By all accounts, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a fine film. The characters are engaging, the music is enthralling, the animation is beautiful, and the story is a perennial classic – what’s not to like? There is, however, some material inherent in the film that raises some troubling questions about the appropriate roles of men and women in modern society and that is not immediately obvious at first glance. This should hardly be a surprise, of course, as Disney is rather famous for doing this sort of thing. Rather than ascribe sinister motives to Disney, however, I think it perhaps more apt to see how our own preconceptions of gender roles and social order are reflected within the film and how we are correspondingly blind to these same preconceptions. In brief: Belle and Beast’s relationship is not perhaps the most positive or realistic model to be held up before our children’s eyes as a demonstration of ‘true love’ and our belief in Belle as a modern, liberated feminist model is also, perhaps, somewhat misplaced.
Let us examine first what it is that we see in Belle that makes her seem such a strong female character. In the first place, she is inquisitive and not moved by popular opinion – she thinks for herself. She sees right through the arrogant Gaston, she ignores the townsfolk who find her odd, and she defends her father against critics even when it is socially unacceptable to do so. There can be little doubt that Belle is brave. She’s also ambitious and headstrong. In the clearest exclamation of her personal goals, she sings the following immediately after turning down Gaston’s marriage proposal:
I want adventure in the great, wide somewhere,
I want it more than I can bear.
And for once it might be grand,
To have someone understand,
I want so much more than they’ve got planned.
This is a girl who wants to escape, a girl who wants to do something with her life. She isn’t going to marry that ‘boorish, brainless’ Gaston and massage his feet before the fire like a good little woman – she’s going to go out there and experience things, see it all, learn and grow. This is inherently admirable in our current society and, even though the film is twenty years old, we believe and want these traits in our daughters and sisters and in ourselves (as case may be).
Consider, however, how the action of the film serves to co-opt Belle’s dreams even while we cheer along the way. Belle, in the end, does not get the adventure she bargained for at all. If we are to assume that ‘they’ plan for Belle to wind up settled down with a good, strong man in the state of holy matrimony (a reasonable assumption, given the society depicted), then the only thing they don’t anticipate is which man it is she settles down for. Yeah, she doesn’t marry that jerk Gaston and live in that village, but she does marry some other jerk and lives easy commuting distance from that self-same village. The primary difference is the level of wealth, ultimately; the Beast is rich and has a massive library and a staff to serve Belle’s every need, while I doubt Gaston can offer similar accommodations in his rustic hunting lodge. We, the viewing audience, are meant to interpret the ‘adventure’ of Belle’s life as being kidnapped by a bitter, selfish man and then spending all her waking hours ‘repairing’ his personality by, essentially, mothering him into decency. Then, with her man thus repaired, she can marry him and live in his giant house with all the books and fine meals. Belle’s tale, then, is not one of freedom from societal concerns and social equality as it is one of domestic self-determination; she gets to pick and shape the man to spend her life with, and nothing more.
It must also be understood that Belle’s relationship with the Beast is not a healthy one. Remember: the Beast kidnaps an old man for trespassing and seems perfectly content to let him freeze to death in his tower until his attractive daughter shows up. The deal then becomes ‘I let your father go, you live here as my prisoner.’ Let’s skirt around the fact that this is a criminal act in and of itself and get to Belle’s reaction to this: She gives her word, and thereby binds herself to a man who is brutish, who denies her food, and who even threatens her for almost touching his stuff to such a degree that she flees into the night in terror. He, of course, saves her from the wolves, which makes her forgive him for his earlier misdeeds and decide he is misunderstood. They then have a snowball fight and everything is okay. Later, the Beast releases her from an imprisonment he had no right to levy in the first place so that she can save her father. She then proceeds to defend the Beast’s reputation to the townspeople and, in the end, decides to stay with her captor. Now, besides the fact that what I’ve described involves a lot of the tell-tale signs of an abusive relationship/Stolkholm’s Syndrome, we can see that the film is operating under the assumption that a woman can and, indeed, should expect to ‘fix’ her man and readily make excuses for his anti-social behavior. People, though, aren’t like cars or houses – one should not have to ‘renovate’ them to make them safe partners and, furthermore, one can’t reasonably expect such renovation to hold.
