Why Feminism is Still An Awkward Fit for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

“It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” –Leo Tolstoy

Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast hit the cinemas roughly a week ago now, and, if you are one of the very few people in the world (at least judging from the box office receipts) who hasn’t seen it, you should go now. I’ll wait!

(Hums “Tale as old as time,” etc., etc…)

Wasn’t that spectacular? It is beautifully constructed, beautifully acted, the music is everything you hoped that it would be, and, with apologies to Lumiere, Emma Watson is incandescent as Belle. While I loved Maleficent, Disney’s 2014 retelling of Sleeping Beauty, in my opinion this is a much better all-around film. And, in some ways, it might be best if we were to leave our analysis of Beauty and the Beast there.

Unfortunately, the commentary surrounding the film, both from outside and from behind the scenes, has not restricted itself to the music and the costumes and the beautiful people inhabiting the roles. Instead, and for the first time I can recall, we have had an active debate between the media and the film’s principal star, Emma Watson, about the underlying morals and values of the story, and whether the relationship between Beauty and the Beast is dysfunctional.

Indeed, some of the discussion has even centered around the concept of Stockholm syndrome, putting a name to the dysfunction many see in the relationship. Stockholm syndrome, or capture bonding, is a term originally coined by a journalist trying to explain why four victims taken hostage during a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden later sympathized with their captors and chose not to testify against them. The most famous case of Stockholm syndrome is that of Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of famed publisher William Randolph Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 and later became an active member of the group, defending their beliefs and even helping them to rob banks.

The film’s star, Emma Watson, has specifically addressed the issue of whether Belle is in psychiatric distress. In an interview in Entertainment Weekly, she responded to the critique, saying, “She has none of the characteristics of someone with Stockholm syndrome because she keeps her independence; she keeps that freedom of thought.” Watson has a point, but a very narrow one—and while it might address the very specific question of whether Belle is some Enlightenment-Era Patty Hearst, it doesn’t really address the original sin of Beauty and the Beast: namely, what the story says about gender roles and what an epic and pathological jerk the Beast really is—even more so in the popular Disney versions than in the original text.

First, let’s look at why Madame Beaumont and Madam Villeneuve before her wrote Beauty and The Beast. Who was their audience? Why was this story so resonant?

Selection from "The Unequal Marriage" by Vasili Pukirev, c.1860

Selection from “The Unequal Marriage” by Vasili Pukirev (1862)

Harvard University professor Maria Tatar, a noted expert on fairytale literature, points out that Beauty and the Beast was written at a time when arranged marriages were quite common in France, and that the story both reflects women’s anxiety about those marriages, and also attempts to reassure women that every man, no matter how outwardly ugly or potentially vicious they may appear, could turn out to be a prince. It also prescribes a normative behavior for these newly arranged brides to follow: be open, be accepting, be tolerant, and you will reveal the goodness inside your new husband.

It should be noted that at the same time Beauty and the Beast was being published, Libertinism (the “love game” of Casanova and the Marquis de Sade) became the fashion in the courts of France and England. The literature of the period was filled with tales of the degradation of women, from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady and Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (which would still have the power to titillate centuries later in a Broadway play and several different movie adaptations, including Valmont and Dangerous Liaisons), to its ultimate expression in the works of de Sade. As Reay Tannahill’s Sex in History summarizes:

All these novels were works of extreme sensuality, largely concerned with the torture, physical or mental, of innocent girls, and perfunctorily justified by the argument that virtue triumphed in the end, even if only in the last paragraph, and even if only in the heroine’s ascent to heaven clad all in white and accompanied by massed choirs of angels.

Placed in this historical context, and given the time in which Beauty and The Beast was written, the morals and values underlying Beauty’s expectations about how she is to be treated, and the rest of society’s expectations about how she would behave are understandable. But transported into the 21st century, such treatment of female characters is repellent—our modern sense that marriage is irrevocably intertwined with love and even friendship rebels at the notion that such an intimate relationship might arise from such an imbalanced and coerced introduction. Only…we do accept it in Disney’s retellings of the story.

As an aside, it is one of the strange ironies of the current debate over this new Beauty and The Beast that so much time has been spent in homophobic hand-wringing over the very chaste behavior of LeFou toward Gaston, a relationship doomed from the start and into which neither character is pressed or pressured, especially when compared with the remarkable amount of physical intimidation and emotional manipulation we are willing to put up with and overlook from the Beast in his heterosexual “wooing” of Belle.

