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The Two Faces of Europe

Some years ago at a party (yes, I get invited to those - sometimes), a friend told me about her upcoming lecture concerning Disney movies, specifically Beauty and the Beast and the perception of Europe as refined, sophisticated, and so forth (the friend in question was Anne Myrup Munk, who gave the lecture at the University of Aarhus November 27th, 2015). As we discussed the topic further, we came upon the realisation that while the above concerning the perception of Europe was true, it was only a partial truth. In this post, I want to discuss to the two faces of (culturally western) Europe and how we might see them surface in literature.

As with all good things, we start our journey in the annals of history. Going back some two thousand years, a sharp line could be drawn across Europe. South of this line, exemplified by the Rhine, ruled the Roman Empire. Its culture mixed with the typically Celtic populations of southern England, France, and southern Europe. The lands north of this line were inhabited by various Germanic tribes. While trade and interaction certainly communicated ideas, there was a clear difference between the societies and cultures north and south of this divide.

Map of Europe ca. year 0

Red for Romans, Green for Germanics. By Modification: D. Bachmann - File:Romia Imperio.png, originally by Jani Niemenmaa., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Already we have some conceptions about the culture on each side. South, the Romanic culture had comprehensive system of laws, literacy, arts, what can be summed up as refinement. North, the Germanic culture was tribal, warrior societies prizing strength, honour, and courage. The truth is more complicated, of course, as the Roman legions were a match for any tribal warriors, and the Germanic tribes had their own system of laws, their own arts etc. as well. But we are interested in perception, and I would say this is a fairly accurate representation of modern perception of these cultures.

As we fast-forward over the centuries, this image became cemented. If we are to characterise France or Italy, we speak of fashion, fine cuisine and wine, elegant design. The Romanic languages are sophisticated and graceful. Southern Europe or the Romanic cultures are, essentially, feminine.

Northern Europe, especially exemplified by Germany, is characterised completely differently. It is technology, science, heavy industry with coal and steel. It is beer and pork. Functional design, punctuality. The Germanic languages are harsh, guttural. The Germanic cultures are masculine.

Belle and the Beast on a date

I call this painting, “Dating Across the Rhine”

We see this in full bloom in Beauty and the Beast. It is a French story originally, which explains why Belle has a French name, but it does fit perfectly (imagine if the Beauty had been named Gertrude instead). Belle is naturally very feminine in her appearance, and she is an avid book reader. She is kind, refined with good manners (despite growing up in a village), engages in conversation easily, and wants to resolve conflicts diplomatically.

The Beast is masculinity taken to its extreme. Other than his monstrous features, his body is characterised by strength and its great size. He is crude in his behaviour, unrefined and lacking manners. Laconic in his speech, he resolves conflicts by using his strength and imposing posture. While the story is ostensibly set in France, his castle in its surroundings does not resemble a château but rather a castle located in the forested Alps of Germany or Austria.

Gratuitous example: Schloss Neuschwanstein in the German Alps. Photo by Toke R. Nielsen

It is interesting that the conflict of the Beauty and the Beast is finally resolved by words (when Belle proclaims her love) rather than some heroic act, leading to the Beast's subsequent transformation. The Beast is reduced in size, his strength appears to become average for a man of his stature (unlike the villain Gaston, who is clearly muscular and the epitome of masculinity - notice also his disdain for books/knowledge). With his completely smooth, beardless face and long, flowing hair, the Beast seems transformed into a feminine being although still male.

This guy is still my favourite character though. Sing with me, “No one’s slick as Gaston!”

In this manner, the story seems to suggest a deconstructivistic understanding of the two elements present in the story, the feminine and the masculine, and that the dichotomy between the two cannot last; eventually, one must repress the other. I admit, I doubt Derrida is required reading at the Disney studios, though, so this paragraph is just my own thoughts running amok. More likely, the story ends this way because this is what would sell the most merchandise.

An example in literature, where this dichotomy between the masculine North and the feminine South is present, is the short story Heloise by Karen Blixen in the anthology Winter’s Tales. The relationship is inverted in comparison to Disney, however. The story is set during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, and both the background and the narrative show the masculine in a position of power over the feminine, incarnated into a German army officer and a French actress.

Again I would stress that this is perception and thus not necessarily corresponding to the truth. Under Napoleon, France was able to dominate Europe militarily for decades. Bauhaus is a giant when it comes to design. Yet it seems that we unwittingly continue to characterise northern and southern Europe as masculine and feminine with all the range of traits we associate with either. There is a touch of Jungian animus and anima to this, only applied to an entire continent rather than a person’s psyche. By dividing masculine and feminine traits, categorising and subsequently separating them, we can come to grips with an otherwise complex reality and in a sense, subjugate it. Of course, to quote Aristotle as I have in previous posts, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and thankfully, so is Europe.

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