Now, of course, the film portrays the change in Beast as genuine. There is no indication that Belle is in danger of a resurgence of his terrible former self, for he has finally ‘learned to love’. Furthermore, in Gaston we can see true selfish wickedness and we are never given any reason to suspect his personality might be otherwise. This, for some, stands as proof-positive that the concerns expressed above are just so much academic hand-wringing, but that more indicates our acceptance of the potential reality of such a story than it does the inaccuracy of the critique. What I mean is this: we believe this story as reasonable because we believe such stories are plausible and, indeed, ideal, even though reality shows us this isn’t true. We accept the fact that Gaston – the rustic, self-made, hardworking man – is the villain while the Beast – the spoiled, selfish, rich kid – is the hero without reservation or doubt simply because the story shows it to be so, without ever thinking about what the story is getting us to agree to in the first place. When stripped of the story’s ‘spin’ (or so to speak), we can see that Gaston is not, necessarily, the worse choice. He is portrayed as such by the writers, who have chosen Beast as the victor because that’s what the original story has laid out. This original, of course, was written in the 18th century and primarily serves as a moral guide for what kind of husband a woman should seek and, furthermore, the kind of rewards she will receive in exchange for obedience to said husband and father.
So it is that we blindly accept a story that is, essentially, not so far removed from the centuries-old original. In it there is the window-dressing of female liberation, but what is really shown is a changing understanding of how women ought to find themselves a husband to support them. Now, this doesn’t mean the movie is a bad one – as said above, it is a wonderful tale – but we should be careful to allow our daughters to view it as a kind of ideal; it is not. The Beast is not the kind of man that should be married after a mere weekend’s courtship (and neither is Gaston, for that matter), and to suggest to our children that such behavior is ideal or even normal is potentially destructive. Like all fairy tales, it needs to be understood within a kind of cultural context that children aren’t necessarily equipped to understand. That doesn’t mean they can’t view and enjoy such tales, but parents should take care to present other and more positive role models for girls by way of comparison.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about positive role models for girls. I can say with a fair degree of accuracy that this has come about thanks to my daughter, Madelyn, who is just about two years old now and completely awesome. This is a toddler who, from a shelf of at least forty movies or so, selected Back to the Future, insisted we watch it, and loves it – nuff said.
She also likes a wide variety of princess-y movies, Muppet-based properties, and Disney animated films, which we tend to watch slightly more often than I’d like. My wife and I try to shake it up by hiding certain over-watched films on the shelf and removing others as ‘suggestions’ to see if they’ll pass the Madelyn Watchability Test. This is how I came about watching Labyrinth two or three times over the past week. The good news is she likes it and the even better news is that it is an excellent film for a young girl to watch, and that I don’t mind her watching it from now until whenever. Indeed, I sincerely hope she still likes it by the time she’s in her preteen years, because I think it will be important for her.
Let’s face it: most female characters in fairy-tale stories are disappointing at best and downright offensive at worst. Even
the ones that seem positive really aren’t when subjected to mild amounts of critical scrutiny. Belle from Beauty and the Beast, for instance, might seem like a spunky, independent woman who lusts for adventure, but then consider this: she settles down with the first rich man she meets who (1) treats her like crap for the first few days she knows him, (2) holds both her and her father hostage, and (3) doesn’t offer her anything more exciting than a domestic life in a big castle as opposed to a small provincial house. If I were Belle’s father, I’d be pissed at my daughter’s poor judgement.
Belle, of course, is nothing compared with this generation’s worst offender for weak female masquerading as strong:
Twilight’s Bella Swan. Here’s a girl that falls for a guy who essentially stalks her, who orders her around, who is obviously bad for him (she is his food, for crying out loud!), and yet she marries him (while ridiculously young) and the stated and understood condition of that marriage is that she is no longer a member of the human race. Jesus H Christ! Were I Bella’s dad, I’d have a stake through that fucker’s heart before he knew what was happening. I’d even do it if it meant she’d never speak to me – better that than watch her become a monster for some moody asshole.
