Don't underestimate the influence of a fairy tale like Beauty and the Beast. It's spawned an animated feature (the first to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar), a Hallmark made-for-TV movie, a prime time series on CBS, whatever this is, an amazingly popular musical, and now Beastly — a tween romance starring Mary-Kate Olsen, Vanessa Hudgens, and Alex Pettyfer.
It makes sense that Beauty and the Beast would remain ripe for material; after all, the moral of the story is that rich jerks need to be taught a lesson about inner beauty, and that's the sort of message that can stand the test of time. Unlike Ariel giving up her voice for love or Sleeping Beauty being woken by Prince Charming, this story has immediate and practical implications for our culture — especially for young girls trying to figure out who they are and what they "have to do" to be accepted. The problem is that while the story sets the goal that the Beast stop judging people based on their looks and learn to see the beauty within, the male lead always ends up with a hot woman. It's right there in the title! She's a beauty and he's a monster and I am confused. If the point is that he truly change and accept that looks are merely skin-deep, then shouldn't he end up with a less-than-stunning partner?
In the Disney version of the story, "an old haggard women" comes to the prince's castle and asks for shelter for the night in return for a single rose. He turns her away because he's "repulsed" by her appearance; the message here is that it's his judgment of others that needs to change. The old woman then melts away to reveal a beautiful witch and turns him into an animal, saying he must get someone to love him as he is before the final petal falls from that rose. Okay, the Beast can do that! The woman he "courts" (sort of by kidnapping her) is the most beautiful girl in town, Belle. She is so pretty her name means pretty in French and the town's most eligible bachelor, Gaston, wants to marry her. It seems suspicious that this is the woman he chooses after learning not to judge people by their outward beauty.
Beastly works in much the same way – it's just a basic remake of the Disney version of this story. Kyle (Alex Pettyfer) is the most popular guy in school. He is arrogant and shallow and cruel, mostly due to a dad that says looks are all that matter. Mary-Kate Olsen, who plays the witch, is angered by Kyle's general hubris, to which he responds by calling her a "slut," "Frankenskank," and an "ugly cow," despite the fact that she looks as pretty as ever. Kyle seeks his revenge by shaming MK at a party in front of all of his friends; meanwhile, he's developing a thing for cute-as-a-button Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens). Long story short, MK realizes she's been pranked and turns Kyle into a tattooed, scarred version of himself.
Interestingly enough, he's not turned into an actual beast. Kyle doesn't look great after the transformation, but he doesn't look that different than someone might after a couple of bar fights and bad drunken tattoo decisions. Frankly, I've seen plenty of guys who look similar walking through the East Village. The filmmakers toned the whole thing down-the "witch" is very pretty herself, and Kyle is spared a total transformation. Were the filmmakers too scared by people's judgments to commit to ugly? If so, it undercuts the whole idea of this story.
And just as in the Disney version, Kyle has one year to find someone to love him. And that someone is lovely Vanessa Hudgens. He wins her affection by helping her with her family and writing her love letters and, beastly appearances aside, she falls for him without much of a fight. At least we can say that in the course of the film (which at points is laughably bad) Kyle's character does in fact change: He learns humility and kindness and empathy, but we're never sure if he would love a scarred, bald version of Vanessa.
But neither the Disney version or Beastly fulfill the promise they make in the beginning. While the male characters change by opening up and becoming kinder, gentler people, it's the women who accept unattractive men and not vice versa. Watching any sitcom in American will show you that this lesson is unnecessary. Stereotypically unattractive men can still be love interests — even sex symbols — in our culture. But it's not the same for women. And so the result just reaffirms what we already know: men don't have to be good-looking to get the hot girl. Next time this story hits the big screen, let's hope they switch the roles and challenge us to accept a beautiful man going for a woman who's not the hottest girl in the village.