Saturday, February 16, 2013

Don't Blame Beauty and the Beast

I've read about this in several places on the Internet-- that the well-known fairy-tale story "Beauty and the Beast" is nothing more than a justification for women to stay with abusive men.  As the blogger on Not Language But a Map puts it in her narrative about being shown the Disney film version by a college professor:

She laid it out for us fairly neatly, because—and again, I say this as someone who loves this film—the movie Beauty and the Beast is a fairly cut-and-dried abuse-apologist narrative. It is quite literally a movie about a woman who takes a ~wild beast~ and tames him with her love. It is a movie that says, “Here is a man who is literally a beast, and here is a woman who shows him love despite that! And lo, her love changes him. Her love makes him better. Her love saves him. Her love—quite literally—transforms him from the dangerous and abusive personality he is at the beginning of the film into someone else entirely.” In short, it is a movie that says, “If you love your abuser enough, they’ll stop being abusive. You just need to love them more. It’s your job to love them, to fix them, to change them.” Which is, of course, a terrible and dangerous and very pervasive lie.

There was, naturally, backlash from the room. We’d all loved this movie since we were children, and none of us wanted to see it the way she was showing it to us. None of us wanted to have to acknowledge what she was saying, both because it made something we loved feel less worthy of loving and because it made us feel shitty for not having recognized it ourselves. Eventually, one girl raised her hand and said, “Okay, I see what you’re saying, but come on. We’re all adults here; it’s not like anybody is watching this and taking it seriously, or thinking that, like, the Beast is a good boyfriend model or whatever! I mean, for god’s sake, it’s a kid’s movie.”

My professor rounded on her heel, pointed a finger at the girl, and said, “Exactly.” Just like that, the room went silent.


This clip brings to light the normalization and romanticization of partner abuse in Beauty and the Beast. As scholars in the documentary argue, the film teaches girls that a woman should be patient and supportive of her abusive partner in order to help him change his behavior (i.e., transform into a prince). Such messages are harmful when, in reality, women and girls should be encouraged to leave abusive relationships and seek help if their partner is mean, violent, and coercive. After screening the clip, instructors might ask some of the following questions: What are the types of partner abuse we see in this clip? How does Disney sugarcoat the Beast’s abuse as “just a short temper?” How might these messages about the normalization and romanticization of partner abuse be dangerous to children? The clip is a great segue into a broader discussion of how femininity is represented in Disney films. What desirable feminine qualities are associated with princesses (e.g., beauty, helplessness, passivity, etc)?

I can see the point they are making, but I think some of the assumptions they are taking for granted ought to be examined more closely.  Is this really essentially a story about a woman who redeems an abuser with her love?  Is it really a message to the abused that they should put up with abuse? For one thing, the Disney version was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, which I think is a pretty good indication that there might be some fairly deep, important themes going on in it.  And of course there is also the original fairy tale, which originally arose out of the oral folktale tradition and has been retold in many incarnations.  One of my favorite fantasy authors, Robin McKinley, has written two novels which are direct retellings of this story, and many others which are inspired by it.  As she puts it:

I’ve read every version of B&B I can lay hands on, but my Beauty and the Beast is a part of me, like an arm or a leg. Or like the ground a rose-bush is planted in: I can’t do without it, it nourishes me. I used to say—truthfully—that I was jealous of readers who ‘went’ to BEAUTY as an escape from boring ordinary life, because by writing the story I’d exorcised the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST in my head. It grew back. Then I wrote ROSE DAUGHTER. This time there wasn’t any nonsense about exorcism. My Beauty and the Beast is still in the back of my mind or the bottom of my heart, full of roses and romance. If I’m very, very, very, very, very lucky I may get to write it a third time. Or a sixth or a sixtieth. Most of my stories are more or less versions of Beauty and the Beast. In the afterword to ROSE I say that someone has declared that each author has only one story, it’s how they retell it. Yes. Mine is Beauty and the Beast.
[Emphases in original.]

Ms. McKinley obviously feels that there is something very special about this tale, just as a tale.  I have always felt so, too-- and though I can see the concern about the Beast's behavior in the movie, and I think it's a very valid concern, I would hate to see this story censored point-blank from our culture or forbidden to our children.  Maybe there are good reasons why people love this movie and this fairy tale.  Maybe there are reasons why kids love it-- and not just because they're too innocent to see the "real" message. 

