The “beauty and the beast” trope has been a recurring motif across every culture’s storytelling tradition since time immemorial. The trope reaches its most famous incarnation in 1756 with French writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Her tale La Belle et La Bête engendered one of the most famous stories in the Western storytelling canon, but unlike the works of Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm, it was not first published in a book of folklore. Beaumont wrote the story for her Magasin des Enfants, a magazine intended to teach young children the value of manners and good breeding.
Her version of the story is an instructive kind of fable about navigating arranged marriage – a fate many young girls at the time would have expected. Scholar Maria Tatar writes that ‘Beaumont’s take attempted to steady the fears of young women, to reconcile them to the custom of arranged marriages, and to brace them for an alliance that required prefacing their own desires and submitting to the will of a “monster.”’Whilst this kind of moral seems dubious under our modern scrutiny, it speaks to a longstanding tradition of people using monsters to grapple with a deepset fear of the “other.”
This fear of the other soon crossed with the xenophobia in Britain and America. In the 1933 King Kong, the eponymous ape presides over a nation of island natives. He is brought back to America in shackles and killed by the American military. But his death is, of course, a good thing – we know this because Kong’s nature as a dangerous predator is made clear to us by his fixation upon abducting Ann Darrow, a beautiful white American woman. When Kong finally dies, still in his pursuit of Darrow, a character declares: “It was Beauty killed the Beast.”
The most troubling connotations of this narrative emerge when you take into account that this film was made at a time when mainstream American media was still promoting scientific racism and depicting black people as ‘apes’, propagating horrific notions of white supremacy and promoting a ‘civilisation versus savages’ narrative that echoed colonialist ideals. Bearing this context in minds, psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff and culture historian Annette Kuhn have viewed the original King Kong as a racist allegory attempting to demonise interracial relationships by depicting one in which the “carrier of blackness is not a human being, but an ape.”
And this dichotomy – in which marginalised people are vilified as monsters, while the white women that they prey on become symbols for the status quo that white Britain and America were so terrified of losing – carried on throughout the monster genre for years. Creature From the Black Lagoon finds its villain in the Amazon, a scaled fish-man obsessed with the beautiful Kay Lawrence. By the end of the film, Kay is safely reunited with her boyfriend, handsome white protagonist David Reed, and the creature is peppered with bullets and left to a watery grave.
Of course, the blatant racism behind such narratives gradually faded from the mainstream, and people grew more conscious of this disturbingly bigoted coding. Soon, they started altering or subverting these tales – in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong, Ann and Kong form a genuine bond, and a scene in which they play in the snow in Central Park echoes a romantic comedy. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast turns the beast narrative into a tale about inner beauty being more important than outward ‘monstrousness’, and flips the narrative trope of the handsome, strapping white hero by instead making the equivalent character, Gaston, the real villain.
Monster love stories saw new life in 2017 with Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. With monsters having so long been treated as conduits for marginalised communities, it’s no surprise that members of these communities have felt some sort of kinship with the very characters used to demean them in the western gaze. In an interview, del Toro explained that the fish man was inspired by Creature From the Black Lagoon. “What a beautiful movie,” he says, “but what a horrible deal for the creature! He was at home, swimming, and these guys barge in. He gets excited, and thinks maybe he’s in love, and then they kill him!”
In The Shape of Water, the creature gets his happy ending. And del Toro makes the connection between “monsters” and the marginalised explicit – protagonist Eliza is no longer a symbol for a straight white able-bodied status quo that is under some sort of threat. Instead, she is a character who is disabled, and finds kinship and empowerment in falling in love with a monster. Eliza’s friends and allies are a black woman and a gay man, and the three of them work together to protect the monster from the villain – a powerful white man, bigoted and cruel. “As an immigrant… I still feel there is this sort of demonisation of ‘the other’ very present,” del Toro explains. “I needed to talk about the beauty of the other.” In terms of representing marginalised people in stories, there are of course a million miles of progress to make. There is still a dire need for representation, for allowing creators of colour to tell their stories. But while we work towards representation, there is an undeniable catharsis in subverting an age old narrative of monsters and heroes, in loving our differences rather than fearing them.