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Beauty and the Beast

Beauty-and-the-Beast

Beauty and the Beast is the ultimate “not like other girls” Disney movie.

Make no mistake, the animation and the music are gorgeous, Belle is a great character, and the dynamic between Belle and Gaston gives us some interesting scenes. But although Belle is intelligent and ambitious and wanting adventure, she’s explicitly set up as being different because of it. She doesn’t fit in, because nobody else she knows could possibly also like reading, or dreaming, or want their life to come to something.

Unless I missed something, Beauty and the Beast only features two named female characters: Belle and Mrs Potts. The only other female characters, apart from background faces in the town, are the triplets who swoon over Gaston, the wardrobe, and the feather duster who flirts with Lumiere.

So let’s look at the triplets. They are drawn entirely identical, except for the colors of their dresses. Their whole role in the movie is to swoon over Gaston, declaring Belle crazy for rejecting him. They represent the “provincial village girls” that Belle doesn’t fit in with, and they’re completely idiotic. They’re nameless, personality-less figures meant to show us that the normal girls swoon over Gaston, while Belle, our intelligent heroine, sees him as the jerk that he is.

Without this element, Gaston is a fantastic villain character, precisely because he’s so normal. Although his behavior escalates to kidnapping and murder, and his arrogance is played for laughs, he is initially presented as very realistic and believable predator — one who doesn’t even think that he’s doing anything wrong. He refuses to take Belle’s “no” as an answer, in fact doesn’t even think to ask her for her opinion before organizing a wedding. And when he talks to her, he crowds her, leaning over her, invading her space, interrupting her when she tries to speak, and not actually listening to a word she says. It’s such painfully common behavior, and I think it’s admirable that the movie insists that Belle is smart, that her opinions do matter, and that Gaston is villainous.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Belle and her father are the only people in the village to see the problems with his behavior. All the other young women are represented by the triplets, characters who, like Gaston, only judge based on beauty, while the beautiful Belle is able to care about deeper and more important things. As we’re told in the first song, Belle is “strange but special” — she doesn’t fit in, but because she’s smarter and more sensitive than everyone else.

Although Belle is capable and brave, she is also let down by her story. Her “I want” song is probably the vaguest of any Disney princess’s: she wants “adventure in the great wide somewhere” and someone who understands that she wants “so much more than they’ve got planned.” Which is fair enough. Not everyone needs precisely articulated dreams. But although the movie ends with a “happily ever after,” Belle never really achieves her dream. I suppose getting taken prisoner by a beast, falling in love with him, and fighting off Gaston count as something of an adventure, but it doesn’t feel like enough. An adventure in the “great wide somewhere” doesn’t mean finding a castle in the forest next to your village and agreeing to be a prisoner there for the rest of your life. Once she reaches the castle, she never goes anywhere except for a brief trip back to her village — her world is barely any less narrow than it is at the very beginning of the movie. Sure, she has a bigger library and an enchanted castle now, but it somehow feels lacking. It could have been so much more.

Of course, all this is ignoring the “Stockholme Syndrome” aspect of the relationship between Belle and the Beast. There are two sides to this argument, and I can see the validity of both. The Beast is a generally well-meaning person who doesn’t know how to express it, and the romance doesn’t start until he becomes a nice person. But on the other hand, are we saying that it’s ok to fall in love with the guy who locked up your father, made you his prisoner for eternity, raged at you until you fled in terror, and threatened to starve you if you don’t cater to his whims?And then there’s the fact that, while both Belle and the Beast have heroic roles in the movie, the Beast is heroic through strength, while Belle is heroic through her quiet bravery, her beauty, her self sacrifice, and her forgiving heart. Add it all together, and the movie has a lot of problems.

The movie has a good role model in Belle, and the animation and score are so wonderful that it’s painful for me to criticize it, but once we dig under the surface of the story, it all starts to fall apart.

And that’s really disappointing, considering how enjoyable the movie is to watch.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

16 thoughts on “Beauty and the Beast

  1. Can you articulate for me why you find “not like other girls” to be a problematic trope specifically for feminists? It seems to me like “not like others” is a major theme across a wide array of types of stories and is applied as often to boys/men as it is to girls/women. Harry Potter is the ultimate boy who is unlike other boys…his cousin Dudley represents all Muggle boys and is pretty atrocious. Literature is filled with people who aren’t like everyone around them, or who seem to have larger dreams, bigger ambitions, greater talents, deeper sensibilities. Why is it bad or regressive if the misfit dreamer is female? Do you have some specific criteria that makes “not like other girls” different from “not like other people”?

    1. As Dina said, I think there’s a huge difference between the “chosen one” trope and the “not like other girls” trope. The Chosen One is not like other people because of some fluke of fate — they were bitten by a radioactive spider, an evil wizard failed to kill them as a baby, they were given an evil ring – or at most because they were born or have developed a power that most other people don’t have. But these stories usually emphasize how human this character still is. They might have superpowers or an important mission, but they have flaws, they struggle with mundane things, they have moral quandaries… all things that we’re told are normal human traits, expressed under exceptional circumstances. Whereas the “not like other girls” trope suggests that the female character is innately different and better than other girls. This isn’t a case of a female character having a superpower or something that makes her “special” in plot terms. It’s a case of the female protagonist expressing normal human characteristics and character depth, and the implication that this is rare and notable, because other girls aren’t this way. In short, she’s special because she’s *human* and sympathetic, and the other female characters aren’t presented as such.