Beauty and the Beast, in its essence, is a story against prejudice.  It's a story about looking past the surface of things and seeing the value underneath. And it would be such a pity if people could not apply that very principle to the story itself, and could not look past the apparent justification of domestic violence which is on the surface, to the message which is deeper, and which is the reason, I think, why this story has always resonated so with its audiences.  

Laura Beres of the University of Toronto takes a more nuanced approach to the domestic violence issue in her 1999 paper Beauty and the Beast: the Romanticization of Abuse in Popular Culture.  She does say:

[I]n [stories such as] Beauty and the Beast, the hero is initially controlling and distant, if not blatantly abusive, and has been hurt in his past by a woman, or women, which has contributed to his distant and unloving manner. By being loved by the heroine, he can heal from his past experiences and become the perfect partner for her.

but she also adds :

I think I have been clear, but want to reiterate before examining texts that I am considering the possible meanings which could be taken from these texts by women who are attempting to make sense of their context of living with an abusive partner. I am not assuming that anyone else would take these same meanings.

Perhaps one of the reasons many people tend not to see normalization of domestic violence as a message of the fairy tale or movie unless someone points it out to them, is because this is essentially, fundamentally, not what this story is about.  I think it is a potentially dangerous inference which it is possible to see-- and that, particularly for women and children who have lived with domestic violence as if it were a normal occurrence, this inference ought to be pointed out as not a healthy message to take from the story.  But to see it as the message of this story, and to jettison the story accordingly, could mean missing out on some very positive impacts that the story is capable of imparting.

Here's a portion of one version of the original fairy tale, in which the Beast gives Beauty's father hospitality but turns on him for stealing a rose from the garden, sparing his life in return for Beauty being brought to his castle:

In the beginning, Beauty was frightened of the Beast, and shuddered at the sight of it. Then she found that, in spite of the monster's awful head, her horror of it was gradually fading as time went by. She had one of the finest rooms in the Castle, and sat for hours, embroidering in front of the fire. And the Beast would sit, for hours on end, only a short distance away, silently gazing at her. Then it started to say a few kind words, till in the end, Beauty was amazed to discover that she was actually enjoying its conversation. The days passed, and Beauty and the Beast became good friends. . .

"If you swear that you will return here in seven days time, I'll let you go and visit your father!" Beauty threw herself at the Beast's feet in delight. . .

Beauty was happy at last. However, she had failed to notice that seven days had gone by.

Then one night she woke from a terrible nightmare. She had dreamt that the Beast was dying and calling for her, twisting in agony.

"Come back! Come back to me!" it was pleading. The solem [sic] promise she had made drove her to leave home immediately.

"Hurry! Hurry, good horse!" she said, whipping her steed onwards towards the castle, afraid that she might arrive too late. She rushed up the stairs, calling, but there was no reply. Her heart in her mouth, Beauty ran into the garden and there crouched the Beast, its eyes shut, as though dead. Beauty threw herself at it and hugged it tightly.

"Don't die! Don't die! I'll marry you . . ." At these words, a miracle took place. The Beast's ugly snout turned magically into the face of a handsome young man.

"How I've been longing for this moment!" he said. "I was suffering in silence, and couldn't tell my frightful secret. An evil witch turned me into a monster and only the love of a maiden willing to accept me as I was, could transform me back into my real self. My dearest! I'll be so happy if you'll marry me . . ."


According to the SurLaLune Fairy Tales website, this story is related to the Greek "Cupid and Psyche" myth and to other tales where a young woman who is forced to marry does not recognize the true nature of her husband.  The original idea behind these tales may have been to encourage girls who entered arranged marriages with older men to look beyond appearances and learn to appreciate their husbands for who they were.  This, of course, is hardly an ideal for marriage, and it is a very good thing that women are free today to choose their own partners.  But one thing that seems to be in common in most of these original stories is that the Beast is uniformly gentle with Beauty; that he never offers her violence or abuse either verbally or physically, except to require her to stay with him (which he then relents of).  The idea is not that by choosing to love a vicious creature, Beauty changes him to a gentle one.  Rather, by being willing to see him as gentle and kind as he really is despite his outward appearance, Beauty releases the Beast to become outwardly as beautiful as he has been inwardly all along.  Thus the story is about overcoming prejudice and looking past the surface to see the real human being beneath.

Robin McKinley's versions focus on this aspect, with the twist that both her Beauty characters and her Beast characters need to learn to appreciate the other.  What she calls "my Beauty and the Beast" is thus about how two beings (and sometimes, by implication, two societies) who are strange to one another, learn to see past their differences.

