You’ve seen Disney’s version of the Beauty and the Beast. If you’ve had a toddler, you’ve seen it a thousand times. Did you know that you may be acting it out in your own life? Do you realize it might be ruining everything?
You know the story: a charming young woman falls in love with a beastly man and, through her love, he is transformed into a prince. The ancient Greeks had elements of the plot in their myths of Eros and Psyche and Hades and Persephone. In fairy tales, you have ladies kissing frogs. Then there’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and, in our own time, a variation was developed in the Phantom of the Opera. The hope it offers is intoxicating. The picture of marriage seems true to life.
Men can be beastly. They’re larger than women. Psychologically and emotionally, they develop more slowly. They’ve got all that testosterone coursing through their veins and it makes them more aggressive than they would be otherwise. They’re more likely than women to be violent, drink too much, become addicted to drugs, commit crimes, and gamble excessively. They are a privileged class that can see no special reason to be reasonable. Some have been taken care of by their mothers so that they are incapable of taking care of themselves. Many disregard their appearance. Some have a poor sense of color. Their voices are loud and coarse. Their genitalia, bizarre and ugly. They are easily cast into the role of beast.
Marriage can make a man a better human being (it can make women into better humans, too.) When they listen to their wives, husbands drink less, come home at night more, and have better judgment. They pick up their socks and wear more stylish clothing. They live longer, are healthier, and, if polls are to be believed, are generally happier. Yes, marriage can transform beastly men into princely ones, just as the story suggests, and they have their wives to thank.
Often it’s too easy to see men, women, and marriage as real life versions of the Beauty and the Beast. If you look for ways that a man is beastly, you will find them. But, you will not find the ways he is princely, if you only look for the beast. The truth is, real people aren’t totally beastly or princely, only characters in stories are. Real people are a bit of both. All of them.
The myth puts women under a lot of pressure. It’s up to them, the myth says, to transform the beast. The beast is incapable of changing himself. She has to take responsibility, not he. If he is still beastly, then it’s her fault; she not transformative enough, not alluring enough, she doesn’t love him enough.
Then there’s another thing: whomever contends with beasts should see to it that in the process she does not become beastly herself. If she nags and scolds in an effort to turn him into a prince, she becomes as beastly as he. Who, then, will transform her?
Myths are no substitute for knowing people. Often, our minds are so full of these powerful images, these enthralling social constructs, that we cannot apprehend the actual person in front of us in all his or her complexity. Many times, we don’t even know ourselves and what we should do. We mistake ourselves and our loved ones for someone we saw in the movies.