Tag Archives: Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast (1991): Part Two

Image

The public reading of ‘Babe’ was proving immensely popular.

Spoiler alert: If you still haven’t managed to watch this film, cancel your one o’clock, grab the popcorn and watch it now. If that’s just not possible, or you simply cannot deny yourself the pleasure of reading this magnificent post first, be aware that there will be spoilers. And more moaning about that baker.

 Welcome to part two of LttL’s first attempt to destroy your love of classic Disney films. No, not really. Actually, the plan is to offer you the chance to look beyond the heartfelt romance, sharp banter and singing clock, and examine it with a more critical eye. As we discovered in Part One, Disney have set up a female character who wants more than the role prescribed for her by her society. Belle is intelligent, imaginative, brave and desperate for adventure. This makes her a bit of an oddball in her town, which boasts an illiterate population, a horny hunter and a terrible baker (selling the same old bread and rolls every day, the monster), not to mention a lot of sheep. However, as noted, she’s beautiful, so they can cope with her fancy ideas about reading. Just about.

The topic of beauty gets a rather contradictory treatment in this film. The prince is cursed because he turns away an old hag, who then turns out to be a hot young sorceress who curses him for his shallowness. The message, then, is that appearances can be deceptive, and you shouldn’t judge people by their looks. That’s all well and good, but why couldn’t the hag have simply pointed this out? In order to gain power over the prince, she had to reveal her physical beauty, thereby suggesting that only good-looking women can have power over men. The emphasis on Belle’s beauty (which, as Francophiles and GCSE French students will tell you, starts with her name) also suggests that the only reason her differences are accepted is because she is beautiful. Belle is oblivious to her own good looks and she doesn’t judge others by their outward appearance, turning down the chiselled chin and bulging biceps of Gaston in favour of a hairy, scruffy, poorly-mannered Beast. However, these preferences are only extraordinary because Belle herself adheres to society’s ideals of beauty, that is to say, she’s white, with an impossibly slender hourglass figure, straight brown hair with a slight wave at the ends, and enormous eyes. If she were, say, a hag, she wouldn’t be a celebrated and kind-spirited heroine, she would be accepting her rightful place in society. The message Disney is sending women is that you shouldn’t judge men by their appearance, but that you should absolutely be beautiful if you want to have any power.

Let’s move on from Belle’s looks, because, as Disney have gone to great pains to show us, not only is she the local beauty, but she’s intelligent, imaginative and craves adventure, which is something she finds through her reading. Upon examining Belle’s reading material, however, we find a disturbing contradiction between her supposed desire for adventure, and what she actually seems to want.

Early in the film, she outlines the plot of her favourite book for the bookshop owner, a man who will surely be going out of business imminently. (Seriously, his attitude is unbelievable. As we’ve learned, Belle is the only woman in the village who reads, and the men find her hobby rather uninspiring too (or at least the baker does, but he’s an unimaginative individual). Furthermore, the bookseller (which the sign outside identifies him as) doesn’t seem to understand that he’s running a shop, not a library: Belle, his only customer, breezes in, declaring she’s just returning a book she borrowed, and rather than pointing out that this might otherwise be known as theft, the man proceeds to give her another one for free. No wonder the book trade is in so much trouble.) She tells him that the reason she loves it so much is because it’s about ‘Far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise’. The last two elements foreshadow events in the rest of the film, and all of them are exciting and extraordinary, particularly when you’re facing the prospect of eating the same old bread and rolls every day (just too horrible) in a sleepy French village.

So which bit of this fantastic, totally out-there book is her favourite? The exotic locations? The stunts? The spells? The royalty-flavoured twist? No, she tells the sheep, her favourite part is where the heroine meets Prince Charming (but she won’t discover that it’s him until chapter three). And with that one mushy sentiment, our independent, daring rebel reveals that while she thinks all that adventure is sort of cool, what’s actually ‘amazing’ is meeting a man. Oh Disney. Oh Belle. Even the sheep is disgusted. Ultimately, it turns out that all these kooky characteristics are just flavouring: enough to make her seem like an interesting character, especially when compared with Gaston’s image of his little wife and the swooning identical triplets (don’t get me started on the bleak representation of triplets in this film), but not something she would actually act on. Good god, no.

And so, after declaring her passionate desire to explore the great wide somewhere, Belle willingly returns to an isolated castle to live happily ever after with a man she barely knows. The relationship between Beast and Belle is more complex than your usual Disney fodder, thanks in some part to the comparison with Gaston’s feelings for Belle. Gaston wants Belle solely because she’s the most beautiful girl in town, whereas Beast values her selflessness, courage and kindness. Gaston chastises her for reading, before tossing her favourite book in a puddle, whereas Beast gives her an entire library. There is certainly more substance in their relationship, but it still posits them within traditional gender roles.

One thing that should be said in favour of this romantic pairing is that the verbal sparring between the two characters does contribute to an image of them as equal partners in this relationship. Neither is afraid to stand up to and defy the other if they believe they’re in the wrong. However, once the relationship has been established, Belle loses most of the adventurous spirit that made her more than your generic romantic heroine in the first place. From being the main character whose experiences and desires dictate the plot, Belle effectively becomes important only as Beast’s saviour. This is a fairly common trope in romantic films: the quirky but pretty female outcast, whose charming personality and adventurous spirit help the reserved man, trapped in a rut by his own dark nature, to find the good side of life and thereby improve himself. These female characters often come dressed in fairy wings, playing harps and making cupcakes for kittens, but the essential story of the good woman with no needs of her own other than to be loved, who rescues the man so he can contribute to society, is as old as time. Or at least as old as stories. Of course, Beast does save Belle when she’s attacked by wolves in the forest, but this also plays into traditional gender roles, whereby the strong, courageous man puts himself in harm’s way to protect the woman, who is left to dab up the blood and stick a bandage on it. Oh Disney.

Verdict

Belle is a deeply lovable character, at least initially, thanks to her intelligence, kindness and rebellion against her small town life and its rubbish bread. However, the emphasis on her appearance and the fact she fades into the role of love interest means that ultimately this representation fails to challenge gender roles. Of course, this is a twenty two-year-old Disney Princess story, so it’s hardly surprising that a radical challenge to gender roles was not exactly on the cards. The romance and songs are just as good as you remember, so sing along with Be Our Guest, and mist up a bit in Tale as Old as Time, but always remember we deserve more from a heroine.

Do you agree with this verdict? Let everyone know what you think with a comment. If you enjoyed reading this, and have friends with similarly awesome taste, don’t forget to share it with them. Make sure you follow the blog so you never miss the chance to read more of the same.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Beauty and the Beast (1991): Part One

Image

Belle wasn’t convinced by Gaston’s claim to be the real Christian Grey.

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.

Plot

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.

Leading Ladies

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.

Bechdel Test

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.

 

Liked what you’ve seen so far? Disagreed with my perspective? Got some angry words to share about that damn baker? Don’t forget to share this post with your friends on Facebook, Twitter and The Whole Internet, and give us your comments below.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized