Re-thinking Beauty and the Beast: Feminism and Flaw in the Disney Universe
I'm developing a new frame of mind that one can view Disney Princess films as a completely valid representation of a specific population of women. I began to think about what circumstances would have to exist in order to make Disney films accurate, and I think our best evaluation lies in human flaw. I think that Disney films are ultimately meant to entertain, rather than negate the feminist agenda, and I've been looking for a way to support this claim without completely negating my identity as a woman. This could be late-night ranting, but here is why I think maybe this theory could be true:
Beauty and the Beast
When the story opens, we’re introduced first to a man who loses everything he has because he makes a gamble and can’t pay up. He has to live with the consequences and when presented with the idea of a second chance, he believes it to be impossible. Even if another chance had come along before Belle, he probably wouldn’t know what to do with her. Belle is his best chance, at least according to the universe in which this story takes place, to regain his dignity and at least a piece of the life that he had before.
If his story took place in our modern circumstances, the Beast's curse might have been severe debt or having all of his possessions seized. I think it is imperative to consider the modern implications for the story while we go along, so I'll continue to offer things for you to ponder.
Belle is from a single parent home, having been raised by her father, Maurice (with little to no mention of a mother figure). She wears clothing akin to what her father can provide, not what is fashionable. We see a striking contrast in the Barbie-like silly girls who drool over Belle’s suitor, Gaston. On top of that, Belle’s father is self-employed. In small town Provincial France, jobs were most likely hard to come by because of the nature of heredity. Occupations were held for life, passed from generation to generation, so it is plausible to believe that Maurice might have been unable to find anything better than developing his own crazy notions into real, working inventions.
How That Came to Be
I think there are a few circumstances that could have initiated this way of life:
A. Maurice passed through the town peddling his inventions and met Belle’s mother, so he stayed.
B. Maurice’s parents moved to the town and his father wasn’t able to find employment, or couldn’t pass his employment onto his son.
C. Maurice is actually clinically insane like Gaston frames him, and unable to retain a job. If we choose this theory, it might also be possible to suppose that Belle coddled him by encouraging his inventions. Perhaps she allows him to leave town for the fair because she has grown tired of caring for a man-child; that is where Belle becomes less a character and more human. We have to allow for the possibility that these characters might be flawed, and that their flaws do not make them any less or more than their face value: an entertaining story that each person can learn something from. If Belle is the kind of person to allow her father to go into the woods alone, despite untreated mental illness, we’ve got a completely new lens through which to view her. If Belle were truly to allow her father to make for his own oblivion, this begs new and pressing questions about her judgment and frankly, her sanity.
How Belle Can Represent a Subsection of Women
But this is all speculation, on a level that we cannot prove, fathom, or explore beyond the hypothetical, so let’s return to what we know. How is the story of Beauty and the Beast a plausible representation of a specific fraction of women? you ask me as you ready your fingers to write angry comments.
Here it is: If we're speaking in plausible hypotheticals, Belle meets a man (albeit a furry and beasty one) who needs fixing (pun unintended, but hilarious.); Belle is a woman predisposed to care for others above herself because she has had to care for her father since a young age, as far as we know. In spite of the fact that this man she meets is verbally abusive to her, Belle sticks with him, and contrary to my distaste for this situation in stories based in realism, I'm not sure that decision makes her weak.
I understand that we've come to analyze that sort of frame of mind as a Stockholmesque disorder, but Belle is also a naturally optimistic person and seems to be willing to help him change.
Love and the Beast
What I don’t know is how we can quantify the feelings between Belle and the Beast; the story suggests that love is blind to physical beauty, but we can’t ignore that the very nature of the story highlights the fact that Belle is the most beautiful woman in the town. This love cannot therefore be rooted solely in our societal ideal of love, the romanticized idea that someone’s personality alone can cause us to fall in love with them.
This would require us to be able to say exactly what love is, aside from a chemical reaction in our brains, and usually that reaction is triggered at the first by a reaction to someone’s physical appearance. I remember the first time I saw my boyfriend because I had a visceral spark, and that happened for Belle the moment she realized that the man she agreed to live with for the rest of her life was actually a “hideous beast”. Granted, the spark was not initially an excited or sexual spark on Belle’s part (as far as I’m aware. Maybe Belle’s turned on face is complete and utter shock. What do I know? Not much.), but on the other hand, I would argue that the very nature of love is accepting everything terrible about the other person.
