An Uncomfortable Look at Monsters Romancing Women in Pop Culture

'Beauty and the Beast'/ Mandeville Films/ Walt Disney Pictures

Critics have spent the last few weeks gushing over Guillermo del Toro's new movie, The Shape of Water, in which a mute woman falls in love with an aquatic humanoid. The New York Times noted that del Toro "draws on old movies, comic books, mythic archetypes and his own restless visual imagination to create movies that seem less made than discovered, as if he had plucked them from the cultural ether and given them color, voice and form."

Indeed, The Shape of Water is a new, remarkable spin on a centuries-old tradition of stories about beasts and monsters romancing women. No matter your age or interests, everyone has heard of King Kong, Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Phantom of the Opera -- and they're all basically about the same thing.

Flavorwire notes: "The trope of the angsty monster... soothed by a kind and loving lady has been a cinematic plot line for ages." Nostalgic pop culture website, Flashbak has a theory about why: “The trope has been so persistent because it tells a very human story: that women can redeem men, who are by nature brutish and animalistic.”

Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont's 1756 version of Beauty and the Beast was based on both an already-classic folktale, and a 1740 story by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve (in which the two main characters are cousins!). Beaumont's re-telling of the tale had one very specific goal though.

Vox explains: "Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast is framed as a story a governess is telling her young charges, girls aged 5 to 13, and its lesson is that arranged marriages aren’t as scary as you might think. It teaches a young girl that her new husband might seem monstrous... but underneath it all, he doubtless has a good heart. And once the young wife learns to see the goodness in her husband’s heart and love him just for that, he will come to seem beautiful and brilliant to her."

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Beauty and the Beast then, ultimately has its roots in softening the blow of being forcibly married off to an older, unattractive stranger, written at a time when many young women were facing down that very prospect. Last March, QZ stated that Beauty and the Beast "remains a troubling story about the need for women to submit to their assigned husbands, twisted into a romance to make it seem palatable."

There are also some critics who consider the tale to be a racist allegory. Refinery 29 notes: "It plays on assumed biases about whiteness and femininity in relation to blackness — specifically, the notion that white women need to be protected from black men who are uncivilized and violent."

Almost a century later, Victor Hugo brought us The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and the 1831 novel was, by anyone's standards, violent, sexually twisted, and incredibly dark. In his version, Esmerelda shows kindness to Quasimodo and saves his life, and he returns the favor later on, having fallen in love with her. Ultimately though, Esmerelda is put to death for a crime she didn't commit, and while Quasimodo avenges her by killing the man responsible, the two end up sharing a tomb after he (wait for it!) starves to death at her graveside. With all that considered, it is slightly insane that this ever became a children's cartoon.

Not even Disney could brighten this story up. In their version, we see Esmerelda falling in love with Captain Phoebus and even kissing him in front of the smitten hunchback, thereby devastating Quasimodo. The audience feels all of Quasimodo's pain and wonders why that beautiful mean lady had to go and stick him in the friendzone. In Hugo's original book, Esmerelda literally dies for refusing a man's advances. So either way this story goes, Esmerelda cannot win.

1933's King Kong also asked us to feel sympathy for the beast over the unfeeling beauty. The giant ape is offered Ann Darrow as a sacrifice by natives (make no mistake, King Kong's racism doesn't stop at the subliminal level as Beauty and the Beast's does), but he chooses to keep her instead, enamored by her beauty. The animal then pursues her through New York and, when he is finally shot down by planes, it is Darrow's indifference to Kong's suffering that finally makes the audience sympathize with him. As with Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an oblivious, beautiful woman ends up causing the most pain to the poor, helpless man-beast.

The climax of 1933's King Kong hammers the point home. "It wasn’t the airplanes that got him," notes character Carl Denham. "It was beauty killed the beast.”

2005's King Kong presented Darrow in a more sympathetic light. Slate notes of her relationship with the ape: "She's been handled roughly in the past, and something about Kong's protection of her makes her feel that, at last, she's met a guy who can commit. King Kong is a film that implicitly suggests that traditional manliness (strength and courage) is the essential fabric of romance and that women value protection above all."

The Phantom of the Opera has even more to do with romanticized stalking than King Kong does. In it, the Phantom -- a murderer, kidnapper, arsonist, and general sex pest -- manipulates, harasses, and abuses Christine, and we are supposed to be able to justify it because he's lonely, scarred, isolated, and (clincher!) he taught her how to sing. In the end, we're supposed to feel sympathy for him because he decides to not force Christine into a relationship. As a feminist Phantom fan at Ravishly writes: "Is Phantom an MRA? A 'nice guy?' A friendzone cry baby? Honestly, yeah. He is."

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The subliminal messages in these traditional stories are deeply rooted in patriarchal values. The monsters signify strong, terrifying males who are secretly sensitive and rarely able to express it, while the events in the heroines' lives hinge on their beauty, their kindness, or their willingness to submit. Tweaks have been attempted to update these tales for more modern audiences (hence the strength and agency of Beauty and the Beast's Belle in recent adaptations), but The Shape of Water is the first landmark in the genre to truly subvert and transform those traditions, stepping boldly away from the outdated notions of male-female relations that never served either party particularly well. Such a take is both refreshing and long overdue.

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