Spoiler alert: For anyone who has reached puberty without seeing Beauty and the Beast, go and have a serious talk with the parents/guardians/wolves who raised you, and explain to them that because of their inattention, this post is going to give away some of the plot before you’ve had a chance to experience it onscreen. Then watch the film and be amazed.
As long-term fans may remember, this blog has Tangled with Disney before, in this previous post about Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. It’s not a classic Disney film, but it’s worth a watch if you like gutsy heroines and, er, diving horses. However, Beauty and the Beast is the first instantly-recognisable Disney film to go under the magnifying glass, and is particularly pertinent to a feminist critique since it features one of those oh-so lovable yet highly controversial figures, the Disney Princess. Loved and loathed for their peppy charm, admirable gumption and anatomically impossible waists, these heroines have sparked plenty of debate among recent generations of women, as we struggle to rationalise our horror at the helplessness and shallow morals that often epitomise these characters with the fact we spent the first eight years of our lives wanting to be one. Yes, I had the Ariel doll (the one with the Velcro tail you could take on and off, it was, like, awesome), and yes, I now die a little inside every time I’m reminded she was sixteen in the film.
I won’t patronise you with the details of this girl-meets-beast love story, but it’s worth noting that Beauty and the Beast is one of the more compelling love stories to feature a Disney Princess. While many of the notable ones start out pining for Prince Charming and then swoon on sight of him, Belle and Beast initially have a rather tense relationship (he kidnaps her father and holds her hostage, she nearly destroys his magical rose, etc) before discovering that perhaps they do find the other rather dishy. The fantastic soundtrack, with its understated but evocative songs, certainly help convey the sweet and sincere affection between them. Besides this, the film works hard to make Belle a brave, brainy and caring character who aspires to more than the role her provincial town can give her. Look past the singing candlesticks and vague mentions of not judging a book by its cover, however, and you’ll see the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of this Disney Princess tale.
Bookworm Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara) is the outcast in her sleepy French village, and that’s before she takes up with an unusually hairy fellow in a gloomy castle. Mrs Potts (voiced by Angela Lansbury, of The Manchurian Candidate fame) is a cook cursed to take the form of a teapot. The imaginatively named ‘Wardrobe’ (Jo Anne Worley) is a steam iron – jokes, she’s a wardrobe, who comforts Belle when the latter is imprisoned by Beast. Babette is a feather duster, voiced by Mary Kay Bergman, who, in an interesting career twist, did many of the female voices for South Park.
Hmm, I’m going to say it passes, but only just, thanks to a scene where Mrs Potts and Wardrobe tell Belle that even though she’s now looking at a lifetime spent as a prisoner of a beast with horrible manners and a vile temper, and will never see her father or her home again, it will all be fine. And then Mrs Potts goes back to the kitchen to finish cooking dinner. No, really.
How are women represented?
To give Disney credit, they really tried to give Belle more depth than has been afforded to other Disney Princesses. From the first song we are shown that Belle rebels against the fixed role that is accepted and prescribed for her by the townspeople and Gaston. The townspeople cannot fathom why Belle seems so discontented with their sleepy village, where no one is interested in hearing the story of Jack and the Beanstalk (maybe they’ve read that one), and where – horror of horrors – the baker sells the same old bread and rolls everyday (apparently this is a big issue for Belle, who would presumably be horrified by the concept of Tesco). Luckily, to quote Gaston’s assessment, she’s gorgeous, so rather than gathering the pitchforks, the townspeople are just a little bemused by the oddball. Thus far, the message Disney is sending us ladies is that it’s good to want more than the narrow life your home offers you, but you better make damn sure you’re good-looking with it if you want to be tolerated rather than alienated. Right. Excellent.
Then we have Gaston, he of the chin and excessive biceps. Since we recognise him as The Bad Guy, we automatically understand that his idea of the perfect woman is Wrong. Gaston wants a pretty little wife to roast the various animal corpses he brings home, massage his stinky, post-hunting feet, and pump out six or seven strapping boys. Yikes. He, and apparently the townspeople, are also against women reading, since this might lead to them ‘getting ideas and thinking’. It’s unclear what might come next, but the point is, it’s not good. Thus, Gaston has helpfully created a Wrong image of women that can be contrasted with Belle to show the latter’s deep and intelligent nature, thereby countering all those nasty accusations that Disney Princesses are superficial wimps.
Belle has been set up as a character who goes against this limited image of women, but what is she actually like? Disney take great pains to show her as a free-spirit with a sense of adventure, who values imagination, is caring towards her father, polite towards the servants, unphased by the fact her captor is a bad-tempered monster, willing to give up her bold dreams and her freedom to save her father, and brave enough to speak her mind and challenge everyone’s expectations that she become Mrs Gaston and make with the babies and spit roasts. Running into the fields beyond the village and away from Gaston, she declares that she wants ‘adventure in the great wide somewhere’, and ‘so much more than they’ve got planned’, an open declaration of her desire to escape the confines of her small village and the role assigned to her. When Gaston tries to pressure her into conforming to this narrow life, barging into her house and declaring that they are going to get married, she points out that she does not deserve this, meaning she deserves more than what he’s offering. She frees herself from his advances by opening a door to the yard and causing him to fall down into a puddle. This rather nice image symbolises her desire to get rid of obstacles that stand in the way of her chance to move outside the confines of a home and to find new opportunities.
Just from this, we’ve seen that in Belle, Disney have given us a character who is determined to go against the narrow role society has prescribed for her, and to find adventure for herself. However, this positive beginning doesn’t end happily ever after. I’ve split this post into two sections (loosely positive and negative sides), partly to give your poor eyes a rest, and obviously to let your brains calculate the ground-breaking, life-changing insights offered thus far, but also to allow anyone who is averse to having films from their childhood picked apart for their poor representations of women to close this tab. I agree that it’s frustrating to realise that films you loved were subconsciously leading you astray, but I also believe that being able to see the problems in a film does not render it less enjoyable as a work of entertainment. If that were the case, no one would be able to sit through the first three minutes of Gone with the Wind. If you agree with me, come back for part two, which includes more berating of that awful baker (the one who makes the same old bread and rolls every day, or Satan, as we know him), an analysis of the poor business plan of the village bookseller (shocking fact: he’s not a librarian), and, of course, actual analysis of the negative elements of the representation of women in this classic.
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