So I just watched Beauty and the Beast this past weekend. It was quite an interesting experience to say the least. I remember watching it as a child and being fascinated by the ballroom scene. But even as a child, somehow the film never really resonated with me. Hence, today, with the reboot taking the box office by storm, I feel the reason for its success it exactly that; the nostalgic familiarity people have with the colors, the music and the characters.
On the surface level, it has quite a poignant message: that inner beauty counts a lot more than outer beauty. That doing good is what makes you beautiful from the inside out. That you must never judge anyone based on what they look like. All of these are great messages for kids to take away. But then there are other, more subliminal messages that have always rubbed me the wrong way.
Now, I don’t have children of my own. But if I did, there are a few things I would explain to them before I took them to see ‘Beauty and the Beast’…
It Is Not Enough for the Protagonist to Be a Woman
I’m going to begin with the least daunting message—it is simply not enough to have a leading lady as your protagonist. Not in 2017. It must be so that more women are cast in meaningful roles across the film. A sole female character at the helm of the story isn’t enough. I know what you’re thinking at this point—there were a handful of other female characters in this film. Mrs. Potts being one, Featherduster being the other, and Wardrobe the third. But that’s where it gets interesting. A survey was conducted that meant to analyze the dialogue spoken in the top ten blockbusters of our time, i.e. the highest grossing films ever. As it turns out, women only spoke 27% of the dialogues in these movies. What’s more is that the two female characters that had the most dialogue were animated characters—Dory from ‘Finding Dory’ and Judy Hopps from ‘Zootopia’.
So no, I’m not going to be impressed with a project simply because our protagonist is the heroin. I’d like to see much more effort than a mere 27 per cent.
Let’s Face It, this Movie is About an Abusive Relationship
There, I said it.
At the core of it, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is about a beautiful girl who is held captive by a beastly beast and ultimately falls in love with her captor. This is literally a story about Stockholm Syndrome. So, when this movie was packaged as some sort of feminist project with Emma Watson, a prominent proponent of modern feminism as the lead, I did not buy it. Sure, she is whimsical and likes to invent things and reads in a town where reading is looked down upon; it just seemed really disingenuous. What the ‘whimsical’ and ‘socially awkward’ traits did was provide a cover for traits that were just as tired as any other movie with underdeveloped female characters.
What was the “tale as old as time” then? The fact that if you are in an abusive relationship, you should stick it out because you can change him/her. The Beast is horrible to her. He imprisons her because her father stole a rose. She sacrifices herself when she makes the hostage exchange. He cuts her off from her friends and family. He literally puts her behind bars. He refuses to let her eat without his company (‘If she doesn’t eat with me, then she doesn’t eat at all!’). He rages and lashes out in front of her. Then, he contrasts it with little acts of kindness. He saves her life from the wolves. He gives her the library. He makes Belle believe that there is some good in him, which gives him licence to be abusive otherwise.
The Conversations Around it Should Explore Power Dynamics
The truth is, Belle falls in love with her captor because of the little bits of good she sees in him. She makes peace with her arrangement. She learns to accept her situation; she accepts the love she thinks she deserves. That’s where I have a problem with this dynamic.
Essentially, this 2017 version of the movie should start a conversation about power dynamics in relationships. It should start conversations on consent and what it means to find a soft spot for your abuser. That’s the kind of message I would want my daughter to take away when she watches the film. Feminism doesn’t have to be so surface level—it does not have to be so dressed up that it exists only in the little quirks of the heroin. It needs to be deeper than that. That doesn’t mean that the lead can only be a ‘strong female character’. I understand the shortcomings of that trope. However, I do think that in this day and age, we mustn’t have such stories anymore. We need stories with greater nuances and greater depth and definite greater development of the female characters.
How would I have liked ‘Beauty and the Beauty’ to end? When Beast finally lets her go, I would’ve liked Belle to run far, far away from her captor and never return to him. I would’ve liked her to have that kind of power. Then again, the people wouldn’t have the romantic happy ending they ordered, would they?