I watched Beauty and the Beast this past weekend with my (almost) 4 year-old daughter. She liked it for the most part, but she has a short attention span so it was the best I could hope for. It reminded me though of an undergrad class I took when preparing for graduate school, Psychology of Women, and the vitriol that Disney heroines inspired in our feminist, grad-student instructor and her cohort of budding feminist sycophants . . . ahem, I mean students. Belle in particular was the most hated of all the heroines, and rarely did this instructor pass up a chance to bemoan the fate of young women exposed to some horrible series of lessons passed on by this movie. So admired were this instructor’s opinions that no fewer than 3 groups of sycophants . . . ahem, I mean students . . . do their final group projects dissecting and discrediting other Disney heroines.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for critical analysis and questioning narratives for meaning, but these projects were nothing more than character assassinations. The students and instructor would just latch on to the minutest of details and use that as some bludgeon to destroy whatever value might have remained in the rest of the story. So, while it has been several years since I took that class, and while I have no contact information for the instructor or my peers, I am offering my defense of Belle. I do this for my own daughters, because I believe that Belle is an admirable character worthy of viewing as a quintessential hero.
Now the original story has the Beauty take her father’s place as prisoner as price for him taking a rose. Disney keeps elements of this idea, but makes the trespass into the palace the justification for the Beast locking away the father, and the Rose representing the time the Beast has to end his curse. In both stories Beauty and Belle are good and compassionate people. Beauty has to deal with the fact that her sisters are spoiled and selfish and Belle has to deal with the town lunk who goes to great lengths to court her. Belle doesn’t want to marry him because she knows that who she is as a person could not survive marriage to this man, yet she still treats him kindly while being as forceful and direct as possible. In the end of both stories, Beauty and Belle’s love and compassion bring about the “happily ever after.”
In many ways this is a love story, and here is where the classic and the Disney Beauty and the Beasts find their critics. Beauty and Belle are essentially prisoners and in Disney’s version the Beast is truly violent towards her at first. In both stories she is eventually treated as the master of the palace by the Beast and the palace servants. In viewing this only as a love story, many critics find parallels with some of the horrors that battered women face. Women who are abused by the men in their lives, but who are helpless to leave. While the plight of battered women is nothing to take lightly, there are numerous dissimilarities between Belle and battered women that are worth looking at:
- First, if Belle had been like a battered woman, she would have just married Gaston and this would have a been a very tragic story.
- Second, battered women don’t leave, Belle did. Belle was willing to stay in the palace to satisfy the Beast’s demands until he threatened her and then she IMMEDIATELY left. She would have never returned had Beast not nearly died saving her life.
- Third, battered women are blind to their abusive partners faults, or are in denial of them. Belle was willing from the very first encounter to stand up for herself and point out Beast’s faults.
The next thing that Beauty and the Beast’s critics miss is the fact that as a fairy tale, this story is more than just a love story. Fairy tales come with lots of different morals and myths, and beauty and the beast uses one of the most classic: the salvation allegory. Most great stories that people know and love are some form of salvation allegory, whether it is Joseph being sold by his brothers to Egypt only to save them from famine later, or Luke sacrificing himself to the Emperor to save his father from his evil ways, salvation allegories are all over the place. I personally love the fact that Beauty and the Beast one of the allegories because it is one of the few ones I know of where the savior figure is a woman.
The allegory is basically this: Beauty is a near-perfect individual surrounded by fallen souls; her father is focused on wealth and riches, her sister’s are spoiled and selfish, and of course the Beast is the classic typography for the fallen man, a man so fallen from grace that he has become animalistic in appearance. Her father even falls further from grace by taking a rose from a garden, which is very similar to Adam and Eve’s fall by partaking of the forbidden fruit. The near perfect Beauty then must sacrifice herself for the salvation of her father, and in doing so ends up bringing about more salvation than could ever be expected. She saves the most fallen creature in the story, the Beast, through love. In many ways Beauty, and by extension Belle, are the Christ figures in their respective stories.
Now is this a perfect telling of a salvation allegory? Well, probably not, but isn’t the overall moral that love, compassion, and patience can lead to understanding, peace, and salvation a story worth telling? Is it worth throwing away the whole story over one brief scene where Beast punches a wardrobe? I think not.