Beauty And The Beast
Once upon a time, there was a young woman who had grown up understanding that the greatest quality a person can have is kindness. That to be able to see the real value of a person beneath the surface and beyond the unfair judgement passed by others is the mark of true compassion, and there are no better virtues to possess than insight, empathy and an open mind. The young woman met a young man and fell in love. They quickly became close, and told each other stories about their lives: about their hopes and dreams, their fears, their most secret passions and vices. And as she listened to the young man’s tales of rejection, of hurt and frustration and loneliness in a world that didn’t understand him, her heart swelled. She would be the one to understand him. She would be the one who could heal the wounds inflicted on him by the cruelty of the world, and her devotion, her loyalty, her endless capacity to love him would make him love her back and their story would be written in the stars.
So there they were, in love, and for a while it was just as she thought it would be. She made him happy, and because he was happy and she was meeting his every need, listening to his every concern and running to send away every cloud that threatened to darken his horizons, he was sweet and kind and generous. But fairy tales don’t last forever in this world, and soon enough, the everyday started to get in the way of this perfect story.
He ran out of money. He worked hard, and he worried a lot, and so at weekends he needed to go out and spend a fortune on drink and drugs to wipe the stress away. And in the early days he’d bought her so many presents, taken her for so many dinners, that it was hardly surprising that now he was short. No matter. Money isn’t important, only greedy, shallow people think that- so she gave him money. She was glad to. They shared everything. What was hers, was his.
He missed out on a promotion at work. His face didn’t fit. His boss was awful, a game-playing backstabber who was threatened by the young man’s superior intelligence so undermined him and sabotaged his chances. The company was short-sighted, and why would they promote anyone and pay them what they were worth when there were plenty of suckers willing to bleed themselves dry for less? He was never going to succeed at a soulless place like that, he’d have to change who he was. No job is worth that.
He fell out with his family. A stupid row about something, it escalated into screaming arguments, his mother crying, his father shouting accusations, his brother dragging him to the pub to try and talk him around. They’d never understood him, really. He’d always been the black sheep. They seemed nice, but they were just so conventional, so stuck in their ways. Always comparing him to the others, always finding him wanting, always picking holes in everything he did. He was never good enough for them. So unfair. You could see where his anxiety came from, right there- his messed up family.
And so it went on. Every time something went wrong, the young woman would relay it to her friends. She’d tell them how worried she was about him, how unhappy he was and how difficult everything became. How she couldn’t go out with them and have fun, it would be too cruel and disloyal when he needed her to be at home listening to his suffering. How she couldn’t go on the holiday, not without him for a whole week. And anyway she was a little short of cash, as he hadn’t quite managed to pay back the loan she’d made him as soon as he’d promised, but he was trying, so, so hard. Her friends weren’t impressed. What are you getting out of this, they’d ask. When was the last time he put himself out for you? He didn’t seem that stressed when he was out until 3am on Friday, or that bothered that you were worried enough to call all the hospitals looking for him. Her friends, in fact, increasingly began to hint that they thought she should ditch him, and gradually she began to see that he was right about them. They were pretty mean, really. Hard-faced. Materialistic. Selfish. Too immature to understand what a proper relationship was about. Of course they wanted someone with no commitments to live a sad little single life with them. That was what it was really about, they didn’t have her best interests at heart. So she began to see them a bit less. It was just easier that way.
And so it went on, and he became meaner and colder and more dismissive and quicker to lose his temper as he became more and more stressed. And if she had been like her friends, one of those shallow women who can’t take the ups and downs of a real relationship, she’d have bailed. She’d have only seen what was on the surface, and she’d have put herself first and she’d have got out of there. But she was made of stronger stuff than that. All that kindness, that selfless compassion, that fierce determination to fight for her love- all of that came to the surface now. She fought. She defended. She rose up where he couldn’t, even when she got no thanks, no appreciation. Even when what she got in return was silence, sulking, her requests ignored. Even when no response escalated into hissed insults, shouting and angry messages. She knew how to calm him down and turn his mood around. It wasn’t easy, of course it wasn’t, when he was having such a hard time. Real relationships are hard. Real love is about pain and heartbreak as much as it’s about the good times.
