CW: Discussion of body and gender issues, gendered insults
When you’re a young girl growing up in the States, “Who’s your favorite Disney princess?” is a question you get asked on a regular basis. Nowadays, I would definitely say Mulan (the trans hero of my heart–I’ll have to do a whole separate post about that), but when I was a kid I would say Belle, from Beauty and the Beast.
Belle should’ve been my logical choice for favorite princess–we looked alike, we had the same favorite color, we both craved adventure, and we were both certified bibliophiles. But Belle was simply a convenient lie for me. I never really identified with her because, despite our similarities, Belle was notable for her beauty. Besides being her very name, Belle’s beauty was her biggest distinguishing feature in the 1991 Disney film; it was the one thing that kept the town from completely labeling her as “other.” (I did appreciate that in the 2017 live-action remake Emma Watson showcased Belle as a engineer and inventor, rather than just a pretty bookworm.)
In short, Belle could pass as normal because she was beautiful, and that’s something I never related to. Truth be told, I related much more to the Beast.
I have always had a soft spot for the lonely, misunderstood characters. The Phantom from Phantom of the Opera has always been close to my heart, too. Like with BATB, I was meant to identify with the beautiful, young heroine, but I felt much closer to the misshapen, misunderstood antagonist. (Random thought: why don’t female characters ever get a chance to play that part? Why must we always be the beautiful, young objects of affection?)
My partner and I are so gay that the only thing we’ve had a substantial argument about to date was (I wish I were joking) the merits of Andrew Lloyd Weber as a composer. My partner and her BFF think he’s, well, the lowest brow of Broadway, but I appreciate the stories he’s told–even if the music is a bit simplistic. I saw Phantom of the Opera on Broadway itself on a middle school trip (one of the perks of living a few hours from NYC growing up). I was captivated–not by the costumes or by Christine, no, I was captivated by the agony of the anti-hero.
I mean, let me be clear, I don’t look up to these characters by any means. The Phantom is definitely a manipulator and a murderer, but his loneliness spoke to me. Because as a kid, I was always lonely.
The Beast fairs a little better as a character, he actually learns and grows as a result of his relationship with Belle. (Considering how young the prince was when he was cursed, he actually turned out pretty OK. Don’t curse kids, people.) BATB also gave me a lot more hope, since Beast gets a happy ending and Phantom sure as shit does not (not that he deserves one, remember the murdering?).
In the opening of BATB, the narrator tells us the story of the curse, and as he ends his tale, he says,
“As the years passed, he fell into despair, and lost all hope, for who could ever learn to love a beast?”
The words “who could ever learn to love a beast?” have echoed through my mind more times throughout the years than I could possibly count. That I was “a beast” has been made clear to me since grade school. I was taller and broader than most kids from the beginning, but puberty was not kind to me. While other girls grew curvaceous with breasts and hips, my silhouette remained straight and boxy. I remember staring at them, wondering why I wasn’t growing “the right way” like they all were.
Queer kids (at least of my age and older) didn’t usually know they were queer growing up, we just knew we were different somehow. So I’ve always known I was different, and I’ve always known it was about far more than looks, but for years I longed to be prettier, pretty enough, at least, that I could “pass” for normal, like Belle did.
I even prayed about it, way back in the days when I prayed about things, “Please God, make me beautiful. Then someone will love me.”
God never made me beautiful, but I eventually stopped chasing after that ideal. Once I embraced my gender-not-normalness, I came to realize that there’s more than one right way to be a woman, few of them with much concern for “pretty.” Eventually I learned my aesthetic was “Dyke” and that took some of the pressure off “pretty” as well.
Women are so much more than their physical appearance, but alas, “beauty” is often all we reduce a woman down to. We strip away her humanity, her passion, her empathy, her boldness, her intelligence, her cleverness–all in the name of beauty. What a disservice to women everywhere. And like many young girls, I got the message, loud and clear, that if I wasn’t beautiful, I wasn’t worth anything as a woman. That without soft edges to cushion the fragile masculinity of the men around me, I would be rendered unlovable.
For years I believed it. Honestly, I still do most days. My partner and I have been together for more than two years, we live together and we’re engaged. Still, I said to her last week, with utmost sincerity, “You really do love me, don’t you?” It still hasn’t quite sunk in, that I might even be lovable. I imagine it will require years more of practice to fully expel those thoughts.
My own personal self-confidence journey is complex and has a lot to do with growing up with an alcoholic, but this constant reminder that I am “a beast” from my peers has had a significant impact on my psyche in and of itself.
Even today, I still get purposely misgendered by cis men attempting to remind me that my social currency is based on what I can offer cishet men. “What even IS it?” and “Whatever it is, it’s not female” are frequent refrains I hear. Likewise, it’s not surprising that “lesbian” becomes and insult in this context. “Lesbian” becomes a bad word because a lesbian doesn’t care about what men want, and it turns out a lot of men considering ignoring their desires an actual act of aggression. Even if a man finds me repulsive, there is still an expectation that I would make myself available to him. Women aren’t allowed to turn down men’s advances. (Check out “When Women Refuse” for what happens when we do.)
In many ways, I’m glad I’m not pretty. I think I would be an extremely different person if I were. I think there are a lot of things I would not have seen if I’d had some kind of beauty-related privilege. And pretty, to be frank, sounds exhausting.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with pretty–just make sure you’re doing it for yourself. Your beauty is not a currency, you are not required to be pretty to move through the world. But if pretty is your thing, then by all means! Sparkle on.