I grew up reading fiction about Improper Princesses; novels with one foot in the folktale boom and the other in feminism. These books are about princesses who don’t quite fit into their assigned gender roles and, despite material comfort, want more than they’re given. They want skills, adventures, dignity, power, success—usually traditionally masculine forms of success.
Robin McKinley published Beauty in 1978, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast in which the protagonist is bookish and not particularly beautiful. Then in 1980, there was Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure about a girl who disguises herself as a boy and takes her brother’s place in knight school. That year also saw the publication of M.M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess, a book about plain Princess Amy who craves adventure rather than romance. McKinley won the Newbery Medal in 1985 for The Hero and the Crown a story about a princess who teaches herself magic and swordplay instead of learning embroidery and etiquette. The genre was expanding beyond high fantasy in the 1990s with Patricia C. Wrede’s humorous Dealing with Dragons about a princess who volunteers to work for a dragon instead of marrying, and enjoys the happy ending of a promotion instead of a romance—and Catherine Called Birdy, Karen Cushman’s less wry and more historically accurate tale of a girl in a castle finding herself and refusing her lousy father’s plans for her. The trend crested with Catherine Called Birdy, because Cushman’s later books examine the lives of historical girls who aren’t born in castles—girls who were expected to have jobs all along.
As I was timing out of the target age group, I began to see the flaws of the genre. Even though they were close to cutting-edge feminism when they were written, some of the assumptions about gender and power now seem like old-fashioned, relics of their era. The tension of the Improper Princess book is that the protagonist needs to choose between paid and unpaid labor, as society pushes her toward the unpaid.
While racist and sexist works are often treated as relics “of their time” and allowed to stand as classics, the work of writers who struck out for equality but fell short somehow seem to age worse. The straight-up sexist books from the 1970s feel dated but not uncomfortable like some of the second wave feminist tropes that now feel painfully unaware, like protagonists that scorn other girls—other girls being passive, pretty, and having boring feminine interests, where the protagonist likes sword fighting. Many of the Improper Princess books seemed so centered on the concerns of white women, and the form of “she’s not like other girls” feminism began to seem unworthy of the name.
The tropes of the Improper Princess left YA long ago, but are still alive and well in Disney movies like Moana, Tangled, Frozen, and other similar properties. Earlier Disney feature cartoons are, of course, a major source of our cultural information about proper princesses—Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White—they’re soft-spoken, good-natured and spend their screen time cheerfully doing housework.
When The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, Ariel was an updated Disney princess—an Improper Princess who wants more than she’s offered—though she never seems uncomfortable with her gender role. The following year, Disney released Beauty and the Beast, introducing their truly gender-role-questioning improper princess. Disney’s film borrowed so heavily from McKinley’s Beauty, it could almost be a loving recreation of her work except that she is not credited. The elements Disney used are both large and small. McKinley’s Beauty is bookish and her Beast romances her by taking her to the castle’s library. They sit on a marble bench together outdoors and she teaches him how to feed birds. The smaller borrowings wouldn’t be particularly notable if not for the liberal pastiche of large-scale plot machinery, the similarities make watching the movie like a Highlights magazine “spot the difference” between two nearly identical images.
As the recent live-action remake of Aladdin has been praised for giving Jasmine a bit of a feminist edge, I was thinking about Beauty, and the single profound difference between McKinley’s book and Beauty and the Beast—in the book, Beauty is the one with a character growth arc, and not the Beast. Disney’s Beast transforms from rude and abusive to polite and loving by the end. In McKinley’s book, it’s Beauty who changes, and the Beast is reliably restrained and mannerly the whole time. I found my old copy and reread Beauty for the first time as an adult and found in some ways it had aged better than I had remembered. Using the full subtlety of a novel, the story McKinley wrote remains enchanting and surprisingly modern.
Unlike most of the Improper Princess books that came after it, Beauty is not metaphorically or actually about a woman who wants to succeed in a man’s world. It’s about a person who doesn’t easily fit into the gender roles prescribed by the society around her. She names that as “not beautiful,” unlike her sisters, but this is how she describes it:
I was becoming more boy than girl, it seemed; and perhaps since I was short and plain and had no figure to speak of, the townsfolk found my ambiguous position easy enough to accept. The men took their caps off to my sisters, curbed their ribald tongues and some of them even made rough bows; I was hailed with a wave and a grin, and familiarly called “Beauty.”
When the family’s fortunes reverse and they move to a difficult life in the country, Beauty thrives doing apprentice blacksmith and carpentry jobs among the men rather than performing housekeeping and child-rearing jobs with her sisters.
She’s allowed to hold this ambiguous position, and people are friendly to her, her family loves her—but she knows she’s not valued in the same way as her beautiful sisters. “The only comfort I had in being my sisters’ sister was that I was ‘the clever one’ […] an epithet accurately reflecting my limited worth—it was the best that could be said of me. Our governesses always remarked on my cleverness in a pitying tone of voice.”
It’s clear in those early chapters that, for being boyish, Beauty herself is respected by the people around her in a way her sisters are not—her brother-in-law trusts her with information that he thinks will just scare his own wife. When Beauty offers to go back to the Beast’s castle in place of the father, her family knows not to argue with her because she’ll get her own way. This early version of Beauty is both loved and, in a way more respected than her ultra-feminine sisters, but also treated as an oddity. She accepts ribbing about how boring her discussions of Ancient Greek are to everyone else and teasing for her preference for men’s clothing. She doesn’t fit in even where she is loved. In the early chapters, a girly-girl is weak, but an un-girly-girl is worthless.
