In honor of the recent release of the live-action Beauty and the Beast, I have decided to do my next Revisiting Disney post on the 1991 animated version of the story. First of all, let me firmly establish one thing: no remake can ever touch the original. In 1992 it was nominated for best film, best score, and best song at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards – before there was a category for animated films – and won on 5 of those nominations. (As perfect as it is to cast Hermione Granger as the bold bookworm Belle, Emma Watson’s singing can’t hold a candle to Paige O’Hara.) Beauty and the Beast has always been one of my favorite films – at 6, at 16, and at 26. I love the artwork depicting stained glass windows at the beginning and end of the film, I love the music throughout, and I love the themes of true love and redemption.
Tale as old as time
True as it can be
Barely even friends
Then somebody bends
Tale as old as time
Tune as old as song
Bittersweet and strange
Finding you can change
Learning you were wrong
This film and its characters are more complex than the previous Disney films I’ve examined – so what is it that a young child watching the film might take away from it? Perhaps they might see what people in abusive relationships sometimes see: “If I just love him enough he’ll change for me.” Or they might see that true love means – as the song says – making sacrifices when needed, going through personal growth, and sometimes admitting when you were wrong.
In addition, the fact that the characters in this movie feel more fleshed out than they did in the older Disney princess movies, allows them to become models for behavior in a way that leaves much more open to interpretation.
Belle is introduced, like many Disney princesses, through song: singing to herself as she wanders through town, seemingly oblivious to what the other villagers are saying about her. Like every princess so far, she is described firstly as beautiful. However the villagers don’t go on to describe her as kind as done for Snow White et al – instead they call her odd for liking to read and for failing to fawn over that “tall, dark, strong, and handsome brute,” Gaston. Later, it’s apparent that Belle does understand how the villagers feel and how lonely that knowledge makes her. “I want much more than this provincial life,” she sings. The villagers truly are provincial as Belle says: they are concerned only with their day-to-day country living; small minded when it comes to anyone who is different (like Belle or her father;) easily impressed by bravado or physical appearance (including Gaston and Belle herself;) and quick to be whipped to violence or even cruelty against what they do not understand – as seen when they throw frightened Maurice into the snow when he asks for help and when they form a mob against the Beast without provocation. Belle understands this quality of her neighbors and desires something different for herself. “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere… and for once it might be grand/ to have someone understand/ I want so much more than they’ve got planned.” This reaffirms her loneliness in the village due to her bizarre desire to read, as well as introducing Belle’s other key trait: bravery.
Belle is bold – she does not let either the villagers insult her father or walk all over her and later she holds the same standards when dealing with the Beast. She is also courageous – leaving town to rescue her father and sacrificing herself to take his place as prisoner. Her boldness is balanced by her charitable heart – taking care of the Beast when injured, showing sincere attention to the household staff, and demonstrating patience for the Beast in contrast with his impatience. Although Belle’s father may be somewhat naively trusting, it’s clear that she is clever and perceptive when dealing with others. Belle’s astuteness for judging character benefits her significantly throughout the film, both when dealing with the villagers, and with her suitors.
The Beast is, of course, not her only suitor; she first receives attention from the town hunk, Gaston. At first, the Beast and Gaston seem very similar …despite one of them having horns and fangs. Gaston’s interest in her is due to her beauty, which he feels makes her the best woman in town and therefore the only one he will have. However, it is clear Gaston does not respect Belle: he is dismissive of her enjoyment of reading (“It’s not right for a woman to read – soon she gets ideas and *thinking*!”) and he mocks her father – only stopping to attempt to get on her good side. He ignores her refusals of his advances multiple times – continuing to advance on her both by a proposal of marriage and by physically invading her space. He only stops wooing her once he is shamed in front of the whole town and resorts to pouting in the bar. Despite having many other women who are interested in him and many friends and acquaintances who are happy to see him, it takes an entire bar full of people extolling his praises for him to be cheered up. Even once cheered, Gaston still does not behave charitably, but tends toward cruel humor – mocking Maurice and throwing him into the snow when he comes begging for help.
