Kissing the Witch Old Tales in New Skins
The Anti-Feminist Aspects of Emma Donoghue’s ‘Feminist Retelling’ of “The Tale of the Rose”
Once upon a time, the first fairytales were written down from their folkloric origins, thus giving rise to one of the most popular genres of literature. Ever since then, these fairy tales have been enchanting us and there have been thousands of retellings presenting the original tales in a new light. The women’s liberation movements gave rise to feminist retellings which afford voices to the oppressed female heroines, offering them chances to tell their stories. In “Feminism and Fairy Tales”, Karen Rowe discusses the anti-feminist messages conveyed by most popular fairy tales. Although we expect the modern retellings to be more feminist in nature, many of her arguments referring to passiveness and objectification of heroines still apply to them. Therefore, it is important to consider whether these modern retellings, which appear to endorse gender equality and female rights, could have an underlying patriarchal tone. Madame de Beaumont’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was published in 1756 and it inspired Emma Donoghue’s retelling ‘The Tale of the Rose’ which presents the traditional story of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in a unique manner. Donoghue’s tale follows the budding romance between two women and contains a female Beast instead of a male one. Although ‘The Tale of the Rose’ seems to promote feminist messages through a strong, independent heroine, it does have a subtly patriarchal tone.
In “Did They Live Happily Ever After?”, Laura Tosi explores the elements of feminist retellings and explains why they promote feminist messages. According to her, contemporary rewritings of popular fairy tales challenge the “implications of gender roles in fairy tales” (369) which implies that authors of such retellings, especially feminist ones, intend to present strong female characters instead of passive ones. In ‘The Tale of the Rose’, Donoghue does paint Beauty as a woman who seems capable of making her own decisions. When Beauty offers to take her father’s place and go to the Beast’s castle, she said “for the first time in my life I seemed to own myself” (Donoghue 31). This phrase not only exerts her independence but also rebels against the notion of male ownership which was rampant during patriarchal eras. Beauty’s determination and strong character are further demonstrated by her reply to the Beast’s question of whether she came willingly: “I did. I was sick to my stomach but I did” (Donoghue 31). The first two words are a separate sentence which emphasizes the fact that this decision was her own, and the use of “but” as a connective proves that the Beauty is capable of sacrifice. Donoghue essentially instilled in Beauty elements which were mostly seen in male characters: independence, heroism and nobility.
However, even though it seems like the heroine was granted the freedom to make her own decisions, it is important to consider that she is often treated as an object. Rowe states that “fairy tales reduce women to marketable commodities” (351) and this is exemplified in ‘The Tale of the Rose’ when Beauty’s father says “Daughter, I have sold you” (Donoghue, 30). Furthermore, he promised the Beast “the first thing he saw when he reached home” (Donoghue 30). The verb “sold” and use of the noun “thing” to refer to Beauty represents the kind of male ownership over women that existed in patriarchies. Beauty is robbed of the freedom to make her own choice because her father trades her away to the Beast. Beaumont’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is not very different from Donoghue’s version in this regard. The heroine initially appears to be the decision maker when she says “you cannot prevent me from following you”, and then demonstrates her noble character through the quote “I intend to offer myself to appease his fury” (Beaumont 175). However, just as in Donoghue’s version, Beauty doesn’t seem to have much of a choice because if she did not volunteer to take her father’s place, he would have died, and she is bound by her devotion to her father. Therefore, Donoghue’s heroine seems to go willingly but she had already been given away by her father without consent.
In addition to Beauty’s freedom, Donoghue tries to differentiate her characters from Beaumont’s. Beaumont endorses patriarchy by punishing the step-sisters for following societal norms. When Beaumont published her story, women were expected to have husbands and marrying for wealth was common. However, the step-sisters were punished for their greed by the fairy who said “Your doom is to become statues” and there’s “no greater punishment” than making them witness Beauty’s happiness (Beaumont 181). Furthermore, the fairy believes the step-sisters won’t learn their lesson and will remain statues forever. But surely, they shouldn’t be punished for making mistakes, they are only human. In contrast, Donoghue portrays patriarchy to show how Beauty fights against it. For instance, the contradictory phrase “I went as a hostage, but it seemed as if I was riding into battle” emphasizes the submissive role of women in a male dominated society (Donoghue 31). However, we must note that the latter half reveals Beauty’s newfound freedom since she felt like “riding into battle”, which was something only men were allowed to do. Secondly, one of the most noticeable differences in Donoghue’s tale is the portrayal of homosexuality. Beaumont’s tale, just like every other traditional fairy tale, presents the romantic journey of a man and women. Ever since the first fairy tale was published, millions of heterosexual versions have been created. Donoghue, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of acceptance in her story and goes against expected patriarchal norms which imply that a woman must wed a man.
Nevertheless, Donoghue’s attempts at differentiating her characters is unconvincing because the underlying logic of the tales remain the same. Firstly, In Beaumont’s ‘Beauty and the Beast”, the step-sisters “rubbed their eyes with an onion” to look tearful while the brothers actually wept (175). Portraying Beauty’s sisters as heartless makes them seem incapable of human emotions, which undermines female character even if it wasn’t Beaumont’s intention to do so. In ‘The Tale of the Rose’, Beauty’s sisters are also “onion-eyed” (Donoghue 32). While Donoghue might have done this to criticize the original tale, there is further evidence, which is explored in detail later on, that the sisters are undermined in her story. Therefore, since their tears for Beauty aren’t genuine, they are similar to the stepsisters in Beaumont’s tale and this presents women in a negative manner. Secondly, Beaumont’s Beauty opened a book which said in gold letters “Ask for anything you wish, you are mistress of all here” (Beaumont 177). Although the book states that Beauty has freedom, she still believes the Beast is the master, and even after the Beast says “it is you who are mistress”, Beauty does not take advantage of her status (Beaumont 177). In ‘The Tale of the Rose’, Beauty seems to have internalized the narrative of Beaumont’s tale and follows it even though the Beast tries to tell her not to. The heroine seems unwilling to accept that this is a new story, and she confines herself to restrictions. Even when the Beast says “I am not a man”, she is too caught up in the original narrative to realize the implications of those words (Donoghue 37). Donoghue tries to present a strong, liberated heroine but Beauty’s unwillingness to go beyond her confines and take advantage of her independence suggests hesitation to oppose the patriarchal environment.
