Why Beauty and the Beast Bothers Me

Posted on March 1, 2011

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Fact: Beauty and the Beast is my favorite of the Disney Renaissance films. I like Aladdin’s writing better, and, if you ask me, nothing will ever top Glen Keane’s animation work on Ariel, but Beauty and the Beast is the movie I reach for when I’ve had a lousy day or when I just want to devolve into a pile of mush for a few hours. It tickles every girly-girl sensibility I have: charming guys flirting with older women; smart girls; the Disney spin; and oh–that kiss at the end! I smile like an idiot just thinking about it.

Another fact: it also makes me kind of uncomfortable. There are various reasons, but most of them I am willing to ignore because they seem to me to have more to do with the structure of a classic fairy tale than anything.

There  is one aspect, however, that I am not willing to ignore, because it’s a relationship trope: the idea of a flawed guy and a perfect girl who makes him change. Not because I don’t think that people should grow up as a result of relationships, but because Beauty and the Beast has no equal change in Belle.

But wait! you say. Beauty and the Beast is about learning to love what’s on the inside, not the outside! Doesn’t that mean it’s actually a story about Belle growing up?

Well… no.

If you ask me, though, it’s more of a coming-of-age story, because nobody actually learns that. On the contrary, our protagonist knows it right from the beginning. We sympathize with Belle immediately because she, like us, can see through Gaston’s attractiveness to the disgusting person inside. And her journey to fall in love with Adam is more about learning to see past his less loveable qualities to the basically decent person within. Besides her initial reaction to his appearance, she never comments on it; all of her objections are against his treatment of her.

So, okay, Belle already knows how to look past the outside appearance of things. So how is this a coming-of-age story?

Well, the creators mentioned that they tried to show a gradual evolution in Adam. Toward the beginning of the movie, he rarely walks on two legs, and he only wears enough clothes to cover the naughty bits. By the ballroom scene, however, he is trimmed, walking on two legs, using silverware, and fully dressed. Why does this happen? Because he has to grow up. He wants to be worthy of Belle, and that means growing up and acting like an adult instead of a spoiled manchild.

Now that, if you ask me, is a worthy moral (especially in the age of Adam Sandler). So why does it bother me?

There is no corresponding change in Belle. She’s already perfect. The only thing that has to change on her end is her perceptions of Adam–and given their awkward introduction, her disgust with him was justified. Her personality at the beginning and at the end are the same.

There’s nothing wrong with telling little girls that they will mature a lot earlier than little boys. And there is nothing wrong with telling little girls that they are awesome. This is great.

I do, however, object to the idea that relationships are one-sided. In a good relationship, both parties should benefit. I would have liked to see some equal change in Belle as she falls in love with Adam, some attempt to better herself because of his effect on her life. Not because there’s anything wrong with sending the message that girls are awesome, but because good relationships are give-and-take, and that is a message we should definitely be sending our kids.

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