While Gaston is “boorish and brainless” the Beast is even worse in his behavior. He is, as the introduction says “spoiled, selfish, and unkind.” He does not even seem to understand how to interact with others aside from making demands or lashing out angrily when he does not get his way. Like Gaston, he desires Belle not for who she is, but for what he perceives she can offer him: he is very aware that Belle might be his only chance at breaking the spell, which is part of the reason he accepts her offer to become his prisoner instead of her father. When Belle rejects his mandate to come to dinner, he flies into a rage, not only yelling, but overturning furniture and making violent gestures toward her and the servants, then follows it up with condemning her to stay in her room without food. Not only does he attempt to punish her for rejecting him, he implies that she was being ungrateful because he said “please” – as though a veneer of politeness is all that is required for him to deserve and demand her affection. To many women, this behavior is familiar: we recognize it in the man who catcalls us one minute, then follows us down the street calling us a bitch the next. We recognize it in the online match or in the “friend” who ask us on a date and then turns to vitriol after a polite “I’m not interested, thank you.”
The Beast sequesters himself in the West Wing of the castle, along with the evidence of his bad temper, destroyed reminders of his former life, and the enchanted rose like a countdown to his damnation. Seeing this, the audience becomes somewhat aware of what a lonely, hopeless, and self-loathing existence he had led up to this point. It does not seem that he really expects to be able to free himself of this, despite his wish that Belle might break the spell. When the Beast catches Belle in the forbidden wing he is ashamed of what she discovers, scared she might have damaged the rose, and terrified that his chance at breaking the spell is now even further away. In his anger and fear, he yells at Belle to get out. Even though she is not hurt, he again demonstrates menace and physical aggression toward her.
So what are the lessons on relationships and love that children may absorb? As they are initially introduced, neither the Beast nor Gaston are good matches for Belle. She has grown up in a town of people who talked about her behind her back for being different while putting up with the unwelcome advances of one man, only to become the prisoner and put up with the violent advances of another. The turning point for the Beast starts when he saves Belle from the wolves as she tries to escape from his castle. Alone this is not enough, but it creates an opening for Belle to realize that he is not entirely rotten. He has demonstrated a risk to himself to save Belle, and Belle recognizes the sacrifice and the need to repay it by taking him back to the castle instead of leaving him to die. Belle stands up to him and chastises him for his temper – which is not something his servants have ever done – and also thanks him for saving her life. The Beast begins to understand that she can be critical of him without despising him as a monster and graciously accepts her thanks.
This is the point when Belle and the Beast start to meet each other halfway; when he makes a mess eating because he cannot handle silverware with his claws, Belle daintily sips from her bowl to make him more comfortable and he sips from his to do the same for her. Belle starts to see a tender side to the Beast when he allows himself to learn patience – as demonstrated by waiting for the birds to take seed from his hand – and when he starts to enjoy himself instead of wallowing in insecurity. Belle realizes that much of his anger came from putting up walls and now he is able to be unsure of himself around her. Belle and the Beast even spend quiet moments reading together by the fire. It is significant that after a small amount of tough love and positive interaction the Beast is able to be more introspective and admit to some of his flaws enough to address them, whereas Gaston is so incapable of self-examination that he requires a full tavern of people to cheer him up; he demands external validation to such an extent that he is essentially hollow.
Then there’s the dance – the ball of just the two of them. The Beast is nervous, but she is the one who invites him to dance and invites him to be close to her. The Beast is thrilled, and it’s easy to be reminded of what it was like when a crush expressed some sort of interest in you. He asks her if she is happy with him and Belle pauses and looks away, then tells him that she misses her father. It is a distinct reminder that despite all these tender moments, she is still a prisoner.
