Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Blaming the victim: The problem with Beauty & the Beast isn't Belle but the Beast.

Note -For what it's worth, the 3D conversion left me unimpressed.  If you want to see it, do it because you want to see the picture on the big screen again, not because the 3D conversion adds any real value.  If you want to read a similar retrospective discussion of The Lion King, go HERE.  

I've long joked that I was able to ruin Disney's Beauty and the Beast merely by uttering two words: "Stockholm Syndrome".  Having sampled the film in 3D over the weekend, it remains one of the just-plain weirder Disney cartoons in recent times. It is still a highly entertaining and visually impressive bit of entertainment.  It's easy to see and remember (I was eleven when I saw it the weekend after Thanksgiving in 1991 as part of a double-sneak preview following Father of the Bride) how those who thought of Disney animated films as relative trifles like Robin Hood or Oliver and Company were knocked back by the sheer seriousness and scale on display.  Even more than The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast was arguably the first Disney cartoon since the initial batch (think Pinocchio and Bambi) that felt like a grand-scale MOVIE.  But watching it again, for the second time in two years (I bought the 2D Blu Ray over Hanukkah 2010), there are a few things that bear mentioning, both about the movie itself and the nature of how its critiqued.

First of all, the film serves as a template for how Disney cartoons would be constructed for the next fifteen years or so, give-or-take the influence of Pixar and Dreamworks.  Beauty and the Beast mixes overtly dark and serious subject matter and high drama with almost inappropriately cartoon-ish supporting characters that act as an antidote to the 'tough' moments.  The picture literally bounces from one extreme to another for much of its running time, following up a dark plot-driven scene (such as Belle being imprisoned in the castle) with a light and relatively superfluous moment (Gaston's big song, which exists only for a final moment that sets up a 'Let's get Belle's father committed!' subplot that comes and goes in ten seconds).  The same standard applies for the action finale, which establishes an iron-clad pattern that would be followed in countless later Disney films (The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, A Bug's Life, MulanTarzan, etc).  Namely, the climax has the colorful supporting characters (in this case the various servants/household items) fending off hordes of nameless enemies in a comical and crowd-pleasing fashion while the main protagonist (the Beast) and main antagonist (Gaston) square off in a brutally serious and eventually fatal showdown.  The balancing of tone, which wasn't always perfectly successful in every given picture, was the key that allowed Disney to tell grander, more adult-pleasing stories that still entertained the younger audiences.

But twenty years later, most of the discussion of the picture focuses on the core romantic arc of Belle and her deformed and cursed prince.  As I said above, I often referred to the picture as "Stockholm Syndrome: The Movie", which pretty much sums up the relationship.  On the surface, the young and beautiful Belle is imprisoned by the monstrous beast and rather quickly comes to love him as he gradually begins to go from captor to protector, friend, and then finally theoretical lover.  Feminist scholars have long argued that the film sends a terrible message to audiences (especially young girls) by basically showcasing an abusive and power-imbalanced relationship as some kind of ideal fairy-tale romance.  While the film is no feminist triumph, it's a little more complicated than that.  Looking back on the film again, the picture does a strong job in the first act setting up Belle as someone who might actually fall for said scenario even without the kind of social conditioning that exists in a captor/captive situation.  Belle is shown as being so unhappy with her 'provincial life' that it stands to reason that she may be susceptible to the theoretical allure of basically partaking in the kind of harlequin romance adventures that she reads about in the opening song.  Whether or not Belle indeed has Schizoid Personality Disorder, or whether she merely has the same kind of 'Gee, now I get to live out my somewhat dangerous romantic fantasies' experience as Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, Belle spends the first third of the film utterly miserable and with no plausible potential for improvement on the horizon.  It doesn't seem quite as insane that she'd allow herself to fully envelop herself in the 'perils of Pauline' scenario she finds herself in.

