Week 30: Beauty and the Beast

First Theatrical Release: November 22, 1991

First Home Viewing Release: October 30, 1992

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Where I Found It: My personal VHS collection. My family had the original 1992 VHS, but I later bought the “Special Edition” 2002 re-release on VHS. I wish I hadn’t for two reasons: 1) I don’t like the addition of “Human Again” and 2) I did not know at the time that I would get a DVD player for my birthday six months later; wish I would have held out for the DVD instead.

Bechdel Test Score: Passed? Female characters include Belle, Mrs. Potts, Wardrobe, Feather Duster Babette, and the Bimbettes (yes, that’s really what they’re called). There is one discussion between Belle and Wardrobe about clothes, which is how this movie squeaked by with a passing score. It’s borderline, though, since the conversation is about the Beast in a roundabout way, assuming she is joining him for dinner.

I’m on a tighter deadline with this piece than I have been with the others because we’re heading out of town on Wednesday night, but I still just wasted way too much time digging through my old Livejournal entries looking for one I had written about Beauty & the Beast after I read a feminist critique of it. Basically, I felt the critique had “ruined” Beauty & the Beast, which I’d always thought a lovely story about a change of heart, by comparing it to an abusive relationship.

That is a comparison that is hard to shake, and perhaps that’s why I did not watch the movie for so many years. Can I openly decry Bella’s and Edward’s relationship as unhealthy while still holding Beauty & the Beast close to my heart? I’m not sure my most recent viewing of the film has brought me any closer to answering that question — although the film is so gorgeously animated and carries such a weight of nostalgia that watching it again was certainly no chore.

Is the Beast an Abusive Partner?

So, this is really the question that everything else pivots on. If the Beast is akin to an abusive lover, then what’s meant to be a warm “change-of-heart” story becomes nothing more than a romanticization of Stockholm Syndrome and an instruction to girls and women about how a violent, hot-tempered man can be “tamed” into a gentle, caring one with enough love, patience, and beauty.

This is a dangerous message to be sure. But does the Beast fit the profile of an abuser?

stalking beastAt first glance, the answer seems obvious. The Beast is downright scary when he is first introduced; he growls as he stalks Belle’s father, Maurice, who has slipped into the house to get out of the cold. He handles him violently and tosses him into a cell, and it’s never clear exactly what he intends to do with him there. Punish him for trespassing for a day or two, or subject him to a long, drawn-out death by starvation? Since the Beast needs a woman to break the spell, a male visitor is useless to him — and he treats him as such.

Have you ever heard that bit of dating advice that you should never date someone who treats the wait-staff at the restaurant like crap? I think the same sort of applies here.

When Belle agrees to take her father’s place, the Beast’s first instinct is to put her in the cell instead, but Lumiere quickly talks him out of it. As he leads her to a guest room, he is surprisingly accommodating, telling her that the castle is her “home” and that she can go anywhere within it except the West Wing. He growls when she presses for details, but in this scene he’s not much more threatening than your run-of-the-mill curmudgeon.

if she doesn't eat with meThe most problematic interaction is the one shortly thereafter, when he tells her that she cannot eat at all if she doesn’t eat with him. This is the scene where I can’t help but cringe, and that no amount of justification can explain away. Yes, it’s certainly abusive.

And yet, even though the audience’s first encounters with the Beast are frightening, his servants, who have known him throughout his life, do not seem to be truly afraid of him. Indeed, when Belle leaves her bedroom looking for food, they sing and dance rather than discourage her. And while there is some nominal objection from Cogsworth, they seem to think very little of disobeying the Master’s orders on a grand scale. Nor are they afraid to make gentle suggestions to him (“Perhaps you’d like to offer her a more comfortable room?”) or to scold him (“You must control your temper!”)

Does this look like someone who is scared to get caught?

Does this look like someone who is scared to get caught?

These are people that have been with the Beast for at least the last 10 years, and presumably throughout his entire life. In a moment of anger, he could smash Mrs. Potts against a wall or snap Lumiere’s head off. They are arguably more fragile as “objects” than they would have been as people, and although they seem alternately annoyed and nervous about the Beast’s behavior, they don’t seem to honestly fear him. That is, they do not act like they’re living beneath an abuser’s roof.

This makes me suspect that the Beast’s temper is in fact the worst of it, and that he is prone to making empty threats. Belle never does experience repercussions for leaving her room that night — although there are repercussions when she disobeys his command about the West Wing.

beast shameThe West Wing struck me as particularly dark and ominous when I viewed it as an adult — but I think it’s precisely because of the West Wing that the rest of the household does not fear the Beast, despite his unfortunate combination of fangs, claws, and a short temper. The Beast seems to confine his outbursts of rage to this area, tearing curtains and destroying furniture — but not laying a hand on anything living. Indeed, even when he catches Belle there, he yells, tips over a table, and chases her out — but he does not hurt her. He is overcome with shame as soon as she is gone.