You have to be willing to set aside all the bad things they’ve ever done or said in the past and accept that it has made them the person (or man/lion/bear/wolf/thing) that they are today.
The water becomes muddied when we consider the sins that Belle forgives in the Beast; essentially, he revokes everything in her life that she had before the moment they met, including the thing that we’re lead to believe is most dear to her (her father. And he is the most important person in her life, but I’m hypothesizing here, so go with me). But on the other hand, we have to consider what she had before she came to the Beast’s castle.
As far as we know, Belle spends her free time reading, feeding the chickens, going to the library, and helping her father with his inventions. Yes, this is a valid way to spend her life, but she also isn’t really living and exploring, in fact she yearns to find something beyond the mundane.
The Thrill of the Castle
Moving into the Beast’s castle is a thrill that she seems to take some guilty pleasure in, especially considering that her friend counts increase from 1 (I’m counting ½ of that vote as her father and ½ as the librarian) to an entire castle of talking appliances and decorations who are excited to hear what she has to say. The people from her town were only interested in the fact that she was beautiful and yet unmarried, but not the fact that she might have an identity without a husband.
The magical companions believe that she can break the spell and save the beast, but as far as I’m aware, marriage is not the goal of anyone in the enchanted castle. Love, the unquantifiable equalizer of sentient beings, is the goal. They are concerned with the goodness inside her, not the way that she looks, because what are they, really, but a bunch of outcasts? If the enchanted objects were put into a modern context, we might find ourselves in a kind of circus side-show where all the freaks ever know is the companionship of another freak, where looks bring them together but then cease to matter (I am now pondering the idea of writing a B&B story taking place in a circus. You’re welcome.) because when everyone is unique, nobody is.
Imagine going your whole life thinking that there is something wrong with you, that nobody will ever want to know you for what’s inside your head, and then finding a place where they want you and adore you. That would be a kind of heaven that we’d all have a hard time rejecting.
Granted, Belle didn’t know that this would be the case when she initially arrived at the castle, but if I found a castle in the middle of the woods, the likes of which I had only read about in books, and then a bunch of enchanted objects sang me a full Broadway musical and fed me a lot of food, I’d probably stay.
In the argument of the relationship between Belle and the Beast, is it so wrong to believe that a sort of love may have grown between them? That the Beast could truly have changed, and that Belle could have forgiven him? I don’t think this is such a crazy idea, and it upholds the idea that a love story is not an event, but a journey and confluence of circumstances. The pair of them grow and change together, and both learn something about what they are willing to sacrifice in life. Somebody wise once said that love is sacrifice and on a few levels, Beauty and the Beast is rife with sacrifice.
- Belle sacrifices her life with her father in order to save his life.
- The Beast sacrifices his pride and misery (in which depression often takes delight) to attempt to break the curse.
- Belle sacrifices her prejudice against the Beast’s initially inflammatory pride (Jane Austen. I see you.) in order to show her thanks for saving her life.
- The Beast sacrifices his privacy in order to share a slice of his world with Belle (I mean… he gives her a library. A whole library).
- Belle sacrifices her initial disgust over the Beast’s looks in order to make the most of her life in isolation.
- The Beast sacrifices the possibility of the curse breaking in order to allow Belle to go to her father.
- Belle sacrifices her and her father’s reputation in the town in order to stand up for the Beast.
This story is full of many sacrifices, many of which are obviously debatable and I’m not saying I am correct. In general, this article is a gross over-simplification, or I guess, overly zealous English-teacher evaluation of a movie featuring talking napkins, but the logic stands. The bottom line is, we’re all right: Disney films do not uphold advances in feminism, including things like a dependence on a man to feel whole and severely skinny leading ladies with pert noses and small feet.
But I also believe that women fall in love with the wrong men, and stay in abusive relationships, and resent their parents, and make the wrong decisions. I think it’s possible to live in a world where we both accept the Disney princess films as an inaccurate representation of feminism and accept their validity in portraying the flaws of humanity. Ultimately, the films are entertaining. The animation is beautiful, and the colors are vivid. What I know for sure is that we can accept both evaluations of the Disney collection, and I believe we’re doing them a disservice when we declare them to be merely a terrible representation of women.
Share with me: How else might be evaluate the Disney collection? In what other ways can you uphold or respectfully disprove my theory?