One of the advantages of having daughters is that one becomes extremely well-versed in the canon of Disney movies, and particularly Disney Princess flicks. As a cornerstone of modern culture, this is no bad thing (though upon watching Frozen for the forty-seventh time this assertion does buckle somewhat), and the fact that many of the Disney stories are invariably based upon older, and in some cases very ancient, stories inculcates oneself with a sense that there is an eldritch wisdom at work in them. And it does tend to be the Disney movies that have a longer storytelling pedigree perform best culturally (the banging songs help, of course).
Having watched Beauty And The Beast (the 1991 animated version) again quite recently, something struck me about the film. First thing’s first; the 1991 BATB is a great film, a confirmation of Roger Ebert’s pre-CGI assertion that hand-drawn animation must be the principal medium by which to convey fantasy and the fantastical. It is the only animated film to have been nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award before the introduction of the Best Animated Feature award (Up and Toy Story 3 have been nominated since then, again both stupendous films). BATB is also the last film where the great songwriting duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken collaborated on the score; Ashman died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1991 (Ashman’s incomplete Aladdin musical numbers were completed by Sir Tim Rice). It also came on the heels of The Little Mermaid, which reinstalled Disney as a moviemaking force as it returned to its winning formula of classical fairytales with pop sensibilities. So BATB had a lot going for it already.
But there’s something else. There’s no mystery in Beauty And The Beast being a pure representation of the female myth; the taming of a monstrous man into something that’s pure and useful. It’s so obvious that it’s become a cliché, but it’s worth remembering that clichés are often born out things that are so true that they almost hardly need saying – until they become clichés and we forget why they became clichés in the first place. BATB shows the female lead coaxing a Prince out of not only a rude, coarse and unrefined man, but one that carries the very real and very imminent threat of violence and even death. That the Beast is not just ugly and uncouth but extremely dangerous seems not to be trivial to me: I recall that apocryphal quote from Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.” I like this quote a lot, because most men think in response, “Oh but I wouldn’t ever actually do that,” which thoroughly misses the point. It’s of great utility to recall Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s quote about the line between good and evil being drawn down the centre of every human heart – anybody is capable of anything. The Beast represents man in his most unrealised state: the potential to do great good and great wickedness is in him, and both emerge during the storyline, as he imprisons both Belle and her father, acts like a tyrant, yet saves the young woman from the wolves in the forest.
Beast’s arc becomes Belle’s responsibility. It’s clear that the man cannot save himself; through his own conceitedness and selfishness he’s already cursed, but that’s not the end of the story for man; that’s the beginning. Atwood’s quote about men and women doesn’t just ring true about the fear of violence from a female perspective; the first axiom also does. The Prince is brought low and becomes ugly because he’s humiliated by a beautiful enchantress (in the Disney film it’s because he refuses her shelter as she’s disguised as a hag; in the original Villeneuve fairy story it’s a more sinister tale of female-initiated seduction and rejection, but the end result is the same), and while humiliation at the hands of a woman can bring a beast out of a man, it’s also in the gift of woman to bring the man out of the beast.
This is fairly obvious when you think about it, and isn’t uncommon: the same story surfaces everywhere: Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are the obvious ones from recent history, but it’s also in Jane Eyre, The Shape Of Water, Wuthering Heights, Outlander, and a million other things, while deeper cuts can be found in things like The Scarlet Flower and the sex-switch Penelope. That’s not to mention the myriad other TV and film adaptations of BATB itself (the 1946 Cocteau adaptation La Belle et la Bête is marvellous). During a long, Rioja-fuelled conversation with my wife last week on this subject, I laid down my hypothesis, and she seemed to think that I’d got it half-right, but that it suffered from it being only formulated from a male perspective. The dormant utility of the Beast is exactly how a man would – and should – view the film. Mrs J agreed that the danger inherent in the Beast is how a woman may well perceive a man. But there was a whole lot that was missing. So we sat down, poured more Rioja and talked about it, and we hit upon a really clever thing about the BATB story; it’s not only a female myth, but also a male myth.
