November 01, 2007

No beauty, only beast.

Running essential parts of your childhood through the Grumpy Feminist Analysis Engine is always fun. Actually, it's not. It's usually shocking and kind of sad.

On Katie's last visit I scored a bunch of DVDs to borrow and copy, including several classic Disney movies. We've talked about this before; it's not news that Disney's sexual politics and moral compass are severely out of wack. Mothers are almost always dead, teenage heroines act like wives to their lonely fathers, and any woman past the first flush of adolescence is a wicked witch. Some of that has changed in the more recent movies -- though my attempt to illustrate that using The Lion King is being undermined by the fact that I can remember the name of every character except Simba's mother. Fuck. Anyway.

I started watching Beauty and the Beast with the idea that it might have been the first "classic" Disney story to get a little bit reasonable about women. Consider Mrs. Potts -- yes, she is a piece of crockery, but she is a woman and a mother and there's no suggestion of her being an evil enchantress. She's competent, nurturing, and trustworthy, and in the Disney universe that is nothing short of revolutionary. So I had high hopes that, G.F.A.E. or no, I could watch the movie without needing to shower off the creepiness afterward.

I will tell you now that it was not so.

Beauty and the Beast is, like most of the other Disney fairy tale adaptations, someone's idea of a glorious romance. Gaze on these lovebirds, you starry-eyed girl child, and hope to be so lucky. So who is this idealized male lover to whom you should aspire to bind yourself? Well, he's a big roaring beast with an awful temper. But, see, he wasn't always that way. He was turned into a beast by a disguised enchantress.

Full stop. Your lover is violent and cruel and angry, but it isn't his fault that he yells at you and breaks things and intimidates you. He can't help it. A woman turned him into this. It's her fault.

Back to the story. You, starry-eyed girl child, you should aspire to be Belle. Be beautiful, intelligent, brave, and forgiving. Stay in the beast's castle and befriend him. Tend his hurts. Defend him. Gently show him how to be civilized. Don't give up on him and don't hold a grudge.

In other words, stay with your abusive partner, respond to his violence with submissive gentleness, give him infinite leniency because he doesn't know better and can't learn, and be his mother and his anger sponge and his only friend. Believe that the outside world is out to get him and if you leave they will hurt him. It will be all your fault. (Remember, Belle leaves and in doing so she accidentally inspires the villagers to storm the castle and try to kill the beast. Woman's faithlessness brings man to ruin. Leaving is wrong.) Above all, forgive him his violence over and over again.

I tell you with some shock that, instead of being a tiny step forward for Disney, this is a bigger step back than I actually thought possible. I can't think of another Disney movie that so explicitly hammers home a message this damaging. Can you? Leave it in comments.

Posted by dianna at November 1, 2007 10:15 AM

Heh. This is totally something I would write. We are feminism friends!

Actually though, I read Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment a few years ago and though I don't remember it so well, I think he made the point that fairy tales are intended to resonate with little kids, not adults. So as a little girl you're equating the beast with the central man in your life, your father figure, and when he rages that remninds you of the times your daddy gets angry at you. Because when you're a little kid, anyone being angry at you seems unreasonable and tyrannical and terrifying. So the tale helps you work through your feelings about that and forgive your dad for putting you on time out.

Ditto the evil mother figures, who you identify as being your mom when she is mad at you and seems like your enemy.

Super Freudian, I know, and it doesn't address the issue of kids who have genuinely violent parents and what these tales teach them. An interesting book though.

Posted by: didofoot at November 1, 2007 11:42 AM

Ooh. INTERESTING. Do you still have that book and can I borrow it sometime? Please oh please? I can't go to Powell's to get it because every time I go there I wind up buying four books when I've already got a backlog of reading material, and it's just getting worse and worse. Especially if what I'm looking for is in the Purple Room.

Anyway, it seems like that analysis starts to get really weird when there are both metaphorical fathers (e.g. the beast) and actual fathers (e.g., er, the father) in the same story. Like how, when Belle leaves the castle, she's leaving to take care of her dad because she sees him sick and alone. And then we get the whole Leaving Is Wrong thing, and if you're still thinking of the beast as Daddy then the father seems more like the ne'er-do-well boyfriend you might be tempted to run away to be with? Question mark? It seems like it falls apart a bit there.

Posted by: Dianna at November 1, 2007 04:16 PM

Aha, that is where it gets cool I think. Because the good father and the beast are BOTH your father, at the same time. Good father when he is nice, beast when he is mad. And the real mother often dies in tales and is replaced by the evil stepmother, just like your good mother is replaced by your evil mother when she's angry. But they're both your mother.

Obviously Disney fucks this up sometimes; in the versions I've read, Beauty goes to visit her family and just loses track of time, as kids do. Then the beast almost dies, which maybe teaches kids that their parents have a reason for making these seemingly unreasonable rules, like be home at a certain hour or you will kill daddy with worry.

If ever I come to Portland you can totally borrow it, but in the meantime I would check the library because who knows when that will be.

Posted by: didofoot at November 1, 2007 05:02 PM

P.S. Good work on steering clear of Powell's. I'm having a similar problem with my backlog from the library sale.

Posted by: didofoot at November 1, 2007 05:02 PM

Not that I really intend to argue the point, but I think a reasonable alternative interpretation is that Belle is clearly the only character with a head on her shoulders, and if things are turning to chaos, it's solely because all of the men in her life are jerkoffs.

You'll recall that the reason she's leaving the castle is to go save her dad's ass, and after she's done so, she has to come all the way back to the castle to save the beast's ass. This is because Gaston, the last main male character, is also an asshole.

Clearly the movie has some assumptions: Belle does not renounce the village full of idiots she's inherited and wander off into the woods to live her life in peace. She does not give up on men in frustration and "switch hit" to get some steamy action with Mrs. Potts, so to speak. I would not rule however rule out the possibility that there is an alternate ending on the internet somewhere out there where this happens.

In any case, one can criticize these limitations for their narrow-mindedness, but I think the situation of an intelligent and sensible woman feeling trapped between a bunch of men who are wankers probably resonates more effectively than the alternative of simply declaring one's independence from all the bullshit. This brings up all sorts of things like "should art be prescriptive or descriptive?" But luckily this is a blog comment and I don't have to answer my own questions.

My questions is always, why are the fat mechanical man and the slightly effeminate but very nice candelabra never considered suitably sexy bachelors? Bah!

Posted by: Elliot at November 1, 2007 10:55 PM