Mixed Messages: False Feminist and the Victimizer, Better Known as BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
15 June 2014
In Disney’s 1991 animated feature Beauty and the Beast, the audience meets Belle, a small town young woman desperate to break free from the constraints of, what she calls, her “provincial life.” So why does Belle think her “poor…quiet village” she is limiting? Because in her “little town…every day is like the one before,” full of “little people” who seem satisfied sacrificing their individuality so they can carry out their expected roles in life: mother, baker, bookshop owner, etc.
The audience learns early on that Belle uses books as an escape from this “provincial” world, an escape that awakens her mind to other worlds, new types of people, and the possibility of a better life outside her oppressive, confining town. Immediately, Belle, our protagonist, is characterized as intelligent and resourceful. Moreover, diving into the 1990s with a splash, Disney sets up its newest heroine as an emerging feminist; put another way, a future feminist if Belle is daring enough to follow through with her convictions and boldly defy limitations…
Spoiler alert: turns out Belle does not evolve into a feminist; instead, Belle devolves into a hypocrite, taking on her expected role in life, just like all the people of her village who she passes judgment on. Additionally, what is most frightening about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is not a temperamental beast lurking in a dark, enchanted castle; the most frightening thing about this Disney feature is that Belle starts off as a strong, independent, intellectual female for young audiences to admire, but subtly succumbs to the very submissive lifestyle her original self opposes, sending a mixed message to viewers but ultimately leaving impressionable audiences with the message that, in the end, strong-willed, bright females relinquish their power.
First, shortly after Belle sings of her “provincial life,” the opening that so readily establishes her as a free-thinking, independent female, the audiences learns Belle is a devoted daughter, so devoted, in fact, that Belle sacrifices her own freedom for her father’s, making her the beast’s prisoner in his enchanted castle. Once judging her town’s sacrificial mother desperate for eggs by proclaiming “there must be more than this provincial life,” Belle now shows herself to be as sacrificial a woman, one who, without hesitation, gives away her freedom for another’s. Although the film presents Belle’s sacrifice as courageous and loving, her action undercuts every claim she made during her opening song.
This initial sacrifice starts of a series of sacrifices Belle makes for others. After coming to her wits and attempting to escape the beast’s castle, Belle nearly dies when confronted by wolves. But, just when the wolves hungrily turn their attention on her horse, Philippe, Belle sacrifices by throwing herself in front of the noble steed. Sacrificial actions continue when the beast shows up and fight off the wolves. Although he defeats the enemies, the beast is wounded in the fight, giving Belle another opportunity to escape. Yet, she does not; Belle sacrifices her freedom again by saving the beast and returning him home to the castle. Submissively, she cleans his wounds and warms him, despite his angry, oppressive outbursts directed toward her. Furthermore, when the beast presents Belle with a magical mirror which can show her Maurice, her father, Belle races to save her dad when she sees he is sick. Sacrificing the happiness she appears to be finding with the beast (happiness some have argued is actually Stockholm Syndrome), Belle continues a sacrificial pattern of behavior she initially stood against, making her more of a hypocrite than a feminist or individual.
And, considering how boldly Belle initially declares her strength, intelligence, and ability to see beyond oppressive barriers in her “little town,” Belle’s de-evolution into hypocrite sends out a mixed message, which, unfortunately, is received by the impressionable target audience Disney markets its films to. Yes, Belle presents herself as powerful initially because she dreams of something more, a life with adventure and freedom from expectations; however, this is not what Belle gets. By adventure, impressionable audiences are to accept the female protagonist’s imprisonment (literally) by an abusive male, continuous fighting between and amid men for control over the woman’s life, and this woman finally falling in love with the “master” of the castle/her captor—with whom she has a dangerous and dysfunctional existence. Not a positive message for young viewers, and a complete subversion of the message the film initially suggests.
Moreover, a life with freedom from expectation is never something Belle achieves. Impressionable audiences see Belle become a princess…yay, but, below the surface, Belle does not escape anything; Belle merely shifts social and economic statues. Frighteningly, by ending up a princess in the end, audiences are expected to forget Belle concludes in the same equally restrictive position she started off in, only wealthier. Originally, Belle was ostracized by her society because her life is controlled by her father, a clumsy inventor; in the end, Belle will continue to be ostracized by her society because she is no longer a part of the community, she is royalty, and her life will be controlled by her prince. Yes, Belle, your life is no longer “provincial” (in one sense), but your life will still be the same scrutinized routine day-in, day-out. Impressionable audiences are sold the surface-level message that being a princess trumps everything, but, upon closer inspection, is does nothing for Belle.
And so, in the end, the magic is gone, quite literally. The film ever so subtly introduces fantasy in Belle’s opening through her daydreaming and imagining the magic of her books as reality. Then, she actually wanders into an enchanted castle. Yet, by the conclusion, all the spells are broken and the magic fizzles out. This, of course, is the “happy ending” in Beauty and the Beast. Impressionable audiences assume “happily ever after,” but, looking closer, this ending rather bluntly suggests just the opposite: the magic is lost and, therefore, the future is bleak.
Why bleak? Belle starts off the film strong-willed and powerful, but relinquishes that power, ending up in her expected role as princess. Perhaps Mrs. Potts is right, “there may be something there that wasn’t there before,” and that something is a submissive side to Belle that she predictably reveals. Belle, the protagonist who tells viewers her story will be different because she “wants more,” inevitably ends up like all the other Disney princesses. Only difference, at the beginning of the film, Belle tries selling herself as something she is not, and that is more frightening than any untamable beast.