It's true that the Disney version changes the original tale quite a bit.  But I think seeing it as a story where a woman chooses to love an abuser and thus turns him around, misses the points the Disney authors were trying to make.  That they did succeed at some level in making these points is testified to by the Academy Award nomination.  There are actually some very important and valuable themes of this movie which I think audiences picked up on, while they tended to miss the whole "normalization of domestic violence" dynamic.

First-- and it's somewhat ironic that those who wish to champion women seem to miss this-- the Disney story actually begins with a woman pronouncing judgment, and the story is all about the unfolding repercussions of the enchantress's curse.  Isn't it a distortion of the story to ignore that first female catalyst character? The woman at the beginning of the story is the archetypical "wise woman" of the fairy tale tradition. Her judgment is wise and sound, and it is the reason for the whole rest of the plot.

The Beast is cursed. This is extremely important, and if this element is not understood as a crucial part of the story, the message of the story becomes disrupted.  The point is that the Beast is a beast. Literally, a beast-- and he has been turned into a beast as part of a judgment for his sins.  I believe it's very important not to let our modern, rationalistic mindset blind us to the central role that the supernatural plays in this tale.  In a very real sense, the original fairy tale was not about the Beast-- it was about Beauty, and what she learns about the difference between outward perception and the inner nature.  But the Disney version begins by focusing not on Beauty, but on the Beast-- and thus adds a whole new element to the the tale of overcoming prejudice.  In Disney's hands it becomes a tale of judgment, repentance and redemption.

The magic element in this story is the spell of judgment performed by the enchantress at the beginning. She sees that the young man is a beast and turns him into what he really is, in order for him to eventually see himself for who he is, which is necessary for him to take responsibility. If you take the magic element out of this story, it turns into something else-- and that something else is normalization of domestic violence. Putting it in purely human, natural terms means the story is no longer "Beauty and the Beast." It's "Beauty and the abusive man." And as "Beauty and the abusive man" it doesn't and cannot work-- because the essential theme of supernatural judgment, repentance and redemption are lost.

This theme is brought out even more clearly by the addition of Gaston to the movie version.  There was no Gaston-type character in the original fairy tale at all.  But he is there in the Disney version as a foil for the Beast, to help make the point about what the Beast is really all about.  Gaston is everything the Beast is not.  He is outwardly handsome, while the Beast is outwardly ugly.  He is confident and superficially (if arrogantly) charming-- while the Beast is surly and, let's face it, bestial.  And it is Gaston who shows us that the Beast is not actually the real abuser in this version.

The fact is that both the Beast and Gaston act abusively towards Belle.  The Beast imprisons her in a castle, roars at her and attempts to deny her food.  But Gaston stalks her, refuses to accept her plain "no" as a "no," and finally attempts to marry her against her will.  The Beast acts as he does towards Belle because the animal nature has taken him over. Gaston has no such excuse.

Belle, by her presence, shows the Beast what it is to be human again.  I think it's also important to note that Belle does not actually accept the Beast's abusive treatment of her.  She locks herself in her room at first,  and then flees.  When he rescues her, she tells him straight out that he should not have treated her that way.  She does not begin to accept him until he begins to show signs of becoming acceptable.  No woman should ever put up with such treatment from a man. But the Beast is not a man.  He has, through the wise woman's curse, become a beast-- and as a beast, the rules regarding him are different. He needs to see Belle's reaction to his beastly behavior, in order to see himself as the beast he is.  He needs to watch Belle be human, to learn what it means to be human.

In the end, the Beast shows that he has indeed learned how to be human, by turning away from killing Gaston even though it means his own death. Gaston, secure in his supposed humanity, learns nothing, and by his beastly behavior shows that he is spiritually the real beast.

I really can't see the Beast as an abuser who gets redeemed by a true woman's love-- because it's not her love that redeems him. It's his. The Beast redeems himself through learning how to love, arising out of self-awareness, acknowledgment of responsibility, and repentance.  He thus becomes inwardly a person once more: a person who can love and be loved-- and this is what breaks the curse and makes him outwardly the prince that he has finally truly become. 

Anyway, I think children watching the movie, because they still believe in magic, tend to "get" this more easily than adults.  Unless children are raised in violent homes, they really don't need to be told "it's not ok in real life for a man to treat a woman like this." They already know-- but they can't articulate it, so it's easy for experts to come along years later and explain what's wrong with the story that they never saw before. But maybe it's not that they didn't see it because no one told them. Maybe they didn't see it because that really wasn't what the story was about.