The inescapable fact of the matter is that the Beast, perhaps never more than in this latest incarnation of the story, is terribly unsympathetic. Let us chronicle some of the character’s major traits, as we encounter them, and look at how Disney’s alterations have actually made him less lovable:

beautybeast-fairy

In both Disney versions, the Prince, before he becomes the Beast, is described as being spoiled and selfish and “having no love in his heart,” and he is cursed as punishment for these traits. His odious nature is more apparent than ever in this latest live-action version where we see him throwing a ball where only women are in attendance, the obvious suggestion being that he has made his selection according to the the most “libertine” of manners. Contrast this against Beaumont’s original prince, who was cursed by a “wicked fairy” for no apparent reason.

“A wicked fairy had condemned me to remain under that shape until a beautiful virgin should consent to marry me.”

In all of the versions of the fairytale, the “crime” that Beauty’s father commits—and for which he is sentenced to a lifetime of imprisonment—is the plucking of a flower. In Beaumont’s canonical tale, the theft occurs after the Beast basically entraps Beauty’s father by making him believe he has free run of the estate. And this is in spite of the fact that Beauty’s father repeatedly expresses his heartfelt thanks to his benefactor, to an almost sycophantic degree, before incurring the wrath of the Beast:

As he was wet quite through with the rain and snow, he drew near the fire to dry himself. “I hope,” said he, “the master of the house, or his servants will excuse the liberty I take; I suppose it will not be long before some of them appear.”

He waited a considerable time, until it struck eleven, and still nobody came. At last he was so hungry that he could stay no longer, but took a chicken, and ate it in two mouthfuls, trembling all the while.

He then returned to the great hall, where he had supped the night before, and found some chocolate ready made on a little table. “Thank you, good Madam Fairy,” said he aloud, “for being so careful, as to provide me a breakfast; I am extremely obliged to you for all your favors.”

This, then, is the “original sin” that I find it so difficult to forgive the Beast for having committed. While the Beast’s behavior toward Belle’s father is dismissed in virtually all the tellings of the tale, it’s difficult to see the Beast’s decision to punish the man so severely for such a minor transgression as anything less than sociopathic.

beautybeast-maurice

In the Disney version of the story, the Beast’s behavior toward Belle, at least in the beginning, is also reprehensible. He is embittered by his fate, and often rages and roars at her. He locks her away in a cage, and orders his servants to let her starve to death if she will refuse to dine with him. Emma Watson has addressed this issue in interviews as well.

I also think there is a very intentional switch where, in my mind, Belle decides to stay. She’s giving him hell. There is no sense of “I need to kill this guy with kindness.” Or any sense that she deserves this. In fact, she gives as good as she gets. He bangs on the door, she bangs back. There’s this defiance that “You think I’m going to come and eat dinner with you and I’m your prisoner—absolutely not.” (Watson in an interview for Entertainment Weekly)

I suppose that this would make sense if Beauty and Beast were in a meaningful relationship, or if there was any justification for the Beast to act the way he acts toward Beauty, but they aren’t and there isn’t. She has committed no crime against him. She has taken the place of her father in his imprisonment, and expects to be his prisoner for the rest of her life. One would imagine that if the Beast had learned anything from his curse it would be to treat other people with respect and love and understanding. Instead, he appears in these early scenes just as spoiled and unable to love as he was in his human form. It is up to Beauty to be the one who “bends unexpectedly” in the words of the titular Disney song. Moreover, contrast this with the behavior of Beaumont’s Beast on their first night together:

“Beauty,” said the monster, “will you give me leave to see you sup?”

“That is as you please,” answered Beauty trembling.

“No,” replied the Beast, “you alone are mistress here; you need only bid me gone, if my presence is troublesome, and I will immediately withdraw.”