Now, getting back to Labyrinth. I realize that, as a 30-something year old man, my ethos for discussing what is good/not good for girls is somewhat weak, but I do have a pair of eyes, fairly sound judgement, and am no slouch at reading between the lines, and I think that the character of Sarah in Labyrinth is the polar opposite of what characters like Bella Swan represent. On a metaphorical level, Labyrinth is a basic coming-of-age story as a young teenage girl is forced to learn responsibility and selflessness to save her baby brother from the Goblin King (played by a simply spectacular David Bowie). There is more to this coming-of-age story, however, than simply Sarah learning how to think of others before herself. There’s a lot more, in fact – so much so that I would argue that this isn’t the point of the film at all.
Labyrinth is a film about a girl just about to enter the world of dating, boys, romance, and sexual awareness. Sarah’s journey is a quest to define her own needs and wants in a potential companion and, furthermore, to establish herself as a strong, independent, confident woman. Each of the characters she meets throughout her journey are male (with the exception of the hag/garbage woman, who potentially represents a woman who has sworn off companionship in favor of childish attachment to material objects, but I digress…), and each of these characters represents a different kind of suitor.
The first and most important of these suitors is Jareth, the Goblin King. As if David Bowie’s representation of this character didn’t make it clear enough, the dialogue between Sarah and Jareth cement the idea that they are mutually attracted to one another. Jareth routinely references Sarah’s beauty, he is holding a baby hostage (use your imagination there), he attempts to seduce her after giving her the poison peach, he sings to her, and, at the very end, he essentially begs her to stay with him in what can only be described as a dominant romantic relationship. The thing is, though, that Sarah knows he’s bad for her. She rebuffs him at every encounter, despite being consistently tempted. Like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, she seems to recognize the ‘prince’ within Jareth somehow but, unlike Belle, isn’t won over by pretty words and grand gestures. In the end, she essentially breaks his heart with the line ‘you have no power over me’, a line which she hadn’t grasped the significance of until that final moment.
As for the rest, we are left with a who’s-who of well-meaning but not altogether desirable boyfriends. Hoggle the dwarf is the on-again, off-again sort-of jerk who a girl dates because he’s there and he’s fun or friendly, but not because of any significant romantic attachment. Their relationship might continue in a positive direction if they become simply friends, but otherwise won’t end well for either of them. Ludo is the big, strong, sweet dummy who, while adorable and charming in his way, cannot challenge Sarah intellectually and forces her into the role of mother or caretaker, which she rightly rejects as a healthy model for a long-term relationship. Sir Didimus, the dog-knight, is the man who sets the woman up on an unrealistic pedestal, boxing her into the role of ‘Lady Sarah’ which, likewise, she recognizes as not right for her. Then there are the Goblins, who, in addition to being the main antagonists, we might also think of as the seething mass of assholes that any girl has to wade through to find the handful of halfway decent guys with which to pursue relationships.
None of the characters (aside from Jareth) are actually bad for Sarah. They are good people whom Sarah decides to maintain as friends at the conclusion of the film. None of them, though, are her ‘knight in shining armor’, nor are they able to secure her hand in marriage at the end for ‘saving’ her. She saves herself (and Toby) and, at the conclusion of the film, pointedly orders her companions to stay behind as she faces Jareth alone. At the end, Sarah is an independent woman who knows her own mind and is able to stand up for herself. This is a show of independence, bravery, and self-esteem that we don’t often see from the fairy tale/fantasy genre, as it isn’t coupled with overly aggressive or angry statements or actions by Sarah. She isn’t weak, but nor is she violent or shrewish; she is simply confident in herself.
This, I feel, is exactly what every father should hope his daughter will become – brave, kind, confident, and willing to say ‘no’ to trouble, no matter how stuffed their codpiece might be.