I'm not saying we should ignore the potential problem of what this movie could impart, particularly to those already in abusive situations, about domestic violence.  But I am saying that we should see the positive messages that this story-- in both its Disney and fairy-tale versions--- really does have to tell. We should combat the normalization of partner abuse wherever the temptation to see it as normal arises.  But I don't think the real message of this story, in either incarnation, is that domestic violence should be seen as normal or as something women should accept in the hope of changing the abuser.

We live in a world where women do receive messages that they should ignore their own needs, and even their own safety, and just be sweet.  We live in a world where women receive messages that abusers really don't mean it and should be lived with anyway.  We live in a world where abusers blame the abused and claim that they wouldn't act abusive if they were treated better.  And sometimes these messages get transmitted through popular stories, movies and memes.

And all of this stinks.  And it's wrong.  And it ought to be stopped.

But I don't think it's fair to blame Beauty and the Beast.  That's really not what the story, in its essence, is about. 

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you wrote about this because it's been pretty much my favoutire film from childhood and I'm sad to see it maligned.

'It's not Belle's love that changes him, it's his love'

I think that's an important point. The beast HAS to try to keep Belle at his castle and he HAS to start acting as if he loves her because otherwise he's going to be trapped as a beast forever. This is a fairy tale device with no real world parallel, and we are invited in the early scenes to fear and loathe the beast for capturing Belle like that.

Belle doesn't take any crap from the Beast and we know that he doesn't desire to control her, he just needs her in the castle because otherwise he'll be cursed forever. The desire to control someone is one of the major reasons why abusers abuse but the beast doesn't have this desire at all. He's desperate to be physically human again. He doesn't manipulate her, either. All his cards are on the table all the time and he tries hard to be pleasant but never manages it because his temper makes it impossible. I think that's important because so many abusers use charm, lies, promises, begging, etc to manipulate their victims to go back with them. When she leaves, the beast risks his life and fights off a pack of wolves for Belle, showing his first signs of goodness.

Growing up, my Dad had a temper and would lash out and it had a bad effect on me. I recognised his behaviour in the behaviour of the Beast and that made the film more relatable to me. But even so, I don't remember ever reading 'hey girls - stay with an abusive man and he'll change!' into the movie. The point for me was that he HAD to change otherwise she would never have stayed with him and he would have been cursed forever. Back then and even now the first and most important thing I want in my future husband is someone who is even-tempered, so clearly it didn't give me the messgae that abuse is OK.

I think it's a real shame to dismiss this film, not just because it's so beautiful and magical, but because Belle is such an unusual heroine. She has so many qualities that are unusual in a female heroine. She's introverted, bookish, a dreamer, a loner who can't fit into other people's expectations. For me as a child, Belle was what I felt I was, but she was also what I wanted to be when I grew up. I know of no other character I could have said that about. To me she said 'It's OK to be like you and to want what you want'.

If people are worried about the message they see in the film they ought to just talk to their kids about it and make sure they know the difference between this fairy tale and real life. Don't try to shelter them from a film that has so many good themes and messages.

Anonymous said...

...sorry to hijack the comment thread but on re-reading your post I noticed something else:

"After screening the clip, instructors might ask some of the following questions: What are the types of partner abuse we see in this clip?"

The question is utterly invalid because at the point where the beast is raging at Belle, they are NOT PARTNERS! There is no hint of the 'he abuses me but I love him so I stay and hope he'll change' narrative there. She has hated him since the moment she met him because he has stolen her father, her freedom and her dreams, and she's only in the castle because she absolutely has to be. He is abusive to his PRISONER, not his PARTNER. She only even starts to warm up to him slightly when he becomes much less of a jerk and risks his life to save her.

They have also conveniently not mentioned the fact that Belle has promised to stay in the castle and when she runs away she says 'Promise or no promise, I can't stay here another minute!'. This could be seen as being in opposition to the (generally church-promoted) idea that a woman should say 'Well, when I married him I promised to love him for better or worse so I'd better stick with him and hope he changes'. John Piper would not be pleased by Belle's actions!

When she runs away, that's when the beast realises that his temper has driven her away and he knows he has to change or he'll be a beast forever. At that point, it's absolutely nothing to do with Belle's love changing him. She just acts as a mirror to how repulsive his behaviour really is, because she's the only person he has ever had to win over, the only person whose opinions and feelings he has ever had to consider.

'How does Disney sugarcoat the Beast’s abuse as “just a short temper?”'