Finally, the Disney version drives an extra knife’s twist of cruelty into its portrayal of the Beast’s behavior if you consider for a moment the fate of his servants. Here is a group of innocent people who have been split from their families (who have been made to forget them) and transformed into household objects—literally reduced to their functions—for no other reason than that they happened to be serving in the Prince’s castle when he was cursed. And what’s more, whether they will ever be restored to being human or not ultimately depends entirely on whether or not the Beast can get anyone to love him. Despite the enormous guilt and sense of duty a normal person might feel at this, the Beast appears to make absolutely no efforts, or feel any motivation to save these people who have been doomed by his bad behavior. There is, perhaps, nowhere else in literature where it would be morally appropriate for the Beast to do and promise almost anything to get Beauty to love him, with the lives of so many people depending on the outcome, and yet, absent Lumiere and the others, the Beast would have quite willing let Beauty rot away in a prison cell in his castle—dooming his servants to extinction as “antiques” without a second thought.

beautybeast-servants

This, then, is the Beast of the Disney story. Despite his curse. Despite the curse he has inflicted on innocents as a result of his own selfishness and offensive behavior. Despite everything that should motivate him to become a better person, it is only Belle’s feminine hand that can gentle him and bring out his humanity. The idea that falling in love with the Beast is more a test for Beauty than it is one for the Beast is made explicit in Beaumont’s story.

“Beauty,” said this lady, “come and receive the reward of your judicious choice; you have preferred virtue before either wit or beauty, and deserve to find a person in whom all these qualifications are united. You are going to be a great queen. I hope the throne will not lessen your virtue, or make you forget yourself.”

In the story, then, the Beast’s curse is merely his physical appearance, but Beauty’s curse is deeper, since she must overcome her own prejudice against the ugly and the dumb. This is problematic, because it means that at its core the story is telling its readers that it is Beauty alone that must do the changing, and that the Beast is basically blameless. It is Beauty’s test to pass or fail, to “bend unexpectedly” before anything else can change. The Beast must merely be who he is, and give her a chance to see him truly.

There are those who will argue this point, and say that there is a mutual growth and coming together between the characters. Ms. Watson made just this point in her Entertainment Weekly interview:

“The other beautiful thing about the love story is that they form a friendship first. There is this genuine sharing, and the love builds out of that, which in many ways is more meaningful than a lot of love stories, where it was love at first sight. They are having no illusions about who the other one is. They have seen the worst of one another, and they also bring out the best.”

I don’t dispute that they grow into friends and that they really do fall in love, but there is an attempt here to equate the Beast’s behavior with Belle’s that I find indefensible. What exactly is the “worst” of Beauty’s behavior that Watson is talking about? Is it that she is rude to her captor? Is it that she refuses on the first night of her unjust captivity to dine with him? If so then that is a very high standard indeed, and one that the Beast is certainly not held to. Instead, Beauty is expected to see past the Beast’s random cruelty toward both her and her father, and his later rages at her, and accept that those behaviors are the aberration, and that inside he really is a nice guy.

Beauty and the Beast

I think this asks too much, and it is ultimately why I find the commentaries that have been written recently arguing that Beauty and The Beast is essentially a feminist story, and Belle a feminist heroine, to be so troublesome. Why can’t we just admit that the values and morals of the story are retrograde? Why can’t we acknowledge that the reason so many people have problems with the story is that, for every Beast out there that is a prince in disguise, there are just as many beasts that are simply beasts, and that we shouldn’t be trying to normalize or justify bad behavior by anyone? In the end, why can’t we accept the movie for what it is—a beautiful, if flawed, story written for another time and place—but also acknowledge that we should be very careful about trying to make it fit in with modern gender roles and norms?

In the end, I plan on seeing Beauty and The Beast again, perhaps even again and again. It is that well made. I don’t see the contradiction in knowing that a story is flawed and still loving to hear it told well. As long as we understand its place and context we can read or view it knowingly, and banish the Beast to where he belongs: to the realm of fairytale. Literature scholar Jane Yolen summarizes my thoughts on this succinctly when she writes:

“What I am suggesting is not to ban or censor the stories. They are great and important parts of Western folk canon. But what I am asking is that we become better readers.”

Jack Heckel is the author of The Charming Tales, including A Fairytale Ending and The Pitchfork of Destiny, and the premier novel in The Mysterium Chronicles: The Dark Lord. All Jack’s novels are available as ebooks and in paperback editions. Currently Jack is working on the second novel of The Mysterium ChroniclesThe Darker Lord, which will be released Winter 2017. If you would like to learn more about the author, visit Jack’s website.

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