When I watched this movie as a kid, my sisters and I would always take the Beast’s side. We said, “He TOLD her not to go in the West Wing!” We thought  it was Belle’s own fault for not listening. And while I can see the problem in this way of thinking, I also know why we thought that way. It was because there is something about the desecration of the West Wing that speaks to the Beast’s shame in who he is, and in who he was. It’s the place where he fully gives in to his “Beastly” impulses, out of sight of the rest of the castle, and presumably to keep them safe from him. The woman who is now living in his castle has seen the most disgraceful part of him, and to me, what Belle had done felt akin to a violation such as reading someone’s diary or going through their mail, discovering their most shameful secrets.

wolfIt’s somewhat disconcerting that we do not know what compels the Beast to go after Belle. Although he saves her life in a wolf attack, was it worry for her that drove him out of his castle? Regret at the way he had treated her? Or just a selfish desire to recover his prisoner? We will never know, but this constitutes the turning point in their relationship. After Belle brings him back to his castle (who knows how the heck she lifted him onto her horse) and tends his wounds, he never raises his voice against her again. He transforms from a vicious cur to a lapdog always hopeful for her approval.

What is it that flips the switch for him? Belle’s kindness certainly plays a part, but only after she’s chewed him out. After they engage in mutual blaming for the wolf attack, Belle gets the last word with, “Well, you should learn to control your temper!”

Beauty and the Beast standoffThis scene is telling because with a true abuser, this argument would likely have escalated the violence. But the Beast doesn’t get angrier. He pouts.

Not the most emotionally mature reaction, but a relatively harmless one.

And here is where I think we see the Beast for who he truly is or was: not a hardened abuser, but an emotionally stunted child who, because of his position of power and his ghastly appearance, has never had to learn how to get his needs met without throwing temper tantrums.

This makes sense, when you consider that he was only 11 years old when the spell took hold. It is not unusual for someone to become emotionally stunted at the age they were when a great trauma occurred, and getting transformed into a monster is pretty traumatic.

Now, no doubt adolescents who are “spoiled, selfish, and unkind” do need to be taught a lesson so that they don’t grow up to be adults who are the same, particularly if they hold positions of power like a prince does. But turning a kid who hasn’t gone through puberty into a beast for his mistake seems a little excessive. I’d sort of like to hunt down that enchantress and check her credentials.

What the Beast Taught Belle

I don’t need to expound upon what Belle teaches the Beast in this movie, as that’s the crux of the whole plot. What is of more interest to me is the way that Belle is transformed through her relationship with the Beast. While he learns to be kind, she learns to be assertive.

A man as egotistical as Gaston is likely only to see an inviting smile, not the strain behind it.

A man as egotistical as Gaston is likely only to see an inviting smile, not the strain behind it.

Belle is often credited as a “notch above the rest” when it comes to Disney heroines because she is intelligent (or at least bookish), dreams of a life beyond her small town, and turns down the brutish Gaston despite his dashing good looks. Yet, the way she does all of this is decidedly … docile. She employs a flirtatious demeanor when encouraging her father about his invention and when turning Gaston away (when will Disney stop employing “flirt” as the default option in female-male interactions?). Rather than come out and tell him she is not interested, she remains “nice” right up until the end, insisting that she “just doesn’t deserve him” when it’s clear to the viewer she doesn’t want him.

This is very different from the Belle who defiantly tells the Beast she can stay in her room forever (although she doesn’t) and that he’s responsible for his own temper tantrums. But the most telling change comes when she encounters Gaston again — this time, she does not mince words, and tells him in no uncertain terms that he is a “monster.”

he's no monsterAs much as the Beast needed Belle to awaken the “gentleman within,” perhaps Belle needed the Beast to awaken the power of her anger. In this way, their emotional arcs pass one another somewhat in reverse.

Still, I don’t think finding a man who cannot control his temper is the best path for women to find their voices. The problem is that the real world is also full of immature boys trapped in men’s bodies as well as bona fide abusers — and sometimes by the time a woman uncovers which is which, it is too late.

Did Belle Get What She Wanted?

Ultimately, this movie, for all its beauty, still leaves me a little uneasy. It always has. When I was a kid, my sisters and I used to wonder if Belle grew tired of the Beast after he turned back into a man. We all found the Beast to be a far more nuanced and intriguing character, and it’s hard to imagine how their relationship dynamic will play out once his humanity is returned to him.

Belle and the Beast still share Disney's hottest kiss, though -- even when I was 11, it knocked my socks off.

Belle and the Beast still share Disney’s hottest kiss, though — even when I was 11, it knocked my socks off.

Also, watching Belle dance around the ballroom with her prince in the final scene, I can’t help but wonder, “Well, yes, but what happens after?” In the first act of the movie we see Belle longing for “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” a longing that resonates with small-town bookish girls and others who “just don’t fit in” everywhere. While her craving for adventure must surely be satisfied by her tumultuous courtship with the Beast, now that she has tamed him, how will she continue to meet her need for adventure? Rather than escaping into the “great wide somewhere,” she became trapped in a castle that was not all that far from her “provincial life” and made a home of it with a reclusive man. Now that he is no longer a beast, will the prince join Belle if she wants adventures beyond the palace walls? And if he does not join her, will he have the strength to keep letting her go as he did in that pivotal moment in the movie when he realizes he loves her?

dandelionOne can certainly hope.

For further reading

There is so much more to unpack here; the beauty in this movie is that, like all truly great movies, it can be read on multiple levels. I’ve barely scratched the surface of one, but this post is already over 2,000 words and I’m up against a very fairy-tale-esque 3-day deadline. So I do recommend deeper exploration of some of the issues touched on here in the posts below.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s