I Can’t Believe What My Kid Is Watching, Part I: Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”
As someone admittedly prone to negativity in my posts, I suppose it’s rather unusual that I have never posted a negative movie review on this blog. That is, until today. Since this will be my first movie-related rant, I might as well make it a double feature, and make the theme kids’ movies. This is Part I: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991). Part II: Pixar’sCars 2 (2011) will follow shortly.
To be clear, I don’t think writers maliciously slip objectionable ideas and horrible values into children’s movies. At least I hope they don’t. But every once in a while, I see an animated film with my son, and my reaction is, what they HELL were they thinking? In the case of Beauty and the Beast and Cars 2, I really am curious as to what went on in those story conferences or what comments were made on initial screenplay drafts, because honestly, what the fuck.
Let me explain.
I am not going to spend much time on the misogyny in this movie, except to say that yes, I agree 100% that Beauty and the Beast conveys some horribly retrograde and damaging ideas about abusive relationships (where the abuse is exacerbated by a huge money and power imbalance, no less), and about women’s role in them. (Strength-in-weakness, dignity-in-humiliation, staying-in-an-abusive-relationship-to-show-you-are-strong-enough-to-take-it, and all that nonsense.) But that has been written about to death. What I want to focus on is the fact that pointing out the sexist stuff barely scratches the surface of what’s wrong with the story.
Let’s warm up with the prologue. Once upon a time, in a faraway land (rural France), a young prince lived in a shining castle. Although he had everything his heart desired (except mom and dad; then again, maybe his heart didn’t desire parents?), the prince was spoiled, selfish and unkind.
Allow me to pause for some touchy-feely observations here. The prince is a few days shy of his eleventh birthday. Yes, eleventh. We know this because we are explicitly told that (A) he has until his twenty-first birthday to break the spell; (B) by the time Belle arrives in the castle, the rose that symbolizes the hope of breaking the spell has already begun to wilt – and in fact, the spell is broken just as the last petal falls, so it’s the prince’s twenty-first birthday; and (C) “ten years we’ve been rusting,” Lumière sings at one point. So yeah, eleven. Minus a few days.
So, we have an (almost) eleven-year-old child, apparently an orphan – because his parents are clearly not around – living in isolation, amid immense wealth, his only company a bunch of servants catering to his every whim, and not a single teacher or mentor in sight. Exactly how would you expect this youngster to behave? I am entirely in favor of holding adults responsible for their boorish behavior, but this is a kid; a kid who hasn’t exactly had the best upbringing and doesn’t have any appropriate role models.
Anyway, one dark and stormy night, the evilest witch ever put to celluloid (whom the Narrator euphemistically calls an “Enchantress”) knocks on the door of the castle and asks for shelter from the elements. The young prince does exactly what all parents teach their kids to do when a skeevy-looking stranger (or any kind of stranger) tries to get into the house – which is to tell her to get lost. She then offers him a trinket, but he “sneered at the gift”, just like he would sneer at candy offered by a man-in-a-van. Charity is all well and good, and it’s quite possible this kid is nasty, but let’s agree this particular test of his character was not well designed.
Note, the Enchantress’ presence in the deep, dark forest is immediately suspicious. We are not privy to the young prince’s exact thoughts, but he can’t be a romantic protagonist unless he’s intelligent, so let’s assume he realizes this too: beggars and homeless people are not keen on forests. Wandering into a forest is a recipe for freezing to death or getting attacked by animals. The destitute gravitate towards towns and cities, which offer the best hope of shelter and a hot meal. In those dark moments in history when beggars found themselves forcibly expelled by towns, they would still stick to major roads. Moreover, before the age of communications, Europe’s dark and vast forests were notorious bandit hideouts. This means that even from the prince’s not-yet-enlightened point of view, the beggar woman isn’t who she claims to be. All the more reason not to let her in.
And then, of course, we learn that she ISN’T, in fact, who she claims to be. She is an Enchantress possessing immense magic powers that can manipulate matter on the molecular level. She doesn’t need shelter. If she needed it, she’d conjure it up out of thin air. So what is she doing in the deep dark forest, knocking on a castle door? Why is she there in the first place? What is her purpose? To bate an eleven-year-old orphan? What, she couldn’t find a worse person on whom to practice her craft?
(Hmm, isn’t adolescent Gaston growing up somewhere nearby? I bet he’s quite a brat. Why does the Enchantress want to reform a prince but not an equally repulsive adolescent without a title? From the very beginning, we learn that a prince is more important than a non-prince in every way, even one who apparently has no principality to rule.)
