By: Lexi Frazier
With enthusiasm for Beauty and the Beast at an all-time high following Disney’s release of the live-action version, what better time to examine the messages that this most beloved animated classic sends to children? Beauty and the Beast tells the story of a young, arrogant prince whose heartlessness causes an enchantress to place a curse upon his castle, transforming the prince into a hideous Beast and all his servants into household furniture. They will remain cursed until the Beast can learn to love and be loved in return. Belle, a headstrong, ambitious village girl, becomes the Beast’s prisoner in his enchanted castle after taking her father’s place. Though Belle initially detests her situation and her short-tempered captor, she is later welcomed as a guest by the hospitable, talking furniture. Soon, Belle gradually begins to fall for the Beast, despite his gruesome exterior. Belle melts the Beast’s cold heart with true love, rushes to help save him from an angry mob of villagers led by the evil Gaston, and eventually breaks the spell upon the castle, turning the Beast back into a prince and all the fanciful furniture into “Humans Again!” And SURPRISE they all live happily ever after. At its surface, Beauty and the Beast is nothing short of an enchanting, romantic adventure, but the messages that lie beneath all the whimsical candles and singing teapots are quite disturbing indeed.
Le Fou Sings Gaston's Praise
Before I dig into all that, I consider the ideological viewpoint the movie takes. Beauty and the Beast falls slightly to the Left on Giannetti’s Left-Center-Right film ideology spectrum. Giannetti notes that "Leftists often romanticize rebels and outsiders…and are sensitive to the needs of women and minorities”(p.415). Beauty and the Beast fits this mold perfectly. It promotes equality of women, at least in terms of educational attainment, with Bell’s great love of reading, libraries, and all things books being one of her central character traits. Additionally, Belle is a “funny girl” who doesn’t belong and the Beast is an ostracized, deformed creature, both outcasts rejected by society. Thus, in true Leftist fashion, the film glorifies outsiders as heroes who are unafraid to depart from societal norms and defy traditional expectations. At the same time, the film portrays mainstream society, symbolized by the small French village where Belle lives, to be completely backward and even irrational. They mercilessly judge and condemn Bell for being a different, more progressive type of woman than they are accustomed to. Not only do the townspeople disapprove of Belle, but they all practically worship the film’s conniving villain, Gaston, just because he is strapping, manly, and appealing. Never mind that he is also a chauvinistic, obnoxious, and narcissistic A-hole. In fact, Gaston easily manipulates these illogical village people into a fiery, all-consuming mob mentality, as they begin taking up their torches and pitchforks to hunt down a beast without an ounce of proof that it is a threat to them. This is a classic Leftist move, depicting society as being in the wrong and challenging their conventional thought with protagonists who dare to be different. According to Giannetti in Understanding Movies, “People on the left believe we ought to be flexible in our judgments, capable of adjusting to the specifics of each case….Rightists are more absolute in judging human behavior” (p.412). This film definitely advocates the flexible judgment of human behavior. Most notably, Belle forgives and reevaluates the horrid Beast who imprisoned her so much so that she falls in love with him. This whole “don’t judge a man until you’ve walked in his shoes” attitude and the theme of not judging others based on appearances are definitely Leftist ideas. Additionally, although Gaston’s silly sidekick Le Fou is not obviously portrayed as gay in the animated film the way he is the new live-action movie, there are definitely some gay undertones to a man who loves another guy so much that he can’t help but literally sing his praises. Giannetti writes in his book, “Leftists believe that who you have sex with is nobody else’s business. They often accept homosexuality as a valid lifestyle” (p.418). Thus, here lies even more evidence of Leftist-minded filmmaking.
Now, there is no denying that people love Beauty and the Beast, its positive reception by audiences worldwide unmatched by perhaps any other animated classic. The fact that it nearly won an Oscar for Best Picture of 1991 as an animated film speaks volumes about its tremendous appeal, but is it really making a positive impact on our children? That’s another story. Although Beauty and the Beast delivers positive messages about inner beauty trumping outer beauty and the importance of women’s education and ambition, they are overshadowed by negative implications about Stockholm syndrome and the ability of women to transform abusive jerks into their Prince Charming.
We begin by looking at the film’s most obvious, intentional takeaway: appearances don’t matter and beauty within is what truly counts. The entire central plotline of the beautiful Belle falling for a ghastly, buffalo-adjacent looking creature rests on this premise. Though Disney films often fall into the trap of making protagonists physically attractive and villains physically repulsive, their appearances both matching and representing their inner character, Beauty and the Beast puts a twist on this custom. Lo and behold, the handsome, charismatic Gaston is the bad guy and the monstrously revolting Beast is our hero. Belle, in all her infinite wisdom, shuns the advances of the strong, handsome, and manly jerk and favors the kindhearted, misunderstood mutant creature. AWW! This truly is an important message to send to children and young girls. It tells them that looks can be deceiving and that it is foolish to judge people based on appearances alone because there is much more to a person than what meets the eye. It also tells young girls that you will be far happier with a less attractive person who treasures you like the princess you are than some hot jerk who just wants to display you as a trophy wife. It is significant that while Gaston mocks Belle’s love of books and educated mind, the Beast nurtures these things by giving her a massive library with mountains of books to read to her heart’s content. While Gaston is only it for the chase and the prize of the most beautiful girl in town, the Beast genuinely puts Belle’s needs before his own by rescuing her from a vicious pack of wolves and setting her free to go save her father. Hence, this movie really drives the point home that inner beauty trumps outer beauty.