Like Bella in the Twilight Saga films (I have not read the books), Belle eventually embraces, no matter how unhealthy it might be, circumstances that allow her to escape her current surroundings; where she doesn't fit in and doesn't feel like she belongs anyway.  That the circumstance that she finds herself in is basically a captor/captive romance that is, by nature, based on a certain amount of submission, is an objective statement that doesn't necessarily make the picture 'bad'.  We may choose to condemn her decisions, especially in light of the Beast's almost non-existent growth as a character (more on that below). But the only 'problem' with the character of Belle and the core relationship of the film is that it is in fact aimed at young children who are in no position to comprehend the creepy and (to certain personalities) erotic undertones of dominance, submission, the desire of some women to 'fix' damaged souls, 'animal magnetism', etc on display.  If Beauty and the Beast were an adult erotic drama, Belle's fleshed out personality quirks and her dark romance with the Beast would be accepted without too much criticism (and, it must be said, the threat of rape would certainly be ever-present in the first half of the picture).  So while on one hand I actually appreciated the film more the last two viewings than I had in a long while (it's actually borderline psycho-sexual for a Disney cartoon), it's also something I'll have to have conversations with my daughter about when she gets a little older.  This demographic issue doesn't make Beauty and the Beast by itself a bad movie, but merely one that requires a bit more parental guidance than the likes of Hercules or Mulan.

But where the film really drops the ball, where it arguably merits every bit of criticism tossed its way, is in its depiction of the Beast and his servants. We can argue back and forth about whether the filmmakers intend to present Belle as a prototypical romantic heroine or whether we are supposed to notice and acknowledge her personality quirks along the way.  But there is little doubt that we are supposed to truly believe in the Beast's change-of-heart, and that he has become a better man who deserves the love of a woman such as Belle.  And quite frankly he does not in the least.  Just going by the second act onward (since Belle is captured in the climax of act one), he goes from angry, violent, abusive, and near-psychotic in his treatment of his prisoner to... less so.  The various candles and teacups and clocks all inform him that if he would just stop being such a grouch that surely this girl would quickly learn to love him.  But is that all it should take?  The Beast doesn't become incredibly gallant or uncommonly noble.  He doesn't become fantastically romantic and, since this is a Disney film, we're not supposed to take any carnal attractions into account.  Basically the Beast merely finds it within himself to treat Belle with what is generally known as 'basic human decency'.

Throughout the second act, he constantly indulges in self-pity about the fact that Belle can only see him as a monster, when in fact she's merely seeing him as the abusive asshole/jailer that he is.  By the time the film reaches its climax he has merely become.... not a monster.  He becomes polite, lets her roam the castle without fear, allows her access to his gigantic library, and eventually invites her to a formal dinner and dance.  That's it! His most selfless moment is allowing Belle to leave the castle to look after her father, who has become lost in the woods in an effort to rescue her.  But since he is directly responsible for that situation, it really doesn't mean that much that he allows her to save her own father.  Not allowing a sick old man to freeze to death in the woods is what you'd think would be 'bare minimum' in terms of how humans are supposed to treat other humans.  The Beast doesn't win Belle over by doing anything other than what any rational and decent-hearted human being should have damn-well done in the first place. The Beast, his various servants, and by virtue the film itself is basically teaching kids that all it takes to win the heart of the girl of your dreams is merely not acting like a borderline psychopath.  And it also preaches that this formally-cruel, domineering, abusive, and hostage-taking tyrant (who, according to a newly-added to the Blu-Ray song "Human Again", is also illiterate) is absolutely a prize merely after he puts a halt to his very worst personality traits.  He doesn't so much become 'good' as stop being 'bad'.

There is a lot of talk about how to prevent sexual violence and sexual harassment without explicitly/implicitly blaming and/or putting the burden of prevention on girls and women. And, as I've written before when discussing Twilight (HERE), the constant criticism that Bella Swan faces for her perhaps poor choices in boyfriends allows the male side of that equation (Edward and Jacob) apparent immunity from being rather dreadful boyfriend material in the first place.  Thus it is the case here, where we've spent twenty years attacking Belle for her perhaps unimpressive choice in suitors while not bothering to attack the Beast for actually being a terrible would-be lover.  The film, I would argue, doesn't present Belle as being a prototypical female role model anymore than Ariel was (Ariel also has serious issues and feelings of longing that exist long before she meets Prince Eric).  But the film's explicit endorsement of the Beast as a genuine 'catch' and his presentation as a heavily romantic figure purely by his virtue of not being evil, is a disconcerting one that merits additional criticism.  In the end, the rush to condemn the character of Belle (the hostage) while overlooking the Beast (the hostage taker) is a classic case of 'blame the girl first and last' when it comes to discussing the alleged feminism-related flaws in pop-entertainment.  If he truly makes her happy, then Belle deserves a lifetime of happiness with the now-human prince.  But on the basis of his onscreen behavior, the Beast does not deserve Belle.

Scott Mendelson


Chris Lee said...

what the heck..you completely, inaccurately and overly analyzed a goddamn cartoon. instead of just enjoying it as what it was intended to be: PURE ENTERTAINMENT for CHILDREN you've completely convoluted everything and overanalyzed the simplest things.

