Films / Women and Gender

Animated Children’s Films Series at Bitch Flicks: Despite an Intelligent Heroine, Beauty Obsession, Sexism & Stockholm Syndrome Taint Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Originally published at Bitch Flicks as part of their Animated Children’s Films Series.

An intelligent, strong-willed, female protagonist. Who reads books. And seeks adventure. With a heroine like Belle, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, must be a feminist-minded film. Right?? At first, I thought so too. But appearances can be deceiving…

Hailed by critics as a touching romance and one of the greatest animated films ever made, Beauty and the Beast became the first animated movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. When I watched it in the theatre years ago, I too fell under its spell, seduced by its lush animation, whimsical tunes and of course Belle.

It felt refreshing to see an intelligent, outspoken, animated heroine who loved to read. Outspoken and loved books? I was outspoken and loved books! I saw myself in Belle. She was a misunderstood misfit, wanting “more than this provincial life” to which she had been born. I too felt like an outcast, yearning for adventure and freedom. We were kindred spirits.

But it wasn’t until years later that I saw the crack in the veneer. As I got older and embraced myself as a feminist, I began to question things more diligently. Once you start to see sexism, you can’t NOT see it. Sadly, it’s everywhere, including children’s films. Actually it’s possibly most prevalent in children’s films, which often reinforce tired and oppressive gender roles and stereotypes.

Yes, Belle is intelligent, courageous, curious, opinionated…all the things I admire in female protagonists. Disney was painfully aware of the criticism against The Little Mermaid’s Ariel giving up her family, her life, hell even her voice all for a stupid prince. Linda Woolverton, Beauty and the Beast’s screenwriter, drew inspiration for Belle from tomboyish, book-loving, outspoken Jo in Little Women. Belle’s feisty independence heralded a new kind of Disney heroine, paving the way for Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan. And yes, we often see the world from her vantage point, another plus. Although the film begins and ends with the Beast, who also happens to go through the biggest transformation (literally and figuratively) in the film. Despite her awesomeness, there’s still a huge problem with Belle.

Even though Belle possesses admirable traits, her merit still comes down to her looks. The Beast, Gaston, the villagers and the enchanted servants all exclaim she’s beautiful, gorgeous, pretty and “her looks have no parallel.” Girls and women should be valued for their intellect, skills and kindness. But no one in the movie is raving about Belle’s inner beauty. Not only is Belle stunning, which of course all Disney “princesses” must be, and white and thin (god we need some diversity in films). It’s her name.

Her fucking name is “BELLE,” which in French means “beautiful!” Despite her intelligence and bibliophile ways, even her fucking name revolves around her looks. Once again, women are subjugated and reduced to their appearances. Disney says sure, it’s okay to be smart, bookish, even a weird outcast…as long as you’re pretty. Ugh.

In fact, the whole goddamn movie revolves around beauty. Symbols of beauty (mirrors and roses) permeate the film. Ironic since the intended moral of the fairy tale is looking past appearances to seek true inner beauty. But here’s the kicker. Beauty and the Beast would never have been made with a woman as a beast. Again reinforcing that yep, beauty is only skin deep…if you’re a dude. If you’re a woman, you’d best be gorgeous.

The only other female characters in the movie are Mrs. Potts (I heart Angela Lansbury!), the wardrobe (who has no personality) and the French maid feather duster. A grandmotherly type and a sexpot. Of course Disney does their notorious matricide in the form of the protagonist’s mother either dead or non-existent. They demonize stepmothers and solely focus on both daughters’ and sons’ relationships with their fathers. Seriously, Disney, what the hell have you got against mothers?? And yep, I’m aware Mrs. Potts is Chips’s mother. Doesn’t count. Not only is she not Belle’s mother, she’s a fucking teapot for most of the film. Belle has no female friends, no mother, no sister, no female role model. The importance of female camaraderie and sisterly bonding remain absent from the film.

Unlike many female characters in animated films (or annoying rom-coms for that matter), Belle isn’t looking to be rescued or waiting around for her prince. Two reasons that make Belle a feminist in Woolverton’s eyes. Belle rejects the sexist chauvinist Gaston and his numerous marriage proposals, finding him “boorish” and “brainless.” She wants more out of life than shining that jerk’s boots and popping out his babies. But Belle rebuffs one dysfunctional suitor for another.

