Pretty and Prickly — My Take on Beauty in “Beauty & the Beast”

Last week, I released my new novella, Beauty & the Beast: A Modern Fairy Tale. Over the next three days, I’ll blog about its three principle characters — Rory Bellin, Caleb Johnson, and the mysterious Mr. Nickleby. I’ll start with my Beauty, Rory.

B&B Cover Lo-ResA Beautiful Princess

For some reason, a fairy tale often begins with a beautiful princess. Our young heroine is virtuous, lovely, and deserving of every good thing in life. She is often royalty, but regardless of her heritage, she is an outstanding, upstanding example of what is best in people.

I wanted to play with this idea some. To be sure, Rory meets some of these qualifications. She is a strong young woman. She’s smart, talented, and hardworking — the kind of high school student guidance counselors rave about and college admissions directors hope will send them an application.

Because I was adapting “Beauty & the Beast”, I also made her gorgeous. Everyone in the novella acknowledges Rory’s loveliness — her best friend Cameron (who herself is plain) notes Rory is much better looking than homecoming queen Holly, all the boys in the story believe she is one of the most beautiful girls at Lawrence High, and even Holly herself admits Rory is prettier than she. She says to Rory:

You’re really pretty. Much prettier than me. You’ve got incredible cheekbones and amazing eyes. I’d kill to have lips as plump as yours. Mine are so thin. And you dress well, even though you don’t have a lot of money. If you wore a little more makeup and took some more time with your hair, you could be stunning.

More than Meets the Eye

One of the essential questions of “Beauty & the Beast”, particularly the Disney version, is “Who is Beauty, and who is the Beast?” Asking that question and returning to it multiple times was important to me when I approached adapting the story to the 21st Century.

Thus, Rory nominally fulfills the Beauty role in my novella, but she’s not the perfect image of young womanhood many fairy tale heroines are. She may be pretty, but Rory’s never had a date, never really been interested in one, because she is obsessed with school.

She is the daughter of a single mom. Her mother became pregnant by her boyfriend her last year of high school. After graduation, Rory’s father left them to play football at Oklahoma. Rory never sees him. Her mother just gets a support check every month.

Rory is angry. She’s worked very hard to get where she is — editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, president of three clubs, and a straight-A student. She plans to attend Yale so she can escape Lawrence and her mother’s sad existence.

She also feels she is deserving of more than she is getting. Despite all Rory’s accomplishments, it is Holly who is popular and Holly who is elected homecoming queen. This frustrates Rory to no end, because Holly’s sole claim to fame is dating Mike Kelso, the captain of the football team. We see her frustration early in the novella:

She stared at Holly laughing and giggling with her friends and tried to understand what they saw in her. Why couldn’t anyone see that Holly’s popularity was completely unearned and not worth the time and attention everyone gave her?

She understood Mike being worshipped, even though he didn’t really deserve it either. He won football games for LHS. It was a mediocre but comprehensible accomplishment.

All Holly did was date him. She dressed trendily and cheered for him at the games. She clung to his arm between classes and laughed at his insipid jokes. She probably didn’t even think they were funny. How did that make her homecoming queen? How did that make her worth anyone’s attention?

This obsession with personal success and anger at Holly’s unearned popularity gives Rory a prickly personality. When she’s talking with Cameron, she spends all her time complaining about Holly. When her mother is trying to talk to Rory about her own experiences at Lawrence High, Rory completely invalidates them. And while Caleb Johnson — the novella’s nominal Beast — is sitting behind her in class daydreaming about her, she barely knows he exists.

So is she Beauty or the Beast?

Complex Motivations

The real theme of Beauty & the Beast: A Modern Fairy Tale is the danger of obsession, Both Rory and Caleb get themselves into deep trouble by pursuing their obsessions blindly.

But the story is no fun, indeed it has no impact if we can’t sympathize with its protagonists. Rory is a complicated young woman. She doesn’t intend to be nasty. In fact, she doesn’t deliberately insult or hurt anyone directly. The damage she causes occurs entirely because she doesn’t understand the consequences of her obsession or even that she is obsessed.

It isn’t until Mr. Nickleby — the novella’s true villain — explains her own thinking to her that it occurs to her she may have been wrong. She accuses him of making events go as they have, but he denies it, saying to her:

You made your own choices, Rory Bellin. I gave you a ring of three wishes. I told you the first wish was free. I never told you what to wish for. You made that choice on your own. You could have wished to be accepted with a full-ride scholarship to Yale. You could have wished for The Budget to win a national competition under your editorship, so you could write your own ticket. Hell, you could have wished to win the lottery, so you wouldn’t have to worry what college is going to cost.

But you didn’t. You were so obsessed with Holly and Mike being popular when they had no right to be, you wanted to see some sort of petty justice done. You wanted to see your boyfriend get the glory, so you could stand in front of everyone and tell them how right you were.

You did this, Rory. You did all of this so you could have your revenge.

It isn’t until this point in the story that she recognizes she’s been a fool, that, despite being Beauty, she may have behaved beastly.

For a modern fairy tale, I think that’s an important characteristic. Fairy tales are fables — stories meant to instruct — and I’ve got several lessons woven through my version of “Beauty & the Beast.” But for them to ring true in a contemporary setting, I don’t think you can have completely virtuous heroes and utterly dastardly villains. Modern characters need to be as complex as modern problems.

So my Beauty is partly a beast. Tomorrow, I’ll examine the Beast — Caleb — and see whether he’s a monster or just misunderstood.

To purchase Beauty & the Beast: A Modern Fairy Tale from Amazon.com, click here.

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