McKinley’s use of these tropes is as relevant and important now as it was in the midst of second-wave feminism. Beauty feels ugly at the beginning and beautiful at the end, but why? The description in the book makes it clear that she hasn’t changed much physically—her eyes go from “muddy hazel” to “clear amber with flecks of green”—it’s her perception that changes. The reason for the change isn’t the Beast’s love, because she has been loved all along. The feeling of worthlessness didn’t come from a lack of love, it came from a lack of dignity in her family’s world. She changes—becomes beautiful in her own eyes—when her obedience to any gender role isn’t relevant to her human value.
There aren’t any mirrors in the novel’s castle, not even any reflective pools of water in this environment, because the Beast is repelled by his own ugliness. His ugliness is supposed to be bone-chilling, but at the beginning, Beauty considers her own appearance just as bad. A short and strong woman with indeterminate hair color and big hands and feet seems as horrific to her as being a fearful beast—but he doesn’t care what she looks like or how she dresses. At first she thinks he’s mocking her by pretending not to see her clearly or to care, but eventually, she is persuaded that she can actually talk to him freely, without shame about being too boyish.
More than just the Beast, the magic of the castle itself is sensitive to her priorities—and this is where the Disney movie’s focus on the romance between the two protagonists betrays the best of the book. Beauty’s character growth isn’t about being surprised by love or romance at all. Though she does fall in love, it isn’t shocking to her. In the movie, the Beast shows Belle his enormous library as a romantic gift. It’s a foil for the movie’s even-more-violent villain and unwanted love interest, Gaston. Gaston only cares about Belle’s looks, the Beast gives her a library, so he’s a better love interest.
In McKinley’s book, the Beast also shows Beauty his library, but the scene continues and she finds books on the shelves that have not yet been written in her time. She’s able to read Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens. The Beast says that the castle’s enchantment shouldn’t have allowed her to see things from the future, but the rules bend in response to her love of books. She loves animals and even though the magic prevents any living creature from entering the grounds, birds come into the castle gardens for the first time in 200 years. It’s not just that her appearance isn’t important in the castle, it’s that her personality is centered. In the book, when Beauty shows the Beast how to feed birds, it isn’t a reflection of his growing patience, but rather her growing self-confidence. The things that matter to can change the texture of reality around her.
In the Disney version, Belle’s adventure is going into a castle with an abuser who needs her to be patient and nurturing and guide his character development. In McKinley’s, Beauty’s adventure is going into an environment that responds to her passions and priorities, where she isn’t constantly being treated as odd because of her gender non-conformity. She becomes beautiful because she isn’t ashamed of herself anymore; that transformation happens because the castle sees her without the judgments of gender.
There’s a scene in Beauty that matches the Disney scene where Belle dresses in the luxe yellow gown but in McKinley’s book, Beauty refuses to wear the revealing dress the servants chose for her to romance the Beast. She doesn’t want to be seen in something so fancy or femme and insists on wearing something much plainer. At the end of the book, she is okay wearing the femme dress. After the Beast’s magical transformation back into a human, mirrors reappear around the castle and Beauty sees herself.
The girl in the mirror wasn’t I, I was sure of it, in spite of the fact that the man in the golden velvet was holding my hadn’t as he was holding the girl’s... Her hair was pale coppery red, and her eyes, strangest of all, weren’t muddy hazel, but clear amber, with flecks of green. And the dress did look lovely on her, in spite of the fact that she was blushing furiously—I felt as if I were blushing furiously too. I leaned closer, fascinated. No, there, it was I, after all: The quirk of the eyebrows was still there, the dark uneven arch that had always said that the eyes didn’t believe what they saw […]
There is a reading of these clothing scenes that suggest that Beauty is rejecting the feminine dress because she thinks that a plain girl is ridiculous in a pretty dress. Once she transforms into a pretty girl in the magical air of the castle, she has earned the right to wear this kind of finery. The book is open to that reading in a way that strikes me as both dated and obnoxious.
I don’t find it satisfactory as the best interpretation, though, because McKinley never suggests that her protagonist would have been happy without her experience in the castle. Her two beautiful sisters are marriageable, but they’re also condescended to and left out of significant decisions. Beauty is proud of herself for being able to manage boyish tasks and dress in masculine clothing, regardless of the clarity of her eye color; her problem isn’t that she lacks love, or self-knowledge, it’s that she is treated as an oddball. The victory isn’t that she is pretty now, and she has a man, it’s that she is centered in herself. She might have been tolerated as an eccentric, but would never be fully allowed adult dignity as long as her gender presentation was ambiguous. In the castle, she can finally become herself. It’s too bad that the Disney movie sweeps that self away in favor of the Beast’s bad moods.
Unlike many of the Improper Princess books, Beauty doesn’t suggest that it’s better for a girl to be boyish, or that a feminine woman is less capable or intelligent or enterprising than a tomboy; only that it’s wonderful when a person can live squarely as herself. This isn’t only about the specific moment in the history of white women in the middle of the 20th century like many of the books in this genre. It’s worth revisiting with a contemporary reader’s understanding of gender identity, familial love, and dignity.
Catherine Nichols has written many essays for Jezebel. Her work has also appeared in Electric Literature, The Week, Aeon and other publications. Find her on Twitter @clnichols6.