When I was a little girl, I always wondered why, in Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast (and others, of course, but specifically that one), Beast had to turn back into a prince.
I know, right? That’s supposed to be the point of the film; it’s supposed to be Beast’s reward for turning “good”, for learning to love and to be loved. Beautiful inside, beautiful outside. That’s how the fairytale goes, except…
Except, as far as I could see, Beast was already beautiful, at least in his own way. Sure, he wasn’t human, but so what? He had cool horns! And teeth and claws! And a tail (tails are awesome), and no one can tell me he didn’t look majorly dapper in that blue-and-gold outfit.
Plus, it always seemed to me that, while the point of Beast’s tale might have been to regain his humanity, the point of Belle’s was to learn to love someone who looked startlingly different from herself. Which she did. With a song referencing bestiality to boot. And when you’ve gone through that sort of emotional prep-work, what must it be like to have it suddenly be for nothing? What kind of strange, unsettling disappointment must she’ve gone through when her beautiful, big, furry monster turned into… kind of a bland-looking nobody.
Who is Beast, if not a Beast?
That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way. And you can’t answer it, because not even the film’s creative team knew; during production, Beast didn’t even have a human name. (“Prince Adam” was invented later, when everyone realized the omission.)
There’s another thing about Beast’s transformation, too. Something more insidious. Because what’s the point of a lesson in accepting difference, for loving people for what they are, when the “reward” for success is conformity? I was about eight when Beauty and the Beast came out in cinemas, and even then the moral of the ending just… didn’t sit right. Why did Beast have to be “normal” in order to be worthy of love? And why was it expected that this be something Belle would even want, when it wasn’t what she’d fallen in love with?
More importantly, though, I think that was about the thing I just really started digging the idea of dudes with horns and tails.
Lucky me, because the “heroic monster” archetype seems to’ve gotten much more common in the years between then and now. A lot of this seems to come from video games, particularly of the high-fantasy role-playing variety, where better graphics capability (and the fertile minds of concept artists) has lead to a proliferation of non-standard looking avatars for players to adopt: from the pious horned, blue-skinned Draenei of Blizzard’s Warcraft franchise; to the suspiciously Beast-like Charr of Guild Wars; to the inclusion of the demon-human hybrid Tieflings as a base player race in Dungeons and Dragons. Before 1991, a monster’s reward for heroism was to become a man. In 2014, the world’s biggest purveyors of interactive fantasy are making it easy for anyone to imagine heroics as a monster.
So I admit it; I’m kind of a bit in love with monstrous hero-protagonists. I love the idea that things that look so radically different on the outside can be so comprehensibly human just below the surface. I love sharing that with other people, which is why my story, Liesmith, has the Godmonster; the prince who turns into a Beast, and who gets love at the end regardless. No matter the Godmonster’s scars or the stitches in his lips or his burnt-blind eyes. Or the fact he’s seven-foot-tall, with claws and horns and a fringe of feathers on his tail.
For all that, he’s a very “human” character, is the Godmonster.
The problem with humanizing monsters, though, is once you’ve done it, it’s hard to stop. Player characters in RPGs aside, so much media we consume still relies on the shorthand of “non-human = evil”. And it’s amazing how things fall apart, once that statement turns into a question.
Do orcs think of their children as they scale the walls of the elven city? Is there a protest movement on the alien homeworld that opposes the Earth invasion? And what does it say about us that we so often think it’s okay not to ask?
I never was very good at accepting monstrousness at face value. I blame Beast for that. He started it, sipping from a soup spoon and cupping tiny birds in his enormous claws. And he’s part of the reason I keep coming back to the keyboard, keep trying to deconstruct and reconstruct his story, word by tapped-out word.
Because, he’s the thing; the real truth. At eight years old, looking up at Beast, I was a shy and awkward kid. Who grew into an overweight, acne-covered teen. Then a scarred and surly adult. And a part of me—a big part, truth be told—has always thought of myself as a little bit of a monster because of it. Not pretty on the outside, not perfect in the middle. I think most people feel this way, at least some of the time. We’ve all got traits that disqualify us from being the Prince or Princess, that leave us alone in the castle as the Monster.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get to be the hero. At least some of the time.
And so I keep typing. And try to make it so.
Alis Franklin is a thirtysomething Australian author of queer urban fantasy. She likes cooking, video games, Norse mythology, and feathered dinosaurs. She’s never seen a live drop bear, but stays away from tall trees, just in case. You can find Alis at alisfranklin.com.