The Beast is uncomfortable with this reminder of her imprisonment, as well. Although he wants her to stay, he has come to respect Belle as a person and to value her own needs and wishes, so he releases her. Although his caring for her has passed from selfish into selfless, it is significant that Belle still does not confess any love. Meanwhile, the Beast’s actions are immediately contrasted with Gaston’s – while the Beast lets Belle go free, Gaston is busy bribing people to have Maurice committed to an insane asylum out of spite and an attempt to manipulate Belle into grudgingly marrying him. When he realizes that nothing he can do will win Belle, he tries instead to imprison her as well, and turns on the Beast in jealousy. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you had feelings for this monster… She’s as crazy as the old man!” While the Beast has grown in concern for Belle, Gaston has simply gone further down the rabbit-hole of gaslighting and blackmailing her, betraying a profound lack of regard for her or her well-being.
It is understandable that the Beast is in despair when he sees a mob of villagers – headed by the town hotshot carrying the magic mirror which he gave to Belle as a gift – coming to attack his castle. He is certain he is now doomed by the curse as the last petal is about to fall and, to all appearances, the woman he loves has betrayed him by sending her boyfriend to lead the town against him. Despite the apparent betrayal and despite the attack on his life, the Beast does not kill Gaston when provoked; Gaston pleads for his life in fear and the Beast grants him mercy. (It is only fitting that Gaston falls to his death when he defies that mercy and stabs the Beast again.) This is significant because the old Beast had no restraint on his temper, but the new Beast who has learned patience and empathy does.
Only now that he has shown control of violence does he deserve Belle’s love – and only now does she fully offer it and say “I love you,” which breaks the curse.
In the past, my biggest complaint about this movie was that it at times seemed to tacitly condone staying in abusive relationships. The Beast certainly demonstrates abusive behaviors throughout the movie and is “changed” in part by Belle. Women in abusive relationships often blame themselves for their partner’s behavior and may think things such as “if I just love him enough, he will change,” or “he needs me.” It is certainly not the only reason people continue in abusive relationships, but it can be a piece of it. What I find significant about the film is that although Belle stops hating the Beast while he is going through his real transformation (the behavioral one, not the physical one,) she does not ever say “I love you” until after he has demonstrated respect for her autonomy and – even more importantly – after he has completely stopped expressing violence. While he is still displaying abusive behavior, they are not in a romantic relationship, and at no point does she express an expectation that her love can change him or attempt to use that as an incentive for him.
It may be easy for young girls to think they have found their “Beast”: a man who will be a prince if she just changes him, but it is important not to confuse a “Beast” (someone who is perhaps a bit coarse and unrefined) with a “Gaston” – someone who does not demonstrate respect for (and may even hurt) the girl. No matter how much love Belle showed him, Gaston would not have changed to be a less cruel person – he already had plenty of positive attention and reinforcement. A person cannot change until they have thought about changing, decided they want to change, and then acted on it – no one else could have forced Gaston to be a better person. Likewise, no one – not even Belle – could have forced the Beast to change. In fact, I’m already thinking of using this metaphor as cautioning advice for friends or future daughters: “Is he truly a Beast, or is he really a Gaston? Don’t confuse one for the other!”
I have heard men say, “of course she loved the Beast – he had a large castle and a lot of money!” To which I would say, “if you fall for a book worm, you don’t need a castle… just go on a date to the nearest library!” Belle loved the Beast for being different from the villagers – by the end he was more empathetic to her, more respectful of her desires, and more willing to share her passion which is really what we should be pointing out to young men.
For the record, I have cried at least four times re-watching the movie and writing this essay, because to me it is a truly beautiful expression of love. The Beast and Belle’s love for one another is profound and true. They have both learned to admit when they were wrong. They have learned to change for the other person to become better, and to hold true to themselves when necessary. At the end of the film, Chip asks Mrs. Potts, “are they going to live happily ever after?” Mrs. Potts laughs and sighs “Of course.” And for once, I believe it.