      1. Okay…but in this case, all the men of the town (with the exception of Belle’s father and the bookshop owner) are equally shallow and vapid. They also prize beauty highly, don’t read books, etc. I agree that the triplets are particularly noticeable, but is their stereotype of feminity really worse than Gaston and his crew of bar pals’ caricature of masculinity? Even as I write this, though, I realize that the movie does set up a certain set of traits that men and women have, and never really challenges this binary. If he hadn’t been beasted, the prince would be pretty similar to Gaston, and his character development never moves that far from the extremely manly end of the spectrum. I still maintain that Belle’s sensitivity, love of books, etc. makes her different from everyone she knows, not just other women.

        1. EXACTLY. There couldn’t be better wording. I find this post’s point unreasonable as they only focus on how different Belle is from all the girls in her village, rather than the actual case of her being more intelligent than practically EVERYONE in her village.

  2. I will let the author elaborate more, but if you read more of her articles, you can see that the “not like other girls” trope is usually meant to demean all girls. that is, being girly is bad, all girls are vapid and stupid etc. except the One who is an exception to the rule.
    Harry Potter on the contrary was still surrounded by interesting full-rounded *male* characters.

    1. *….and surrounded by well-developed *female* characters, too! I think that’s also missing from B&B in contrast to Harry Potter — Harry may treated in some ways as “different” or apart from the rest, in many cases treated with outright hostility or contempt (by his Muggle relatives, the Malfoys, etc.). But he makes close friends along the way and they are central to his story. Belle’s life seems so much more circumscribed in comparison, every step of the way; she has her dad and her horse at the beginning, and essentially exchanges that for life in a castle with her former captor-beast-turned-prince. I mean, there are the household staff, but I’m not sure they really count; they may like her, but they also clearly have an ulterior motive in being happy she’s around because they hope she’ll fall in love with the Beast so they can become human again! In fiction and in real life there are plenty of introverts, nerds, and others who just don’t fit in with most of their communities, who still form plenty of meaningful friendships; in the movie Belle just seems to have her dad and then the Beast and that’s it. I haven’t read the author’s other articles, but that is at least my take on it.

      Belle really makes me torn — I loved her character so much as a little girl, because there was nothing more *I* too loved doing than going to the library and staggering home with a stack of books as tall as I was. I loved and still love a lot of the other Disney female characters, but I remember as a gawky, nerdy kid being so excited to see a heroine who seemed more defined by her intelligence than by, say, her beauty, sweet temper, and/or her singing abilities. But now that I am older I do have more conflicted feelings about the character and the story line, partly due to the whole Stockholm syndrome issue and the fact that (as it was very well-put by the author) the ending doesn’t really seem like she achieved all that she wanted — say, more education, more adventure, travel, etc. — instead she’s just settled in the castle not far from home and that’s that. Clearly I need to take a sick day and go home and re-watch this until I’ve fully reconciled all my conflicting feelings on this movie. :)

  3. I just can’t get over the Stockholm Syndrom in B&B. I just can’t because the Beast actually keeps Belle with the thought of making her love him.

    I’m ok with SHS in other stories that play it well, when it’s actually acknowledged how horrible this is. Stories like Jaime&Brienne that almost start out like this, but then turn into a 2 POW bonding and falling in love.

    Or Deryn and Alek from the Leviathan trilogy that starts out with her taking him prisoner, but she’s just a soldier following orders and she eventually helps him escape

    Or 1001 Night in which the Sultan repents his sins, thanks Scheherazade for curing him of his own madness and swears that she will never have to fear for her life again.

    But Brienne never mistreated Jaime, neither did Deryn. And the Sultan’s behaviour can be explained by him suffering from massive PTSD.

    But there’s no such excuse in B&B, no reason why I would wish for Belle to actually end up with the guy held her captive and emotionally abused her.

  4. I have big problems with Belle having to overcome the Beast’s “ugliness” (I think everyone can agree though that he was a pretty good looking beast, and when he transforms into his human form it’s disappointing) as well as his bullying, raging and criminal behaviour. It reinforces the old stereotype that there’s a heart of gold inside troubled, angry men, you just have to nurture him and seek it out and be patient and soothing.

    The Beast made no sacrifices for Belle. She was the one who had to learn appearances aren’t everything. That never made sense to me.

    1. I can’t believe I never noticed that point before. You’re right — it’s supposed to be about him learning to be less selfish and focused on appearances, but his true love is so beautiful that she’s called *Belle*. He learns that “beasts” can be loved by others, but he never has to learn to do so himself.

      1. I strongly disagree with those opinions. Belle and the Beast’s discovery journey is mutual and while she learns to truly look past one’s appearance, he learns what it is like to be human. And it’s not like she or he does all the work for both: they are parallel arcs that intertwine and influence themselves, but are ultimately self-discovery journeys.

