Fairy Tales Retold: Robin McKinley’s “Beauty” and Feminism

Beauty will forever be immortalized in my memory as the first book I ever ordered on Amazon (the first of many). I was thirteen years old and I’d found Beauty on a shelf in the Children’s Section of Barnes & Noble but the edition was paperback, and I vowed to have a hardcover. Robin McKinley, I know now, was the winner of the Newbery Medal for her novel The Hero and the Crown, but back then, all I knew about McKinley’s first novel was that it was a retelling of a fairy tale. I bought it because it reminded me of my favorite book at the time, Ella Enchanted, a retelling of Cinderella, of course.

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Why I Loved It:

Beauty does what every good “remake” or retelling of a classic story should do: it elevates the story by fleshing out the characters, interpreting the events for a contemporary audience, and all the while retaining the spirit and atmosphere of the original story. I’d even argue that Beauty goes a step further. Given that it is a fairy tale, Beauty offers readers an updated view of femininity, love, and gender identity that the original, by nature, inherently lacks. Beauty is not your typical princess, and neither is Beast your typical monster.

Beauty is written in the first person by the youngest of three sisters, whose names are Grace, Hope, and Honour. Honour, a cheeky child, harrumphs at her name when she learns the meaning of the word and states that she “would rather be Beauty.” (3-4) The nickname sticks, and our heroine has an unconventional name that belies her intelligence, talent, and independence. The name also, as Beauty laments, is inaccurate in the narrator’s opinion. She’s a plain girl with sallow skin and flat, dun-colored hair. Compared to her beautiful, light-eyed sisters, Beauty feels visually inadequate and as an adolescent, devotes herself to her studies in order to compensate. She describes her evenings spent alone “translating Sophocles” and how she grew to hate her nickname because it called attention to the fact that she was not beautiful at all. (9)

Beauty’s voice is strong and self-aware. Here is a heroine immediately relatable because of her insecurities and strength. Though her sisters Grace and Hope are both well-rounded characters with autonomy and considerable brainpower, they both pursue love and marriage and “happily ever afters” like traditional “princesses,” while Beauty defies gender expectations by performing much of the manual labor on her farm and leading an intellectual life. She has little interest in men and even rejects the advances of a well-intentioned man because she’d rather enjoy her freedom. It’s interesting that Beauty expresses the opinion that physical beauty is more of a hindrance than an asset. She grows to appreciate her plainness because it unencumbers her from the male gaze.

Reading this story through Beauty’s eyes is a pleasure. She’s feisty and smart and just a touch self-deprecating. She’s also selfless and not in the tiring, feminine-ideal kind of way. When her father delivers the devastating news that a beast has demanded one of his daughters, Beauty volunteers herself, not only to save her father’s life and the lives of her sisters and nieces, but also to prove her worth apart from her family and away from societal expectations. She asks herself, “Why was I so determined? I believed that my decision was correct, that I and no other should fulfill the obligation; but a sense of responsibility, if that was what it was, did not explain the intensity of my determination.” (81) She’s a believable mix of ego and insecurity, selfishness and selflessness that is highly relatable.

Beast, too, is a surprise. Born and bred to Disney movies, readers may be expecting the gruff, impatient, even violent Beast of the animated film, but this Beast is rarely any of these things, and never violent. Beast comes across as weary, lonely, and polite, albeit a bit brusque. He also displays marked kindness toward Beauty. He repeatedly tells her she “has nothing to fear” and immediately distances himself when she is uncomfortable or frightened of him. (116) Though Beast loves Beauty quickly, the romance between them blossoms slowly and naturally, built on mutual respect and patience. Beauty gains confidence in her abilities and her appearance while away from her family while Beast becomes more human in her presence and less, well, like a beast. It’s a thin allegory for a successful romantic relationship meant to last. And it’s entrancing with the added magical atmosphere.

Instead of dancing spoons and talking candelabra, the enchanted castle manifests its brand of magic in the form of disembodied voices late at night, anthropomorphized breezes, lush, overgrown gardens, and a castle that rearranges itself to accommodate Beauty’s roaming. For example, whenever she finds herself lost, her bedroom is no further away than down a hallway and around the corner. The magical is subtle and effective, even realistic. Moreover, there is no obvious time period or setting in the novel. It may be Western Europe but it also feels British and also somehow pagan. The effect is a deliberate ambiguity that lends a sense of timelessness to the narrative.

Why You Should Read It: Read it for the feminist take on Beauty and the Beast, which I do believe is similar to Ella Enchanted’s feminist reinterpretation of Cinderella. Read it because it is a sophisticated fairy tale that nevertheless has you rooting for a happy ending, and even, dare I say, a happily ever after.


McKinley, R. (1978) Beauty. New York, NY: HarperCollins

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