The moral lesson that the Enchantress purports to teach Beast is wrong on many, many levels, not the least of which is that most of the ten years she’s given him to find true – and requited! – love would fall onto the period of adolescence and teenagehood, when even normal-looking people are too awkward and immature to form long-term relationships. But I want to stop focusing on Beast so much, or, indeed, Belle, and talk about all the other characters whose lives are utterly fucked up in the process of teaching Beast how to love.
It’s true that in any Enchanted Prince/Princess – type story, there is going to be some classism. It’s inevitable. Part of it has to do with the historical role of fairy tales as repositories of both humanity’s most grotesque fears and its rosiest fantasies. You are only one pissed-off “beggar” away from having your life completely ruined. But you are also destined for palaces and bejeweled carriages, and this working-class hell you are living through is just a fleeting test of character; that’s bovarism in a nutshell.
Yet Disney’s Beauty and the Beast isn’t merely classist. It’s suffused with feudal values to a degree that even medieval versions of the story can’t match. The Enchantress doesn’t just curse the prince, she places a spell on all his servants. Why? Their only crime is working for an asshole; and it’s not like they are dumping toxic chemicals at his behest, either, all they do is wipe his ass and cook his porridge. And yet, not only are they punished for being the prince’s servants, they are punished to a greater degree – because they have even less control over lifting the spell than Beast does (and also, their transformation is more radical).
The rationale underlying placing the spell on the servants seems to be that as servants they are mere extensions of their master; and rather like children, lack agency. This is never explicitly stated, but the story is unfailingly consistent with that notion. For all the sass the servants show Beast when he is at his most muscle-headed, their lives, their thoughts, all their efforts revolve entirely around him.(*) They don’t exist as independent beings, even in their own minds. The fact that the Enchantress turns them into literal tools, props and furniture underscores that their purpose in life is to be used by social betters. Belle eats food off of sentient plates, she (presumably) puts grimacing spoons and forks in her mouth, not at all bothered by the fact that the silverware is actually people. You know why? Because those people aren’t real people in any event, whatever shape they take. And incidentally, Belle herself shows quite a bit of disdain for her pedestrian neighbors in the opening song, despite being a rural commoner herself.
Nowhere is this more starkly apparent than in the scene just after Beast lets Belle go. Beast explains to Lumière that the reason he did what he did is that he loves Belle. And the servants just accept it. Sure, they are bummed that they won’t be human again, but they take it as a given that Beast’s rarified feelings trump all, even their basic desire to be homo sapiens. It never occurs to anyone — not to Beast, not to any of his nannies –that he owes it to them to close the deal with Belle. Jesus Christ, why does anyone even give a shit at this point about his feelings? There are hundreds of horribly trapped innocent people whose lives were ruined on Beast’s account, but can be repaired if Belle is nudged in the right direction.
Yet all the servants can do is feel sorry for Beast. “After all this time, he has finally learned to love,” Mrs. Potts waxes melancholic. That’s an impressive lack of self-regard coming from a lady who got turned into a goddamned teapot and then had sex with a skillet or whatever and gave birth to teacups, thanks for that image, Disney. Notice, Chip is clearly younger than ten. He, and most of his numerous siblings, were born as sentient china. Being teacups is all they’ve ever known, and yet his kitchen-implement-shaped parents somehow have to explain to them that they really are, or should be, human, and what being human entails. (And you thought talking to your kids about sex was uncomfortable.) But never mind any of that rubbish: Beast is the one who has it the worst, because he’s in love. In the world of Beauty and the Beast, the romantic pinings of a tortured aristocrat are the only feelings that matter. The raw suffering of the commoners? As long as they aren’t hot-looking virgins, no one cares. Not even the commoners themselves. After all, as Lumière so bluntly put it, they only live to serve. (And if that’s true, it begs the question why they should be returned to their human form at all; since they fulfill their functions quite nicely as tools.)
With that in mind, I am puzzled as to what kind of lesson the Enchantress was supposedly trying to teach here. I mean, she posed as a humble commoner looking for charity, not an ugly girl looking for love, did she? Don’t get me wrong, romantic love is awesome, but it’s never selfless, and its value as evidence of character is highly questionable. It doesn’t take much effort or personal transformation to want to bang an attractive person, and to reimagine those yearnings as something lofty and noble; all people are naturally prone to self-aggrandizement. And so, the only thing Beast seems to have learned is how to be gallant to a pretty girl he wants to lay. That’s learning to be smart, not selfless. As far as being kind and sensitive to those more humble and less powerful than him– without any expectation of a concrete reward, like sex or close companionship– it’s fair to say he spent ten years learning the opposite. The servants were dehumanized even more than the prince; even in his enchanted form, he was still recognizably a living creature, while the servants were turned into things. This only made the prince’s relationship with his domestics that much more feudal; it only reinforced and intensified the notion that they exist strictly for his convenience. At best, he’s learned how to be polite. And that his valet de chambre is merely a person-shaped household implement.
