By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler
When Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve published the tale of “La Belle et la Bête” in her 1740 collection La jeune américaine, et les contes marins, she joined in the tradition of adapting orally-transmitted fairy tales for print distribution. Such adaptation (and, dare I say, appropriation) continues today, growing in variety as new media become available. Villeneuve’s version of what is titled in English “Beauty and the Beast” has spawned multiple new texts. And while the Disney Empire has laid popular claim to the story in film and stage-musical formats, it does not hold a monopoly. Indeed, the tale at times gets fractured and reimagined, as is the case in Seth MacFarlane’s newly released “Ted.”
The origins of both Villeneuve’s Beast and MacFarlane’s Ted are magical. While the Beast transforms from human to pseudo-animal as a result of denying the sexual advances of a fairy, Ted obtains anthropomorphic subjectivity following a child’s Christmas wish. Much like the Beast, Ted possesses a blend of “civilized” and “animalistic” qualities that trouble his social status, and he clings to an at-times hesitant human companion to combat isolation. To say that John (Mark Wahlberg) is an unexpected Belle figure surely is an understatement. But his good heart, and his desire to please the two cornerstone figures in his life—Ted and Lori (Mila Kunis)—suggest that he might just fit a role that was defined more by a “pure heart” than by physical beauty. In addition, just as Villaneuve’s tale begins in an urban setting (unexpected at the time), “Ted” features Boston as its characters’ home base.
Clearly there are a number of misalignments between the two texts. And some of the overlap seems circumstantial. Such is the case with cultural appropriation (as opposed to outright adaptation). The components that do link “Ted” to “La Belle et la Bête” evoke its participation in fairytale re-scripting. I would argue that, in this sense, “Ted” enters Villeneuve’s world from an experimental angle that dialogues with theories of gender, psychoanalysis, and class. After all, the movie possesses residue of Villaneuve’s characters and spreads them inconsistently among its own figures, creating a fractured web akin to that which Freud describes in The Interpretation of Dreams. The film further questions what occurs when a male child rather than a female one lives long-term with and feels affection for a human-animal hybrid—the hilarious result, in this case, is that John evinces more “uncivilized” qualities as each year goes by though Belle remained steadfast in her purity. Finally, much as Villeneuve’s urban setting implied changes in class mobility and economic markets that could accommodate an emerging middle class with spending power, so too does “Ted.” The film’s concern with its Bostonian, northeastern, middle-class roots makes it accessible across markets, and it reveals that a powerful majority of consumers will buy (and lead to the success) of MacFarlane’s product.
The result of “Ted,” from this standpoint, is that it exposes the continuing cultural-subconscious role of fairytales in our own lives. What’s more, it adds new, humorous, unexpected levels to the issue of what counts as “humanness.”
Given the speculative nature of today’s post, Performing Humanity invites work that continues the conversation and further explores these issues.
Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is an assistant professor of Early Modern and Medieval Literature at Ball State University in Indiana. She is the editor of “Performing Humanity,” and her research emphasizes women’s roles in Stuart drama. Her work on women’s silence and disruptive compliance in closet drama, masque, and commercial theater have appeared in The Journal of Narrative Theory, Studies in English Literature, and This Rough Magic.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Empire Books, 2011.
Hearne, Betsey. Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Lemire, Christy. “‘Ted’: So Cuddly, So Wrong, So Hilarious.” HTR News: The Associated Press (30 June 2012): http://www.htrnews.com/viewart/20120701/MAN0503/307010131/Film-Review-Ted-cuddly-wrong-hilarious
Villeneuve, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de. La jeune américaine, et les contes marins. Paris, 1741.