        Meaning: Belle does not settle for him just because he’s the only person within reach – she never gives up on the idea of going away and seizes the first chanche she gets, so she wasn’t definitely settling down – nor does she think she can change him – she does not want to have anything to do with him until he starts to turn around. It’s not her who sees the inner beauty of an ugly individual, it’s their shared effort that helps her overcome the appearance.

        Which brings us to the Beast. He starts off as the archetypical alpha male: he’s uncaring, detached from his own feelings, uncapable of love and his driving traits are brute force, short temper and other displays of manly power. Their relationship is completely unbalanced, with him – male – holding all the power and she – female – being his hostage.
        This starts to change when Belle tells him off: he learns that a woman can be as strong as he is and can challenge him and show as much power. If at first he saw her as a tool to break the curse, that’s the moment when he actually falls in love with her, when he appreciates her strength and bravery and sees her as a person. And he does so despite social expectations – because let’s face it, the whole household short of Chip kept seeing Belle as a means to an end, while the Beast learned to see past that.
        Ultimately, he embraces a whole host of character traits that are generally associated with the feminine archetype (as seen in the Sansa Stark posts): he becomes caring, unafraid to show affection or vulnerability (even in front of another alpha male like Gaston), or to present himself curteous. And he does not see them as a source of shame or degradation (as mysoginist Gaston does), but as a growth, as a means to empowerment and to be able to share a mutual communication with a woman he considers his equal. Once he is mature enough to embrace his feelings without perceiving them as a weakness, he goes as far as sacrificing everything letting Belle go on the very last day of his magical deadline without any guarantees she would come back in time or at all (unlike in the original fairy tale, where he has her promise she would come back – and we have no reason to assume Belle would without the treat of impending doom).

        I think this is a strong feminist statement in that not only underlines the importance of women empowering themselves, but also of men embracing personality traits traditionally associated with femininity without finding them degradating but, on the contrary, a source of human growth. The old black-and-white alpha male archetype (Gaston) is unsuccesful, while a more balanced male is what helps the story work with a well-balanced female.

        (Here’s writing a boy who’s always grown up liking “girly” things and faced ostracism due to it, so I’ve come to understand that feminism is not only about female empowerment, but also about men not perceiving feminine traits as degradating. It’s a shared effort in which each side makes up the coin, which is why I feel Beauty And The Beast goes in the right feminist direction.)

        1. I know what you mean, society think that men showing emotions is feminine i.e. being weak, and I’m for the love of God, aren’t men equal in privilege to be human?

        2. I’ve been dreaming up an adaptation of ‘The Six Swans’ and I’ve been thinking a lot about the character of the young King the heroine marries during the second act. In the story, he’s both a husband and judge to his wife when she is (wrongfully) framed for murder – though he goes a long way out of his way to protect her in court, he is forced, by the law of the land, to sentence her to death (the heroine’s eponymous six brothers save her, as she saves them – this tale is so feminist I’m frankly astonished Disney hasn’t done it yet). I thought a lot about how you could get loyalty conflict out of this, and eventually I decided on him (in my nascent adaptation) deciding that HE COULDN’T DO IT, and deciding to throw political power to the winds and be defence lawyer ONLY.

          Interestingly, I decided to make him an Anglo-Saxon king, since the Anglo-saxons had a surprisingly fair legal legal system – which actually fits in perfectly with his (as-yet unwritten) arc of realising ‘I can’t do everything, nobody can’ – since the Anglo-saxons practically had an elective monarchy and their king was most certainly NOT all-powerful.

          Also, I think Disney should show how a woman can save guys she loves platonically with her knitting needle as opposed to her sword (happens in Six Swans). The heroine in this fairy tale might look like the girl who sits in the corner knitting quietly, but she is a determinator of the highest order and won’t give up trying to save her brothers even when execution is staring her in the face.

          That’s not to say that it’s a perfect story; it REALLY REALLY isn’t. The girl is forced to abandon her children to save her brothers. But considering its merits, I still wonder why it has relatively so few adaptations.

          Oh, and the young King falls in love with the heroine’s character and goodness as much as he falls in love with her beauty. His first act, on meeting her, is to put his cloak around her and ASK HER WHO SHE IS.

    1. exactly!!!!!
      When people are emotional (like how Beast was in the beginning) they say things they don’t mean.
      No way is this Stockholm Syndrome, Belle willfully stayed, but at the same time she kept her ground.

  5. B&B is amazing!
    So what, if Belle decided to live with the Beast, just because she and the Beast found love doesn’t mean that Belle won’t achieve her own dreams of exploring, and seeking adventure. I am pretty sure Belle and Beast would both enjoy going on adventures, exploring, and other amazing things. I don’t understand why most people think that marriage is a form of restraining to having a “life.”

    1. True story: I used to give up on my Sims once they were married because what was the point? Didn’t life just end? When I think about it, there are so few stories about married women that aren’t about motherhood. Nothing wrong with motherhood but it’s not for me.

      I agree that B&B is a lot more feminist than it first seems. Looking at it from my romance writer angle, it’s a perfect alpha male knocked to his knees by falling in love with a strong woman story.

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