I bet if the moviemakers were to read this they would take a step back and say "Gees, I never intended this to mean that..ooh wait that's right I DIDN'T, this one author has no life but to criticize and extrapolate every single meaningless action I made."

Sometimes your analysis is good but sometimes they are just plain out of the mainstream and completely

The servants? They are there for pure entertainment! (singing, dancing, etc.)

AND you forgot to mention that Beast DID save Belle from a pack of wolves! If he didn't care he would have let her die, such an act of selflessness made Belle realize that he DOES IN FACT HAVE A HEART.

Seriously Scott you've got to stop taking the fun out of everything and stop sounding like an elitist asshole who has to ruin perfectly good harmless movies.

Scott Mendelson said...

He saved Belle from the wolves at least partially because he and the various singing/dancing silverware believed that she was the last/best chance to break the curse (there is much talk in the second act about how they are almost out of time and how "This girl is surely the one...!"). Whether he would have done it anyway I can't say, but there was certainly a selfish motivation.

Having said that, I don't think analysis takes the fun out of anything. As I said above, I actually have enjoyed the film more now than I have for the last several years, primarily because of what I felt was a richer characterization for Belle. Yes the Beast is a rather horrible character and an even-worse role model, but if you can move past the whole 'young audiences see these characters are role models' issue, the picture works as a rather goofy romantic drama underneath the aforementioned singing and dancing. Although, unrelated, I was never a big fan of the songs. They don't hold a candle to The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Tarzan.

Liam_Ho said...

There is absolutely nothing wrong with his analysis since he backed his argument up quite well. I don't agree with everything but I can't say he was wrong in his interpretation.

The reason some of the animated movies by Disney are so well loved is because they can be enjoyed by both adults and kids. Its what separate this from Cars 2. Saying this is just entertainment for children is just lazy.

A person I love listening to hates the Lion King because it says you can't live your own life and that you have to take your place in society without a choice. I don't see it that way but I see what he's saying.

Ae Corte said...

I love your reviews, but you are way off on this one, bruh.

Twilight is rubbish -- these two should not even be in the same sentence.

• I've always thought that Beast's biggest flaws were his vanity and arrogance -- everything else is a result of years of seclusion, gut-wrenching loneliness and personal hell. I feel like he sort of loses his humanity. And yes, he's got serious anger issues. But he never intentionally goes out in search of a hot chick to kidnap.

• He only keeps Belle because the opportunity presents itself, he feels an attraction and he (misguidedly) hopes that if she is around him, she'll fall in love. It is very clear, that he does not know how to act, or be around someone he might like. He wants to, but does not know how. He is a brute -- a big, hairy, yelling-at-the-top-of-his-lungs, very grumpy brute. They have that big fight and he lets her go (after being captive for only a few hours), he goes after her and rescues her from the wolves. The conversation about Belle being the only one who can break the spell takes place before the big fight, before he lets her go.

• Belle almost gets on her horse and almost leaves, Beast collapses, she knows he is injured, she returns the favor as an act of kindness, not because she wants to come back to the castle and find out if Beast is going to take the non-existent violence up a notch, or maybe get raped. Then she chooses to stay because, in my humble opinion, she realizes there might be more to Beast than meets the eye. But it is very clear that there is fear in Belle, ultimately the heart wins.

• Beast is willing to die towards the end, thinking that Belle is gone for good... a pretty selfless act, and far from the arrogant/mean son of a bitch we meet at the beginning of the movie.

I was the guy sick to my stomach watching that sadomasochist/kinky doormat of a woman named Bella practically begging Edward to have rough sex again (nothing against it, but I draw the line the moment I see bruises), and again because; a) it is their honeymoon, but b) mainly because she fucking loved it, all of this after that ridiculous "love" scene that would have Rihanna running for the door, I don't get that from Belle.

I do agree that it is definitely a somewhat dark piece, but I feel you just imagined a completely different movie.

Geoff said...

Thanks for a new take on one of my favorites, and a film my daughter watched over and over as a (very) little girl. Nothing like having girl children to open your eyes.

Ruth Poulsen said...

Thanks for your analysis of this movie...I love when it when writers take seriously what we show our children...and I would love to see you do more kids' movie reviews!

Anonymous said...

This is wrong... its just a kids movie,for us and them to enjoy!

Thanks said...

I have to agree... I mean if Belle was so weak, why did she fight back or fight off people like Gaston...


Related Posts with Thumbnails