Beauty and the Beastly Gender Politics
WORDS BY DANIEL ERGAS
Content warning: family violence, abusive relationships
You have almost certainly seen Emma Watson’s recent Vanity Fair profile. (Or, more accurately, one scandalous bunch of pixels in it. You have likely seen, dissected, and – due to the apex of wokeness you have reached – promptly disregarded the bizarre fuss made over the semi-nude photo therein.)
Overlooked within that piece is a telling anecdote. Watson is wrestling with her feminist values, particularly in the context of her starring role as Belle in Beauty and the Beast. To resolve this, she seeks – of all people – Gloria Steinem’s approval. In an exclusive final cut screening organised for Steinem, Watson receives it. “This is a new Belle,” lauds Derek Blasberg, the piece’s author, “much of it by Watson’s design.”
Unfortunately, Emma Watson’s feminist rehabilitation of Beauty and the Beast is, like its gothic kitsch, purely superficial.
Beauty and the Beast is not a complex film. Within the first three minutes, the Enchantress, who has rather rudely crashed a palatial party in search of shelter and/or cruel men on whom to impart moral teachings, warns the then-Prince (and soon-to-be-Beast): “Do not be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within.”
That rather neatly summarises what you are to take away from the film. (A mild spoiler alert follows for those who have been spared the two-hour slog and wish to inflict it upon themselves nonetheless.) Belle’s father is kidnapped by the Beast. Belle finds her father and, in order to sate the Beast, swaps places with him, submitting bravely to her new captor. In short order, Belle falls in love with the Beast, fends off the reactionary towns-people who’d rather him dead, and, in finding love, the Beast is spared of the Enchantress’s curse. The Beast is once again the Prince (without his objectionable traits).
Here’s the rub: the celebrated relationship within the film is brazenly abusive. Beyond its obvious elements (the literal imprisonment of Belle, the Beast’s decision to spy on her via his magical hand mirror, and the coercion used by the Beast to force Belle to spend time with him), the Belle and the Beast tryst is at no point typified by consent.
For example, early on in the film, the Beast demands Belle join him for dinner. “You’ll join me for dinner,” he starts. In case the power dynamic is not quite clear enough, he adds: “That’s not a request.” Charming.
When Belle refuses the Beast’s request for dinner, the chattering household objects remind the Beast of how to be enchanting. Mrs. Potts, the maternal tea-pot played by Emma Thompson, reminds him: “Gently, the girl lost her father and her freedom in one day.” The whole ceramic menagerie prompts him to “be gentle,” “kind”, “charming” and “sweet”, and, finally, to “give her a dashing debonair smile.” The Beast is good, you see: deep, deep, deep down.
When Belle refuses once more, the Beast intimidates her by slamming loudly on the door, and then decides to punish her: “Go ahead and starve! If she doesn’t eat with me, she doesn’t eat at all!”
One of the most telling lines in the film comes in the next scene from Mrs. Potts, who enters Belle’s room to console her. Mrs. Potts tells Belle: “People say a lot of things in anger: it is our choice whether or not to listen.” This is indicative of the endless excuses offered for the Beast’s behavior. The mental gymnastics required to justify them are truly bewildering.
A similar instance comes from Lumière, the singing candelabra played by Ewan McGregor. As Belle expresses her surprise that Lumière would want to take her to a more comfortable room than the three-by-four metre concrete cell that the Beast had just condemned her to, Lumière implies that any fear of the Beast is unfounded. Attempting to mimic the Beast’s deep timbre, he mockingly quotes the Beast: “Once this door closes, it will not open again!” Immediately, he adds, in his normal voice: “I know, he gets so dramatic!”
Apparently, in both of these examples, despite her involuntary detention and threatened starvation, she has nothing to worry about; he’s just joking around. What he says (and does) when he is upset he doesn’t actually mean; and if you think otherwise, well, that’s your choice (and, therefore, your problem).
This fits neatly into the most common typology used to recognise abusive relationships. The ‘Power and Control wheel’, developed by psychologists and social workers in the early 1980s (now known as the ‘Duluth model’) to assist abuse survivors in understanding perpetrators’ tactics of control, is shown below (and sourced here).
The Beast’s behaviour, as documented above, fits into many of these categories. The use of ‘coercion and threats’, ‘intimidation’ and ‘isolation’ is self-evident; while the domestic servants employed by the Beast ‘minimise’ his actions (claiming they emerge from anger, not his true self) and ‘blame’ Belle for her interpretation of them. Instead of using children to guilt Belle, the Beast uses her father. Even the celebrated elements of the new film that attempt to distinguish it from the original, such as Belle’s equal status with her father as an inventor, simply play into stereotypes of abuse, as if clever and driven individuals can’t be trapped in such cycles. They can. And in Beauty and the Beast, Belle is.
Watson offers a general defence to these claims. In short, while implicitly conceding the Beast’s behaviour is inappropriate, she nonetheless argues that Belle’s decision to love him was consensual and not coercive, as she had maintained her fierce independence by aggressively refusing the Beast’s demands. “She’s giving him hell,” she says. “She gives as good as she gets.”
The simple issue with this is that the power imbalance of the relationship never allowed Belle to be the Beast’s equal, or give him anything approximating to what he gave her: after all, she is forcibly detained in the Beast’s castle, with the Beast actively marshalling his considerable coercive resources to keep her there. Her refusals do not level the playing field.
While in Watson’s mind, the instance where he “bangs on the door [and] she bangs back,” may indicate resistance, it doesn’t nullify the inequity in the relationship. This defence plays into a troubling narrative where consent is only about choice, not the capacity to choose. Discussions of consent should be informed by understanding the environments in which consent is given. (Hence why we consider formal consent, when given in circumstances with extreme inequities of informal power, such as Stockholm syndrome, or teacher-student relationships, even when the latter is over the age of majority, just to name two situations, to be insufficient.)
But why should we care about this? These films are fairy-tales, not road-maps, right?
Unfortunately, we know that isn’t true. Disney films are not quaint, self-contained narratives in which one can find the historical set-pieces of patriarchy on display. In the same way that The Lion King is not simply an instructive lesson on fraught relations in the animal kingdom, Beauty and the Beast is not just a story, but a vehicle through which broader messages are communicated, particularly to young girls. This is not conjecture. A recent peer-reviewed longitudinal study published in Child Development found the more that younger children interacted with Disney Princess culture, the more they would enact gender-stereotypical behaviour similar to what was displayed on screen. It is no surprise, then, that Disney films are also formative for children’s beliefs on what normative relationships – the kind that they aspire to – look like.
The takeaway message of Beauty and the Beast is simple: with enough love and patience, a man, however beastly, can become a prince. This moral is easily translated. That boy at school who pushes and teases you? Actually, he likes you – that’s just how boys show affection. That teenage boyfriend who treats you terribly? Actually, he’s just a fixer-upper with a tough exterior – with enough time and effort, he’ll love you right. And so on, and so on.
All women, particularly aspiring Disney princesses, deserve better. If Emma Watson intends to so publicly leverage her status as a feminist, she has a responsibility to give it to them. Her effort in Beauty and the Beast doesn’t even come close.