoon film adaptations from the library, took me to see them staged at a children’s theater near our apartment. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be at ages three, or four, or five, I would have said “princess,” even though I knew the stories were make believe. I wanted them to be true, as in factually true. I wanted to believe in magic.
In fairytales, everything works out in the end. The comatose princess awakens. The abused, neglected child finds true love. The hovel becomes a castle. The wicked are punished.
As a girl, I knew my mother was sick. I knew her health was imperiled. But we never said the word dying, despite our close calls. My sister and I never acknowledged how we lived our own bleak fairytale, saving our mother from death in the nick of time, year after year, day after day. Until the the day we couldn’t.
After our mother died, my sister and I faced the merciless task of placing her clothing and personal items in giant trash bags bound for Goodwill. But I saved one book from the trash bag heap –– her worn copy of Grimm’s Complete Fairytales published by Nelson Doubleday in 1960, when my mother was eight.
I’d taken this book for my own as a girl, coloring on its pages and then highlighting lines from my favorite story, “The Juniper Tree.”
“The Juniper Tree” has typical Grimm gore, but I read the story obsessively. The plot goes like this: a wicked stepmother beheads her stepson. She boils his body and feeds it to her husband, the boy’s father. The boy’s sister, who has been tricked into believing she killed her brother, buries the bones beneath an enchanted juniper tree. This act allows the boy to become a bird, who then flies around singing the truth of his murder. Ultimately, everyone but the stepmother lives happily ever after: the bird becomes a boy; the father never finds out that he ate his son; the stepmother dies when a millstone falls on her head; father, son, and sister return home to eat dinner, likely not human remains.
This morning, I reread the story and realized one root of my obsession. “The Juniper Tree” acknowledges grief –– the boy’s sister cries nonstop until the bird (her dead brother) gives her a pair of red shoes –– and the story makes death impermanent, if only in the case of the boy. Both his mother and stepmother remain dead through the last line, which actually includes the words “and they felt very happy and content, and went indoors, and sat at the table, and had their dinner.”
If only real life could work this way. If only we knew the spell to bring our dead back to life.
I will mark the fifteenth anniversary of my mother’s death in two weeks. Sometimes, I still wish she could come back. I still wish I knew the magic words to save her.