So there it is. Beauty and the Beast, played out in the 21st century. If you’ve been around for a few years you’ll have watched a version of it play out, or lived one. It may have come across as though I feel contempt for that idealistic young woman with her fucked up idea of a good relationship and her desperation to rescue the hopeless loser who didn’t deserve her devoted attention. I do not. I’m angry for her, and worried for her. I was her, in relationships that played out like that, to a greater or lesser extent, several times. I learned the lessons from them years ago (I’m middle aged, wiser, lazier and happy to be selfish these days) but it was only recently that I realised how thoroughly I was indoctrinated into swallowing that stupid fairy story: the idea that men are flawed, weak, damaged, in need of protection and that the role of a good woman is to soak up and compensate for those flaws. The culture I grew up in didn’t just fail to help me build my defences against those shitty relationships: it actively sent me running towards the things that would hurt me. Red flags weren’t warnings, they were targets: opportunities to show that I was the best at loving, protecting, sacrificing. From childhood I was trained to see male relatives’ tantrums coming, to side-step them, to appease and stop them erupting. To show that I was the grown-up, sensible, reasonable one. How could I ever resist the role of peacemaker, counsellor, conciliator with that background? I ran towards the red flags so I could show what a perfect woman I was; how my capacity to love (which is the greatest and noblest quality a woman can possess, of course). And we see this over and over again in pop culture. From Mr Rochester to Angel, our romantic heroes are moody, angry, potentially dangerous, and tragically misunderstood. From Jane Eyre to Buffy, our heroines tear themselves apart to be the one who can get through, rather than turning their backs and waiting for someone to show up who can actually thrive on his own merits and bring an equal amount of emotional strength to the party. Even Brienne of Bloody Tarth, the one truly noble character to stomp around the Seven Kingdoms, had to end her days making excuses for the endlessly flawed Jaime. Our culture manipulates women into this role to make up for the weakness of men. A weakness (before the NAMALTs descend, maybe too late) that isn’t inherent or inevitable in men but that is the result of toxic masculinity in our culture and pathetically low expectations about men’s capacity for emotional maturity. Girls are brought up to do twice the emotional labour, at huge cost to themselves, so that boys only have to do half or less.
It occurs to me that some people may be reading this and thinking, so what? So what if women give more of themselves emotionally than men do, if they have more to give? Well first, Hi Mum. I’ll call you at the weekend. But OK, I’ll give you some so whats. Pick the ones that mean something to you. A woman in this emotional saviour/martyr role isn’t happy, for starters. Not really. She doesn’t have the energy or the confidence or the time to fulfil her potential, to play the part she is supposed to play in the world. Maybe she ought to be fixing climate change, or solving the refugee crisis, or getting us out of Brexit. Maybe she could write some new films that don’t involve capes and superpowers. Maybe she’d “only” be educating or caring for your children, but one way or another, every woman has more to give the world than being a prop for one man. And a woman in an unhealthy relationship like this is vulnerable. Vulnerable to financial abuse, and therefore to getting into debt. Vulnerable to coercion and control, and therefore to mental health problems. Ultimately vulnerable to any of this escalating into physical violence, and therefore to joining the statistics: the 2.5 women murdered every week in the UK at the hands of a partner or ex. Many of those women will have started out exactly here: staying in a relationship that is going wrong out of loyalty, and a determination to save a man from himself.
Well, it isn’t good enough. We need to see the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale for what it really is. All fairy tales began as analogies to teach children about life and morality. The morality that Beauty and the Beast pushes is the pernicious lie that all good feminists recognise as the first rule of misogyny: that women are responsible for what men do.
We aren’t. We aren’t responsible for what they do. We aren’t responsible for their emotions. We aren’t responsible for their failings. We aren’t responsible for shielding them from real life. We aren’t horrible, selfish people for pointing this out and teaching it to our daughters and living by it. And we can find better stories to inspire us than “girl falls in love with loser and risks everything”. So let’s try that. It won’t save them, because that’s not our job. But it might save a few of us.
Footnote no 1: NAMALT. Especially Not My Nigel. TM.
Footnote no 2: I’ve looked at this purely on a micro level: one woman, one relationship at a time. It’s pretty easy to extrapolate it into certain situations currently receiving a lot of attention in feminist circles. I might do that next.
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