About two weeks ago, The Nerve posted an article called “Ranked: Disney Princesses From Least to Most Feminist,” because apparently the feminist blogosphere would collapse around itself if us writers went for more than a month without politicizing the Disney princesses.
I’ll spare you my thoughts on Sonia Saraiya’s opinion of Ariel, since I already defended The Little Mermaid here and here, but I need to take some time to talk about Belle and Beauty and the Beast. From the original article:
“She resists her village’s expectations of what her life should look like; she’s the first princess to express some skepticism about married life. But ultimately, Belle falls for a domineering man, because she thinks she can change him. Sure, you can believe it’s love, but it could also be Stockholm syndrome.”
Sometimes I think I watched a different version of Beauty and the Beast than many other feminists did, because Stockholm syndrome isn’t what I saw in this movie. If you look at the basic plot structure of the film, Belle does NOT, in fact, “fall” for a jerk because she “thinks” she can change him. She has no interest in changing the Beast or interacting with him at all, not even for dinner, and doesn’t start being nice to him until he’s nice to her (by saving her life and then giving her a library).
I also think that people who assume that most little girls will get a “be nice to your abuser” message from this movie aren’t giving little girls enough credit, and I’m willing to make a cash money bet that most little girls will absorb the intended message of the movie: “It’s not what’s on the outside, but what’s inside that counts!”
Still, I can acknowledge that an author’s intention and a viewer’s reaction are not always one and the same. There are people who still don’t know that The Colbert Report is satire, after all, and there is something a little creepy about the fact that Belle falls in love with the Beast while she is still, technically, his prisoner.
However, I still think that the message of Beauty and the Beast is more feminist than not, and the feminist slant of the movie is supported by an unlikely source: Gaston, the aggressive, misogynistic villain.
When we first see Gaston, we notice two things about him: his handsomeness and his aggressive personality. He responds to glowing compliments with a conceited, “I know,” and uses hunting imagery to discuss the object of his affection, saying, “I’ve got my sights set on that one,” while pointing at Belle with the hand that holds his gun. He wants to marry Belle because she’s beautiful, and he doesn’t particularly care what she has to say in the matter. He doesn’t think that she’ll refuse – he’s the best man in town, after all, and why wouldn’t Belle want to marry him?
Gaston has a lot in common with the prince that we hear about in the prologue of the film, the man that the Beast used to be: spoiled, selfish, and unkind. The Beast that we see is similar to Gaston, but angrier and more aggressive. He also has a clear self-loathing that Gaston lacks. Unlike Gaston, the Beast doesn’t want anyone to look at him, and gets angry and violent when he thinks that Maurice has come by his house just to gawk at him.
At the beginning of the film, these two characters both view Belle as an object, not a person. Gaston wants her to marry him so his wife can be the most beautiful girl in town. The Beast wants her to love him so that he can break the spell. There’s not much of a difference between the way Gaston treats her and the Beast treats her, except for one important moment right after Belle agrees to become a hostage in her father’s place. As she cries that she’ll never see her father again, the Beast looks momentarily guilty, showing a brief glimmer of humanity in his aggressive exterior. It’s a small thing, but it’s more empathetic than Gaston ever gets.
Meanwhile, how does Belle treat these two men? Her behavior towards Gaston is remarkably similar to the way she treats the Beast. She rebuffs every single one of their advances. She calls Gaston “primeval” and sends him flying into the mud when he tries to force a kiss on her. She sees right through the Beast’s forced politeness and play-acting when he “asks” her to eat dinner with him. She doesn’t give either of them an inch. Even when the Beast saves her life, she doesn’t fall into his arms weeping with gratitude – she yells at him for scaring her into the woods in the first place, and tells him to control his temper.
It’s only after she wins this argument, after the Beast stops arguing with her, that she thanks him for saving her life.
Then, yes, the Beast falls for her pretty quickly and has a personality change almost overnight, his change in character is about more than a pretty girl saying “thank you.” This is probably the first time that the Beast has received genuine gratitude. People aren’t fawning over him out of respect for his princeliness or cowering in fear of his beastliness. He seems to find joy in doing good things for other people.
This is a lesson that Gaston never learns. He treats his loyal sidekicks as disposable objects and uses Maurice as a pawn to get Belle. He, unlike the Beast, isn’t inspired to rethink his actions when Belle tells him off. When Belle tells the Beast to control his temper, he listens. When she tells Gaston that he’s a monster, he locks her up, turns the town against her, and still plans on marrying her so that he can “own” his object.
In terms of characterization, the Beast and Gaston start off in remarkably similar places at the beginning of the film, but by the end, they can’t be more different. Belle is one reason that the Beast changes, but is she the only reason? Far from it. The biggest difference between the Beast and Gaston is that the Beast wants to change, and Gaston doesn’t.
A movie that tells little girls “you can change a mean person if you’re nice to him” is a dangerous movie, but Beauty and the Beast is not that movie. Beauty and the Beast shows us that a person must choose to change in order for change to be possible. Belle is certainly a catalyst for the Beast’s positive growth, but she couldn’t inspire Gaston to become a better person, showing that the responsibility for growth lies with the person doing the growing. That’s a positive message, and one that makes Beauty and the Beast more feminist than meets the eye.