Bonus on classism: Gaston vs. Beast. I know Gaston is supposed to inspire disgust, but for the life of me, I really don’t see how he’s any worse than Beast. In many ways, he’s actually better. For every flaw that you can find in him, there is a corresponding flaw in Beast. But he also has good qualities that Beast can’t match. Ironically enough, the film goes out of its way to portray Gaston as animalistic: he sings gutturally, we are treated to sights of his unwashed toes and his hairy chest, he regales his audience with stories of eating dozens of raw eggs for breakfast, he spits, he mentions child-bearing … he is all flesh, in all its offensive, in-your-face physicality and ungainliness. Man is the real beast. It’s an intriguing idea, but the movie goes nowhere with it. Instead, it resorts to cheap shots:
He’s a misogynist who thinks women shouldn’t read! Well, yeah, in all fairness, Belle reads crap. What’s up with that, by the way? Even for a children’s movie, Belle’s reading preferences are needlessly infantile. I realize Disney can’t have her reading Crime and Punishment, but why can’t she be reading a science book? Or a history book? Or a geography book? The “ideas” she gets from books intended for five-year-olds are the same ideas that drove Emma Bovary to suicide. She doesn’t use books to learn about the world or challenge her thinking, she uses them to fantasize in ways that are both silly and, ironically, unimaginative. If dreams about giant beanstalks and princes in disguise are the kind of ideas this young woman gets from reading, maybe she should indeed be paying attention to practical things, instead. You want to see real anti-intellectualism? Beast has a giant library full of books (there are even books on the ceiling). Among his many servants, there have got to be some who can teach him how to read. And yet, in ten years of doing absolutely nothing, he never bothers to crack open a book. But we forgive him, the poor thing, and sneer at Gaston for his lack of intellectual curiosity.
Gaston shoots birds dead! That’s so cruel! And Belle, while singing about how much Gaston sucks, feeds chickens. Bet you dollars to donuts those chickens aren’t pets.
He wears socks with holes in them, ewww! Give him a break, he’s a single guy. A single guy who, unlike Beast, doesn’t have three dozen servants looking after him.
He’s so vain! He’s doing something productive with his life. He owns a successful business. He’s good-looking, and he’s popular. Maybe all that has gone to his head just a bit. But at the end of the day, he’s the kind of person who Gets Shit Done. That ability, to Get Shit Done, is something we don’t really see in Beast – and it is a very important quality to look for in a life partner.
His home décor is tacky! Maybe, but at least he cares about the way his home looks. All Beast does is destroy things.
He wants a wife who will massage his feet, eww! I know, what a pervert, right?
He blackmails Belle into agreeing to marry him by sending her father to an insane asylum! A guy who tries to use Belle’s kooky old father as a bargaining chip to get his paws on her? Oh, no! That’s unforgivable. Right? Right? And incidentally: Belle’s father IS crazy, and not just because he gets lost — while equipped with a map! — enroute to a town to which he presumably traveled many times before. Just look at his “invention”. It’s a steam-powered wood-chopper. Which chops wood to fire the furnace which heats the boiler which produces steam which powers the wood-chopper to chop more wood. And for some reason, the contraption’s got wheels and doubles as a steam-powered horseless carriage (so it will definitely consume more logs than it chops), with a seating capacity of one. When operated at full-power, it rolls forward, methodically chopping everything in its path. In other words, it’s a hilariously inefficient home appliance that doubles as a primitive weapon of mass destruction, because at this point, why the hell not.
I am not saying Gaston is a good guy, but he isn’t measurably worse than Beast, and in many ways, he’s better. In fact, the thing that makes Gaston a villain and Beast a romantic hero is that the former is a peasant and the latter an aristocrat. Moral rules excuse Beast in all kinds of things that are seen as deal-breaker transgressions when Gaston does them. Gaston’s true, biggest moral failing is being a commoner. Whenever Beast acts like, well, a beast, he always gets the benefit of the doubt – if not from Belle, then at least from the audience. When Gaston does it, he’s just a jerk. The only difference between these two men is class. Which, of course, goes back to what I was saying about the relationship between Beast and his servants.
(*)And Belle too, once she and Beast “fall in love”. However silly her daydreams were, she wanted to see the world and live a life of adventure. And yet, what’s presented as the perfect fulfillment of her dreams is marriage to an emotionally distant, socially superior aristocrat with anger issues, and living happily ever after in a remote, secluded castle, presumably pushing out babies.
A life unhappy, though comfortable, in he heart of Vanity Fair.