Another positive message from the film is its promotion of women’s education and ambition. Unlike Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and many of her Disney Princess counterparts, Belle clearly loves to read and learn all that she can. Rather than pathetically pining over Gaston the way other women in her town do, she spends her time buried in a good book. As aforementioned, she practically freaks out when the Beast gives her his massive library, displaying a love of learning and discovery that is surely a positive influence on young children. She is also ambitious, singing “There must be more than this provincial life…I want adventure in the great wide somewhere…I want so much more than they have planned,” during the opening musical number. Her dreams and ambitions are simply too large for her small (and small-minded) French village, another admirable quality young females should strive to emulate. Belle showcases yet another positive trait when she bravely and selflessly takes her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner, courageously sacrificing her freedom for the kooky inventor that she loves. Overall, Belle encourages children and especially young girls to lose themselves in good books, to be bold and courageous, to dream big, and to stand out and be themselves rather than trying to fit in. However, along with the positive promotion of women’s education through Belle comes the town’s less-than-thrilled reception of her literary inclination. This sort of implies that if you are a girl who likes to read and learn that you’ll be an outsider and you’ll be mocked for it the way Belle is, which is sending the completely wrong message to young girls. Despite this counterargument, overall this movie and its leading lady do impart a positive message about women’s education and achievement upon young viewers.
With so many positive qualities, Belle would serve as the perfect role model for young girls, right? Wrong. Though Belle is definitely a good person, she makes some downright horrible decisions that set a potentially harmful example for children. The most blatant problem with Belle is that she has Stockholm syndrome! Stockholm syndrome is defined as feelings of trust or affection felt in certain cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim toward a captor. It occurs when victims forge psychological alliances with their kidnapper as a survival strategy; in order to mentally cope with the unimaginable misery of being held prisoner, they become sympathetic toward the very person who robbed them of their freedom in the first place. Sound like anyone you know? Let’s refresh. Belle does not begin her stay at the Beast’s castle as an invited guest with enchanted candles and clocks entertaining and delighting her. No, instead she begins her stay as a prisoner locked up in a dungeon, since that’s how all healthy relationships begin, right? Now, it would be one thing if the Beast gave Belle her freedom back right away and then they fell in love, but this is not the case. He is abusive towards her and for most of the film he will not let her leave, and no good relationship can be founded upon the power imbalance between a captor and a victim. Period. To emphasize my point, there would be no problem whatsoever if these two individuals had fallen in love under different circumstances or met in a more conventional way (except perhaps bestiality), but because they fall in love while Belle is being held prisoner in his castle, Belle actually does have Stockholm syndrome, which is a terribly disturbing thing to promote to children. If (God forbid) a girl is kidnapped by a man in real life, chances are that he is a very bad, dangerous person, and that girl should fight with everything she has to get away from him. She should not try to sympathize with him or bond with him the way Belle does the Beast, and she DEFINITELY should not fall in love with her captor! For this reason, this Disney Princess and this movie send a terrible message to kids. Though Belle may seem quite happy for the majority of her captivity, that does not change the fact that she is not free from the Beast when she falls for him, which is not acceptable.
West Wing Scene
Another related misconception that this movie may give young girls is that they can change a controlling, volatile, and abusive jerk into their Prince Charming. Now let’s recall, how does the Beast treat Belle when they meet? Right, he locks her in a dungeon and robs her of her freedom. So that’s a strong start. Though the Beast later musters up enough basic human goodness to show her to a more comfortable room, he is cold and domineering towards her when he does so, ordering her not to go to the West Wing of the castle. When the Beast later realizes it might be a good idea to charm the girl he has imprisoned so as to possibly earn her love and break the spell upon the castle, he invites her to dine with him. Actually, he doesn’t ask, but rather he yells and pounds on her door, telling her that she WILL join him for dinner. When Belle absolutely refuses to have dinner with the person who locked her up and ruined her life, the Beast tells her she will have to starve if she doesn’t eat with him, and then he orders his servants not to feed her. So far we have a kidnapper who is trying to control Belle and then attempts to starve her, total boyfriend material right there. Then, when Belle disobeys the Beast and ventures into the West Wing anyway, the Beast catches her trespassing and goes ballistic. He screams at her to “GET OUT!” and begins destroying furniture out of rage. So here we have more volatile, uncontrolled temper and more controlling resulting from a fundamental power-imbalance between them, but we also see that the Beast can be dangerous, having to release his anger physically. Though this is a bit more forgivable seeing as he is part animal, I am evaluating him as a potential boyfriend. A guy who channels his rage by beating up furniture could potentially do the same to a woman—it’s just not a healthy sign.
While you may not be able to tell from the rant I just gave, I really do like this movie. I even saw the premier of the live-action version on opening night and I loved that too! It has many of the ingredients of a great film: great songs, romance, adventure, an epic battle scene, and comic relief in the form of talking candlesticks and clocks! However, especially for an animated movie marketed toward young children, the dark, hidden messages contained in Beauty and the Beast just aren’t acceptable. I grew up with this film and it holds a special place in my heart, so I’ve never taken a critical look at it before. But now that I have, I am amazed at the content that Disney filmmakers deem appropriate for kids movies. For this reason, with a heavy heart, I am awarding this movie one chip in terms of the messages it sends to our youth. Especially since I once was that little girl who wanted to be just like Princess Belle, I’m appalled by the damaging influence her love story may have on impressionable young children.