A cursed spoiled prince, the Beast imprisons Belle’s father, Maurice, for trespassing. When Belle comes to his rescue, she sacrifices her cherished freedom, for his release. As a “guest” prisoner in the castle, the Beast demands Belle attend dinner with him and forbids her from the West Wing. He screams and throws things at her, his selfish temper raging out of control. Oh, I forgot…the Beast is a romanticized tortured soul. So it’s okay if he’s an abrasive douchebag!

Sure, the sympathetic Beast eventually becomes nicer, giving Belle access to his library and letting birds treat him like a bird feeder. And I do like that Belle and the Beast become friends first before falling in love, which rarely happens in fairy tales. Except for one teeny tiny thing. He’s her captor. Falling in love with the guy who imprisons you, holds you hostage, tells you when to eat, where to go and doesn’t let you see your family?! That’s not love. That’s Stockholm Syndrome, sweetie.

Poisonous messages about love and relationships plague Beauty and the Beast. Don’t worry, ladies…if you suffer and stick by him long enough, your man will change. Just be patient with a guy who’s controlling or abusive. In her lifetime, 1 in 4 women will suffer domestic violence. More and more teenage girls contend with dating violence. Love should not hurt. Ever. But this movie (and sooooo many others) insidiously tells girls that when they grow up, they should stand by their man. Even if he treats you like shit.

I’ll admit Belle as a female character is a huge step in the right direction. She’s smart, stubborn, kind and ambitious. But Belle gives up her entire life to live forever in a castle with an asshat prince. What about her goals? Her dreams?? Oh that’s right. She becomes a princess! Yet another princess in the pantheon of princesses clogging up girlie-girl media.

Films and books reinforce gender roles and with a lack of female characters, imply that girls and women don’t count. Out of Disney’s 51 animated movies, only 12 feature a female character as a protagonist, most of them princesses. Princesses only care about their clothes and hair. Their looks matter more than their personalities. It seems society would rather teach girls to obsess over their appearance and how to snag a man.

Couldn’t Belle have opened up a bookshop/café or started a book drive or something?? When Belle sang about wanting “more than this provincial life,” I simply refuse to believe twirling around a ballroom in a pretty gown is what she had in mind.

People might think I’m being silly or overreacting about a Disney movie. Fair enough. But I call bullshit. Listen, when we’re young, books, music, movies, TV shows, advertisements and even toys teach us gender roles and identity. Little boys pretend they’re kings or aspire to be president while little girls yearn not to lead like queens, but to be passive princesses. One film probably won’t have much impact. But when the same sexist messages repeat over and over and over and over…well, then it seeps in.

I’m not going to lie. I still watch Beauty and the Beast, singing along to the songs. When I discovered Disney World was building a Beauty and the Beast themed restaurant and attraction, I admit I felt giddy with excitement. But look beyond the gorgeous animation, catchy show tunes and unique heroine.

Sadly, you’ll see yet another fabulous film tainted by sexism, spreading toxic messages that reinforce damaging beauty norms, violence against women and suffocating gender stereotypes.

Not all that glitters is gold. Unwrapping the beautiful package can sometimes yield an ugly core.

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5 thoughts on “Animated Children’s Films Series at Bitch Flicks: Despite an Intelligent Heroine, Beauty Obsession, Sexism & Stockholm Syndrome Taint Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’

  1. I love this post. I never really like Beauty and the Beast (along with all the other Disney movies) but you wrote out my exact fthoughts and feelings on the movie. Way cool.

  2. One film probably won’t have much impact. But when the same sexist messages repeat over and over and over and over…well, then it seeps in.

    That, I think, is the key point to remember when it comes to media criticism. Many stories in of themselves are not that problematic, but they become problematic when looked at from a larger context. That’s why the Bechdel test is important. An individual movie failing the Bechdel test is no big deal; it’s the fact that SO MANY popular movies fail the Bechdel test that causes a problem.

    That said, I want to comment on/debate a couple of points here.

    I’m not sure Disney and the writers of this particular adaptation can be blamed for giving her a name that only emphasizes her beauty, since her name is “Belle” in the first original published version of the story, too. They didn’t change the status quo for this story, no, but they also didn’t create it.

    Of course Disney does their notorious matricide in the form of the protagonist’s mother either dead or non-existent. They demonize stepmothers and solely focus on both daughters’ and sons’ relationships with their fathers. Seriously, Disney, what the hell have you got against mothers??

    I’ve often asked the same question about Shakespeare and his plays. So many of his plays and comedies have the fathers, virgin female heroines, and dead or absent mothers. I feel like there’s a paper in that somewhere. I think I almost fainted from shock when the first Disney/Pixar movie came out and Andy in Toy Story had the single MOTHER instead.

