Dear Lily June,
As part of an ongoing series where I’ll apparently ruin for you the same classic Disney films that I actually want you to love [see The Little Mermaid here], it’s time to take on the beauty and the beastliness that is Beauty and the Beast.
Spurred on by the success of their musical mermaid franchise launched just two years earlier, Disney created in Beauty and the Beast a commercial and critical success as a follow up. Unlike her swimming teeny-bopper counterpart, Ariel, found in a wondrous primary-color-filled world under the sea, Belle is a more sophisticated, feminist and articulate heroine, ostracized from a darker-hued world of wolves, woods, and, most dangerous of all, small minds.
Among its accolades are the fact that, for its time, it was the first animated feature to be nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Picture (losing out only to the much darker Silence of the Lambs, where Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins served as a kind of Beauty and the Beast of their own). In fact, so important was the film that the Library of Congress selected it in 2002 for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” That’s no small potatoes, Lily June, for a film about a bookworm who falls in love with a manbear.
Because the film, and its female lead, have much to be praised for, I think I’ll take the harder task of taking the film to task first. Bear in mind, Lily June, that a defense is coming forthwith, but as I want you to be a critical consumer of the cartoons and films produced in your own time (as well as any I might force you to endlessly endure from my own childhood), it helps not to engage in idle idol worship.
Remember the Bechdel test? Yeah, Belle fails. Hard.
In all fairness, she’s been raised by her single father because, spoiler alert and shock warning, her mother is nowhere to be found. Did Maurice’s early prototype for the wood-chopping invention go awry, or was having to clean up after his explosions too much for her? Whatever drove her away, she wasn’t there to guide Belle into female-to-female interactions.
Also in fairness to Belle, there don’t seem to be many females in town to strike up conversations with. We’re presented with harried, middle-aged looking shoppers and a woman buried in babies, but she’s clearly too busy to chat (trying to buy eggs that are too expensive and escape a Disney film unscathed, having become one of the few mothers that wasn’t axed to the cutting floor immediately). The “chicks” in this provincial town have chosen to ostracize Belle for her brains, especially the trio of Bimbettes who hang on the chauvinist villain Gaston’s every belch.
She manages to get in two main conversations–one with an operatic wardrobe, and one with a grandmotherly tea kettle, Mrs. Potts, but both of these stimulating discussions are about the male Beast, Belle’s eventual love interest. So there goes some of Belle’s feminist street cred.
In fact, anti-intellectualism is the name of the game.
While Belle is the protagonist we’re meant to identity with, and she does dig on reading, the rest of the town treats her like a leper and, short of the kindly librarian who finds books such a cold commodity that he’s willing to give them away, novels are treated by the townspeople like Belle’s lesions.
Gaston makes this mentality most apparent when he tells Belle, “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking.” When Belle retorts that he is “positively Primeval,” he sincerely takes it as a compliment, so we’re meant to assume that any word over two-syllables is a struggle for this Troglodyte.
And is Belle really that intellectual to begin with?
Despite the fact that she’s pegged as the town bookworm and daughter of an inventor, it’s not as if she’s analyzing Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. The book she claims is her favorite seems to be a pretty typical, unimaginative romance tale where the main character “meets Prince Charming, but she won’t discover that it’s him till Chapter Three.” If reading trashy romances makes for brains in this town, then Nicholas Sparks would apparently be chased out with the same pitchforks and torches as the Beast.
Even Lumiere is bi-lingual, and he’s a womanizing candlestick. What’s Belle got to beat out Cogworth’s understanding of Baroque architecture?
It helps that Belle is, as her name implies, aesthetically pleasing to the eyes.
It’s not called Brains and the Beast for a reason. Belle conforms to the same idealistic and biologically unattainable body type that most Disney Princesses have, only she gets to cram her impossibly perfect figure into a gold couture ball gown.
This sends a message that I never want you to internalize, Lily. It says that it’s okay for women to be intelligent, as long as they’re attractive first and foremost. I admit that, while you’re still a baby, I’m guilty of complimenting your looks, calling you beautiful and adorable before I think to praise your curiosity and sense of discovery. But that’s a problem I know as a mother I need to remedy. And luckily, we’ve got the rest of our lives to write the script of our relationship.
Belle, whose script is set in Library of Congress vaults, isn’t lucky enough to be able to reinvent herself. Her looks draw shallow, superficial people like Gaston to her like fecal matter draws flies, and though she rejects his advances, it’s made clear that we shouldn’t forget her outer beauty (even when the film’s intended message is that true “beauty lies within.”)
