On March 17th, the new Disney remake of the classic, “Beauty and the Beast,” starring Emma Watson was released in theaters. For those of you unfamiliar with the story (there can’t be that many of you), “Beauty and the Beast” is the story of an intelligent, beautiful (hence the character’s name “Belle”) young woman who is an outcast in her town. To save her father, she sacrifices herself to a beast that lives in a castle and eventually they fall in love and it is revealed that he was a prince under a curse all along. Love allows him to transform back into his true form.
I saw the movie this weekend, not having considered or analyzed the story since I was about six. The new film follows the plot and even many of the shots of the original Disney cartoon very closely. Despite the similarities, I saw the 2017 film in a completely new light watching it as an adult. I think that Disney did many positive things as far as social messages, but aspects of the story are inherently flawed and these couldn’t be remedied unless Disney completely changed the whole premise of the movie.
My main issue with the storyline is the tired and potentially dangerous narrative of a girl ‘fixing’ a man. ‘Beauty tames the Beast’ has become a tired trope in film and literature. Of course, this cliché is the entire plot of the movie, so its inclusion is pretty much unavoidable. I think I find issue with this because it seems to excuse abusive relationships. No one should stay in a relationship with an erratic, violent partner because they feel obligated or even believe it’s possible to ‘fix’ them. Women face domestic abuse at far higher rates than men, and this message of ‘taming the beast’ isn’t a positive one to be sending young women. In the 2017 film, the Beast never directly physically harms Belle, but he does yell at her and threaten her. After the two have a conversation in which they get to know each other, the Beast softens and never yells at her or threatens her again. The origin of the Beast’s anger is also explained when the other residents of the castle tell Belle it stems from the loss of his mother, an abusive father, and lack of support from those around him. Still, even when anger and violent outbursts have a cause, sufferers can inflict harm on those around them.
Disney obviously took steps to ameliorate this potentially negative narrative. The inclusion of the explanation of the Beast’s anger, how early in the movie his anger disappears, and the development of Belle’s character all show their awareness for the potential effects their movie could have on its young audience. Belle really is a great character—she’s caring, brave, strong, intelligent, and unafraid to be herself. Despite the annoying rhetoric of “she’s not like other girls,” the movie is a fairly positive one in terms of social values, featuring a diverse cast and a brief depiction of two gay characters. Obviously that doesn’t make it as inclusive as it could have been, but perhaps the attempt at representation of a more diverse population is a step in the right direction.