    That’s not love. That’s Stockholm Syndrome, sweetie.

    I’m not refuting your point here, but I do wonder about the dynamics of the Belle/Beast dynamic after he yells at her and tells her to leave. He’s not much of a hostage-keeper if he kicks her out. She goes back with him after he saves her from the wolves. The way they interact after that gives me the impression that she’s staying willingly.

    I always find it jarring when he says he’s going to release her and she’s no longer his prisoner, because technically, isn’t she there by choice the moment she takes him back to the castle after the wolves injure him? I’m not saying you’re wrong, but it’s something that makes me wonder. Does that only further prove the nature of Stockholm Syndrome that she feels like she HAS to go back even if she’s technically free to leave – or is she just being compassionate to a guy that was attacked by wolves?

    Don’t worry, ladies…if you suffer and stick by him long enough, your man will change. Just be patient with a guy who’s controlling or abusive.

    I have to say, I don’t see it this way at all. The message of the story isn’t centered around Belle’s actions at all, but the Beast’s. The Beast is the one who has to learn that he’ll never receive love or any affection at all until he changes his ways and becomes a better person.

    Before he became the Beast, I imagine that the prince was very much like Gaston – a privileged, callous asshole who didn’t care about anyone but himself and saw human beings as objects to possess or discard at whim. The enchantress’s spell that gives him a physically hideous exterior forces him to confront for the first time in his life that he’s a pretty terrible person. He wants to become better, but only to serve his own needs so he’ll be released from the spell. It isn’t until Belle thanks him for saving his life that he seems to realize that hey, receiving actual gratitude for something kind that he did, instead of just being sucked up to for being a prince, is a nice feeling, isn’t it! And then he continues to progress from there.

    I think there’s definitely something to be said for an anti-feminist take on this movie, but I don’t think girls will necessarily take from it that abusive guys are good deep down and can really change if you give them a chance – after all, look at Gaston. The Beast offers him mercy and Gaston still stabs him in the back – not everyone CAN be redeemed. I think the aspect of Belle giving up her dreams, and the fact that her story is only secondary to his and her motivations less important than the Beast’s story, is a bigger problem.

  3. Belle has nothing on Snow White, though Snow White had it’s own sort of
    warped message towords women:

    Girl on girl violence (The evil Queen scheming to kill Snow White, first by
    hiring a ‘hit’ (the hunter), then taking matters into her own hands, to do
    the job to her satisfaction).

    Vanity (The Queen is obsessed with her looks, and competitive with the fairer, SW.
    The mirror purposely escalates the situation, driving the Queen to kill).

    Independence: (SW is taken in by the seven Dwarves, not out of the kindness of their
    hearts, but as a personal maid!
    For room & board, she has to constantly cook & clean, while they wander off to some
    imaginary mining job in the woods).

    Life after death: (Only the kiss of a prince could rouse SW from her apple-induced
    coma.
    What if she was a lesbian?
    Nope, sorry…it’s gotta be a guy, only a dude can save you.”)

  4. The nomination of the Disney/Pixar film “UP” in the Best Picture category of the 2010 Academy Awards returns Disney to its rightful position as undisputed king of animated film, a throne it has occupied for most of the past 100 years. Putting aside arguments as to what constitutes an animated film (some claim this appellation for Up’s co-nominee Avatar), this marks only the second time an animated feature has been nominated for the award (the first was another Disney film – Beauty and the Beast, of 1991, which somewhat ironically lost out to The Silence of the Lambs, which, it could be argued, resembled Beauty and the Beast in more ways than one.)

  5. I know this isn’t likely to be popular, but I would like to point out that the movie is based on a fairytale that already existed…. it isn’t as though disney came up with all of this on its own. The same goes for The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, etc. I’m not saying they have no accountability in how they got the story across, but some of the issues you have with the movie are inherent in the fairytale the movie is based on.

    In fact, in some ways Disney REALLY cleaned up these stories. Especially when you look into some of the older and darker forms of the fairytale. For instance : Belle doesn’t get raped, snow white doesn’t force the evil queen to dance to death in hot metal shoes, sleeping beauty isn’t taken advantage of while she slumbers (birthing two children in the process), and cinderella’s steps sisters don’t chop off bits of their feet to get them into the glass slipper.

    Also, these fairy tales are situated in a different time period. Getting upset at a movie that takes place in that past because the women in the story are portrayed as occupying an outdated gender role just seems kind of silly.

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