Because Belle’s already perfect, unlike in the Little Mermaid where Ariel had to change for her man, here, the man/Beast has to change for his woman.
But isn’t it still problematic to send the message that you should only love someone once their looks or personality have changed to suit you? Could Belle have loved the tempestuous, controlling rage-aholic Beast we met at the beginning of the film? Does he have to become the oatmeal slurping, bird-holding softie at the end in order to attain her love?
I’m not saying a good relationship won’t challenge you, causing you to grow and change as a human being. The best ones do, Lily, and I consider myself to be a much more sane, patient, and generous person as a direct result of your dad’s influence on me, because he was all of those things to begin with. I’m just saying that he loved me when I was way more neurotic, uptight, and stingy, and he didn’t marry me hoping I’d go through an emotional or physical metamorphosis after we tied the knot.
And should Belle and Beast have even hooked up in the first place?
The strength of a romantic tale is in whether the love shared between the characters is pure, a platonic love (in the truest sense, not the way it’s colloquially used to mean love without physical intimacy) of two souls finding their match on earth. When you add elements of dysfunction to the relationship, it should (one hopes) degrade the viewers’ ability to root for the pairing. So the question with Beauty and the Beast is this: Is their love dysfunctional?
We see elements of domestic abuse, Lily, something your mother will devote her life to helping you have the strength to completely reject. Most abusers work through situational control, not just physical violence. And the Beast is, well, a beast of a control-freak:
- He isolates Belle from her loving father, a common tactic to remove a victim from their support system.
- He dictates where she can go (forbidding her, for instance, from entering the castle’s mysterious West Wing).
- He places demands on what she does (requiring her presence with him, for instance, at dinner).
If you notice any of these signs in your own relationship, don’t walk, RUN to the phone and call your mother, who will blow through every red light in America to fetch you from your domestic prison.
Isn’t Beast supposed to be Belle’s captor, though, not necessarily her lover?
That’s a good objection except, since she ends up falling for him, it makes their relationship a classic example of Stockholm Syndrome, where the captured fall for their kidnappers. Psychologically, this occurs to minimize the damage to one’s psyche when one has been taken, but it doesn’t create a healthy recipe for Happily Ever After.
And marriage is defined as Belle’s ultimate adventure.
I get myself into sticky territory here, since part of my heart truly believes that one of the best things I’ve ever done in life is marry your father. But then, I met him while pursuing a graduate degree, not when he locked me into a tower for trespassing on his mansion’s grounds. Love is an extraordinary adventure, Lily, one I hope you’ll take (if you want to). But for a woman who seemed to reject the notion of being no more than Gaston’s wee wife, she certainly changes course quickly enough when she meets the Beast, abandoning her dreams of exploring “the great wide somewhere.”
She loved reading to escape the “provincial life”, but she’s apparently chosen to live in the confines of an Austen novel, where a woman’s greatest achievement is finding a man to marry. In addition to the fact that Disney’s heteronormative bent wouldn’t allow for Belle to chose a female Beast to love, there’s also the problem that she’s given in to the very identity she initially rejected. How much longer after the credits roll will it be before she, too, is attempting to buy six expensive eggs for her ever-expanding brood?
Remember, Lily: Women have more options available to them than being a wife and mother. They can choose to be so (and happily, as your mother has), but they can also choose to study and work to find fulfilment (and happily, as your mother has). You are bound only by the limits of your own imagination, and I have no doubt yours will be wide enough to choose a future that fits you as well as Belle’s ball gown fits her miniscule hips.
Of course, I fell in love with the film as a kid, so it must have some redeeming qualities, right? It does, and I promise to elaborate on those next time.
- “Beautybeastposter” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Beautybeastposter.jpg#/media/File:Beautybeastposter.jpg
- “Urval av de bocker som har vunnit Nordiska radets litteraturpris under de 50 ar som priset funnits (2)” by Johannes Jansson/norden.org. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 dk via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Urval_av_de_bocker_som_har_vunnit_Nordiska_radets_litteraturpris_under_de_50_ar_som_priset_funnits_(2).jpg#/media/File:Urval_av_de_bocker_som_har_vunnit_Nordiska_radets_litteraturpris_under_de_50_ar_som_priset_funnits_(2).jpg
- “Belle disney” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Belle_disney.png#/media/File:Belle_disney.png
- “Marie Curie 1903” by Nobel foundation – http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1903/marie-curie-bio.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marie_Curie_1903.jpg#/media/File:Marie_Curie_1903.jpg