‘Tale of the Rose’ attempts to produce what Tosi would call a “non-sexist adult” version of the original tale through assigning male characters to weaker and less powerful roles (384). In Beaumont’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the heroine rejects marriage proposals in a polite manner by saying that she could not “leave her poor father in his misfortune” (Beaumont 172). Here, the men are portrayed in a positive light since they are willing to marry Beauty for who she is despite her low social standing (Beaumont 172). On the other hand, in Donoghue’s version, Beauty turns down her suitors because “their doggish devotion seemed too easily won” (27). Not only does the alliteration “doggish devotion” compare the suitors to harmless dogs and emphasize that Beauty is too good for them, but it also contradicts everything that Beaumont’s original Beast stands for: male dominance and patriarchal power. Additionally, the lack of a masculine Beast in Donoghue’s story further accentuates the fall of the patriarchy and elevates female standing. Therefore, Donoghue’s story fulfils Tosi’s expectation that a feminist retelling “deconstructs a traditional paradigm of male identity” (384).
Instead of focusing on characteristics that would set Beauty apart, Donoghue’s focus on deconstructing notions forces her to neglect the characters’ inner beauty. Donoghue emphasizes the physical attributes of both Beauty and the Beast. However, the tale never suggests that beauty is objective, instead it reinforces the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is exemplified through the quote “After months of looking, I saw that beauty was infinitely various, and found it behind her white face” (Donoghue 40). Through this quote, Donoghue attempts to criticize the standards set by traditional fairy tales. However, her focus on disproving that appearances dictate female value leads to the creation of flat characters with no evident personality traits. This is called ‘flatness’ and it is an element of popular tales, as described by Kate Bernheimer in “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale”. Flat female characters actually oppose feminist sentiments because they are simply beautiful with no characteristics to make them human. Even in Beaumont’s tale, beauty is her most exceptional quality. “When she was little she was simply known as ‘the little beauty’” and her actual name is forgotten, which takes away an integral part of her identity (Beaumont 171). The name itself objectifies the heroine, making it seem as though nothing is more important that the way she looks. Nevertheless, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ actually provides a heroine with more depth to her character. Beaumont describes Beauty as charming and polite and makes the readers aware of her intelligence and love for books; she is acknowledged to be a real human with personality traits. Therefore, we can say that the more feminist tale in this case is actually Beaumont’s classic version since it contains a heroine who is more than just a shell.
Unlike most popular fairy tales, ‘The Tale of the Rose’ presents Beauty with the ability to voice her thoughts and feelings through adopting a first person narrative. This provides a voice to oppressed heroines of tales such as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ by Beaumont. Throughout Beaumont’s story, we cannot tell what the heroine is feeling or thinking, or how comfortable she is with this arrangement. Donoghue’s tale, on the other hand, lets us listen to the heroine’s thoughts but still does not explicitly tell us how she feels. Interestingly, even though Donoghue is trying to present women in a positive light, the sisters still undermine female character. For instance, Beauty believes for the sisters “a word was not something to be kept” (32). Not only does this indirectly insult a woman’s capacity to uphold promises, but it also contrasts with the polite, noble nature of the male suitors who were willing to marry Beauty, thus making male characters seem more mature. Moreover, Beauty asks “How could they be expected to toil with their hands?” (Donoghue 28). This further portrays the sisters as lazy and unwilling to assist their family. It can be argued that the sisters weren’t meant to convey such a message since they are essentially the bad characters, but this does not mean that do not adversely affect how women are viewed. Once again, we see that the characters are flat and only Beauty has the opportunity to express her thoughts and the sisters cannot justify their behaviors, making them seem ‘evil’ rather than just human. In this regard, Donoghue’s tale isn’t very different from Beaumont’s where the stepsisters intentionally try to undermine Beauty in the eyes of the readers through insults like “her tastes are so low and her mind so stupid” (172). Additionally, Rowe refers to Beaumont’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ when she states that “for a heroine, Beauty acts with unusual decisiveness in consigning herself to passive waiting and in prolonging her allegiance to her father” (350). Rowe believes that this goes against feminist ideals, and in Donoghue’s story, the heroine does the same thing.
Tosi believes that “feminist rewritings” of popular tales “dispense with marriage-dominated plots” and “reshape female cultural identity into that of an independent, liberated and self-confident heroine” (381). Although it is true that ‘The Tale of the Rose’ does not revolve around marriage, Rowe’s claim that “the liberation of the female psyche” (358) has not matured enough to damage patriarchal culture still appears to be true. At the first glance, Donoghue’s tale appears to be much more feminist than Beaumont’s since it involves a female beast, a seemingly stronger heroine and promotes homosexuality. However, on deeper examination, it appears that there are still messages hidden within this modern retelling which encourages anti-feminist sentiments.