As I said in my previous comment, the beast's abuse IS 'just' a short temper - he's not a liar, manipulator, or violent towards Belle (though he does physically intimidate her), and he doesn't seek to control her actions or behaviour for the sake of his ego. But they hardly sugarcoat his temper. It has ruined his life to the point that he has turned into an unloveable beast who will stay an unloved recluse forever unless he changes. Hardly 'sugar-coating'!

Kristen said...

Anonymous, these are very good insights! I do think that when the Beast tells the servants that if Beauty won't eat with him, she is not to eat at all, he is attempting to control her. The servants, however, simply ignore him. I do think it's more than "temper" -- I think it's abuse-- but I think the movie viewer can also see the servants' point of view. They need Beauty to see past the beastliness of the Beast, because the real human is in there somewhere, and if Beauty leaves, they're all sunk. The fact that the Beast is a beast is the all-important factor that the movie's detractors seem to want to ignore.

But the fact that they are not partners during the time the Beast is being abusive is very important, and I'm glad you pointed it out!

Andrew said...

I feel like there's a contradiction here and wondered if you could clarify.

On the one hand, you argue that the Beast is a 'beast' inwardly, and his appearance is changed to reflect his nature. The narrative of sin, repentance, and redemption seems to rely on his free will - that he chooses to be a beast, and then learns the error of his ways and chooses to be a good man.

Then you dismiss his abusive behaviour towards Belle as "animal nature has taken him over" - as if the spell is impeding his free will and causing his bestial behaviour, rather than simply reflecting it outwardly. This would seem to undermine his ability to repent.

I don't know if you can excuse his behaviour on these grounds and also argue for a redemption narrative.

Would really appreciate some clarification on this point. Enjoyed the article though, some really interesting insights. I wasn't aware of the connection with Cupid/Psyche for instance.

Kristen said...

Andrew, I think there is always a dynamic within the human soul between the will and the "flesh," as it is called in Christianity. Once you give in to the flesh (i.e., that in our nature which is selfish and self-gratifying even at the expense of others), it gains momentum and becomes-- well, like an object in motion that tends to stay in motion.

You could say that the animal nature has taken over the Beast because he has allowed it to take over, but beastliness is also his natural state-- and I think it's also fair to say that once he has allowed it to take over, he is overpowered by it. Belle's reaction (shutting him out, fleeing from him) startles him into awareness of the beastliness of what he's doing, so that he can begin to make an effort to exercise his will against that nature.

I don't think we can say, even as non-enchanted humans, that there is a strict either-or binary between free will and compulsion by our own natures. Often we need help to see and exert our wills against our natural desires.

In any event, I didn't intend to either "dismiss" or "excuse" the Beast's behavior, so much as to show that his natural state as a beast was to be beastly, and it required an effort of his will to begin learning to be human again.

Anonymous said...

You're right, I totally forgot that the Beast tells Beauty she can't eat unless she eats with him, which is of course abusive (although it's more a moment of rage than part of an attempt to systematically break down her spirit and confidence).

When I said the Beast had 'just' a temper, I didn't intend to imply that he wasn't abusive (I acknowledged that he was abusive towards Belle as his prisoner). What I meant was that the Beast wasn't intended to be a character study of an abuser. If Disney wanted to do that, they could have done it very well - look at the witch in 'Tangled' or Frollo in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'. They use a bunch of classic abuse tactics to completely diminish the self-worth and confidence of others, and to make them afraid, to retain control over them. Instead, as an abuser the Beast is basically a very selfish man with a terrible temper. Disney cannot be accused of 'sugar-coating' his abuse; the Beast is who he is, no more or less.

Maybe when they say 'sugar-coating' the abuse they mean because Belle withstands his behviour very well. But that's clearly because she has the servants supporting her and showing sympathy. That's not 'sugar-coating', that's shaping a narrative. If the Beast had broken her spirit or even tried to do so, then it would have been a very different film.

Anonymous said...

Oops, meant to say: "You're right, I totally forgot that the Beast tells Beauty she can't eat unless she eats with him, which is of course CONTROLLING (although it's more a moment of rage than part of an attempt to systematically break down her spirit and confidence)."

You're right that he story needed Gaston. Gaston keeps on abusing and controlling but the Beast doesn't, he starts to care about Belle's freedom and desires. I think that the filmmakers needed to show that contrast, too.

Andrew Bissette said...

Thanks for replying to me - given me something to chew on. Enjoying the blog! :)