What I’d failed to see, and where Mrs J put me right, is that for her the main mythical element of the story is that the eponymously pulchritudinous Belle, being well-read and yearning to escape from her “provincial life” in middle-of-nowhere rural France, wants more than anything to have an adventure and see the world. So far, so what, you might think. Standard fodder for any sort of mythical hero, whether it’s Abraham, Odysseus, Luke Skywalker, or Harry Potter. But BATB presents the woman as being the central figure who needs to go out and conquer the world. It’s rare (at least, it was rare, it’s far more common these days) that the male myth is based upon this premise. Like almost all male mythical figures, Belle is compelled to go out into the world, not entirely sure of what she’ll find (it certainly isn’t the idealised way of things her storybooks tell her). In the end she rescues her father by agreeing to be held captive in his place in the Beast’s castle, draw out the useful male from the beastly one using her courage, kindness, and intelligence, and literally reshapes the world (the male’s ruined domain becomes one that is glittering and majestic).
Two of those elements – the rescuing of the father and the remaking of the kingdom – are more commonly presented as male mythical tropes (all the characters listed above do it, as do many many other characters, from Horus in Egyptian mythology to Simba in The Lion King. It crops up everywhere – I even noticed it in the character of Lloyd Vogel in It’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood), but Belle has the additional challenge of remaking the wayward male, as well as saving her father and remaking the corrupt world. It’s a tough job, but she manages it. So what we have is a film that shows us that the male myth and the female myth are essentially the same thing, but with the caveat that the female myth recognises also that man must also be redeemed by woman if he is to be at all of any use in this world. This may seen unfair on women that they have this extra burden, but as a man (and on behalf of not quite all men, but certainly my friends) I can safely say that meeting a good woman has turned them, if not from frogs or beasts to princes, to certainly people who are of greater value to the world. I’m 100% a better man for being married than I would have been if I’d not done so; to have a Belle to point out all the things that make me “rude and coarse and unrefined” as the song goes – and like Beast, I might sulk about it, but then I smooth out my shirt, comb my hair, and try to be a better man.
There’s a flip side to all this. Just as Beast is released from his curse by Belle and makes him fall for her, it can’t be all Belle. As Mrs Potts (voiced by the wonderful Angela Lansbury) says, “It’s not enough. She has to fall in love with him as well.” Beast has to act to awaken the love in Belle; it must be reciprocal. In my last long read I concluded that theory isn’t enough – we have to act on it to see how things will really come about. Thus Beast has to show that he loves Belle, and he does so by engaging with the truly monstrous Gaston and saving himself.
Gaston is an interesting character, and one of the most dastardly of the villains in the Disney canon (for my money Scar and Maleficent also sit at the top of the tree). There’s no equivalent character in the original Villeneuve tale, but his inclusion makes sense as he acts as a good foil to the Beast; like the Beast he is filled with potential for good and for great violence (and, interestingly, like the Beast, he is humiliated by a woman – Belle – when she rejects his advances early on in his story), but when the chips are down he doubles down on his conceitedness, manipulation, arrogance and capacity for cruelty rather than realise the usefulness in turning his back on them and improving himself. His rampant hypermasculinity contrasts against the Beast’s ruined masculinity. If the task Belle is faced with is to draw the good man out of the Beast, she quickly realises that such a thing is impossible with Gaston.
As Gaston descends into murderous violence he becomes the dragon the Beast must voluntarily face and slay to provide him with his own opportunity for redemption. In the penultimate act we revert to type and we are treated to the classical fairytale ending as seen in Sleeping Beauty: the knight must face up against the wicked monster (it’s brilliant how Gaston becomes increasingly deranged and Beast-like, caked in mud and rain, eyes bulging with bloodlust, towards the end of the film) to win the love of Belle. And it ends in the same way as Sleeping Beauty, with a kiss that remakes the world. But it’s the courageous Belle who must first face up to the rank hypermasculinity of Gaston to instil in Beast the courage to destroy it and become the good man that he can be. It’s telling that BATB carries so many elements of the female and male myths – and frequently blurs the lines between them – that such an ardent feminist as Emma Watson was so keen to star as Belle in the 2017 tale. Even without the revisions (Watson’s Belle is just as much an inventor as her father) it is a feminist tale, and one as old as time.
I’ll be on holiday next week, gallumping around the Scottish Highlands hunting for whisky and haggis, so there’ll be no post for the next couple of Mondays, but I will be posting the next couple of chapters of Resvrgam over the next couple of Fridays.
One thought on “Literature Long Read: The Female (And Male) Myth in Beauty And The Beast”