Colonialism and the Beast


A woman, her dress held up by clothed monkeys

In 2021, I wrote a blog post entitled Unconscious Bias: A Conscious Confession, in which I recognised my own tendency to make first-impression judgements based on names, accents, colour, appearance etc. Well, now I'm confessing to the presence of blind spots as regards my own White Privilege.

Specifically relating to my favourite fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast.

A couple of weeks back, I made the hideous mistake of posting a plot analysis of Our Flag Means Death based on Beauty and and the Beast in a private fan group. My innocently-meant observations ended up seriously upsetting another fan by tapping into 600 years of colonial hurt. I apologised and took the post down.

I don't intend to repeat what I posted there, as that would defeat the object of removing it. But I would like to talk about some of the issues involved and how I could have missed them.

The Problem

an exotically dressed man kneeling to a woman

My fellow-fan alerted me to the dangers inherent in casting Stede and Ed as Beauty and the Beast, given that in the show Stede is White and  a coloniser (he says he's not, but he's a landowner in Barbados, so...) and Ed is Brown and Indigenous. This taps right into the colonial stereotype of Othering non-European people, portraying folk of other cultures either with glamorised Orientalism, or as less civilised, even less human.  Any idea that Stede is a "civilising influence" is therefore a knife in the heart, and to be avoided at all costs. Ed is an intelligent and knowledgeable man, "history's greatest tactician". Actually, there's plenty of evidence in the script to argue that Stede is in fact the Beast (something he comes to acknowledge himself in Episode 9).

When I looked more deeply into it, I could see that a post-colonial reading of the text identifies that very problem within the tale of Beauty and the Beast itself. In classic tellings, such as that by Madame le Prince de Beaumont, the Beast is both Orientalised (his extravagantly wealthy and magical dwelling) and Othered as less than human.

In an online article I can unfortunately no longer access, Jasmeen Griffin wrote:
... many writers of the nineteenth century and even earlier were cognisant of empire, race and otherness, and shared the belief in the superiority of the European over the colonised Others whom they considered racially inferior and less civilised (Orientalism 14). Although there are general expectations that literature and culture are "politically and even historically innocent" (Orientalism 27) they are actually closely imbricated in the process of political and cultural hegemony. Thus, in tales of Beauty and the Beast we can trace the background of imperialism, and the negotiation and anxiety about the Other.
As someone who loves the tale, I'm not sure to what to do with this information. Does it also apply to the source tale, Cupid and Psyche? In that tale, the lover is rumoured to be a monster, but is in fact a god. Is that better or worse? Or just the same? I don't know.

How Could I Have Missed It?

A man with black facial make-up

I was mortified by my online mistake, and wondered how I could have possibly missed such an obvious sinkhole. I know all this stuff; I've even blogged about it. But my mind was totally on the structural and psychological aspects of the story. And sure, lots of stories have the same basic structure as Beauty and the Beast. Pride and Prejudice, for example. But casting Mr Darcy as the Beast is less problematic because both he and Lizzie are White and landed gentry. The power dynamic is totally different.

Similarly, when it comes to the psychological. I wrote in my last blog, The Kraken and the Minotaur
I was also very interested in a number of artworks (including one by Pablo Picasso) portraying the artist as the Minotaur, or perhaps the Minotaur as the shadow side of the hero Theseus, who comes to kill him... it was impossible not to associate this with Ed saying, “I am the Kraken,” and the notion of seeing yourself as a monster. 

But how much harder is it to take a look at the monster lurking inside you, and how much easier to project the image of the monster onto the Other?  

And there's the very difficult balance. I'll always be attracted towards characters who see themselves as monsters. Who are fighting their own inner demons. Who are both Theseus and the Minotaur. But what happens with that when the same character stands in danger of being Othered and made a monster of by people who have historically stood in a position of power? That's the point I missed.

My fellow-fan, who I inadvertently offended, identified themselves as being Brown and Indigenous, therefore identifying themselves with Ed, "who is canonically Brown and Indigenous". I have to confess that I had not completely thought of Ed in this way. I had seen the fact that he is played by Taika Waititi as constituting representation for Maori people. But I admit I had not seen him as "canonically Brown and Indigenous" because it is not mentioned in the script, and because all we know of the historical Blackbeard's heritage is that he was said to be born in Bristol. 

Why had I not seen Ed in this way? Because I am White. Why had I not immediately picked up on the post-colonial implications of Beauty and the Beast? Because I am White. That's what White Privilege means. It means you don't have to think about your colour. It doesn't matter that I am asexual or greygender or neurodiverse or Northern or working class or anything else. In that part of my identity I am privileged, and exempt from all that communal trauma.

That's why I didn't see it.

Just this morning, I read again about the problem of (inadvertent) racism within the OFMD fandom. And we all know how folktales have been used to uphold racist viewpoints. So I'm putting this out there.

Be aware.

And if you make a mistake - like I did - apologise, make it right, and learn from it. We're all in this together.


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