Friday, May 28, 2010
Disturbing 90s Flashback: Disney's Beauty and the Beast
I grew up on Disney movies and other fairy tale films. The Last Unicorn, The Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Legend, The Neverending Story, and every animated Disney movie from The Little Mermaid on (watched religiously, several times a day) fed my imagination, their lighthearted family fun tempered by my favorite childhood book, an illustrated Favorite Tales from Grimm. As a super-religious child, I even worried that my rabid love of fairy tales bordered on the sin of idolatry. But that's another story.
I'm not about to trash Disney movies and say they're no good. Obviously, they are aesthetic and theatrical masterpieces, and obviously they tap into deep-rooted fantasies that many of us share. Beauty and the Beast, in particular, was incredibly successful and almost universally adored. After The Little Mermaid, Disney made a special effort to make their next heroine, Belle, into a more empowered woman than Ariel, with a more developed leading man than Prince Eric.
In my opinion, Disney was not as successful as they intended. Recently, I heard the soundtrack to the movie and took a little trip down memory lane. Oh, those catchy and beautiful songs that I sang along with countless times as a kid! Listening to them with adult ears, separated from the magical animation, I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
It became clear to me that there were some truly heinous fantasies going on from the start.
1. I'm better than all of you.
Belle is supposed to be sweet, kind, a little strange, and lonely. But in the opening "Bonjour" song, she suddenly sounded like a spoiled, snotty bitch to me. The villagers say hello to Belle as they pass, and she largely ignores them as she walks while reading (not as bad as texting while driving, but still rude) and whines about how there's got to be something better for her than this dumb village. To be fair, the villagers gossip amongst themselves about how she's a weirdo. But they seem genuinely interested and kindly towards her, while she simply acts as if they are beneath her because they do not share her interest in romance stories. "I want so much more," she sings to herself in a meadow, but she isn't clear what she wants or how she's going to get it. She's just too good for this place.
2. The servants love nothing more than to serve me.
This is the whole point of the "Be My Guest" song. It reminded me uncomfortably of the Happy Slave Myth. Seriously, just listen to the song sometime. It's all about how the servants have no greater desires in life than to serve a master or mistress and cannot be happy if they are not doing so. Enough said.
3. Arrogant jerks are okay after all if they're rich.
Belle spurns the attentions of Gaston, who is handsome, athletic, social, skilled, and adventurous. He's also a big bully and an arrogant jerk who has no interest in romance stories or any other kind of reading. Makes sense that she scorns him, right? Until she meets Beast, who is also a big, bullying, arrogant jerk who continuously insults her and threatens her with violence and, to top it off, is illiterate. But he also lives in a castle. Flava of Love, anyone? Or is it Stockholm Syndrome? If Gaston had just locked Belle in a basement in the BEGINNING of the movie, would he have won her over in a few months? Especially if it was a CASTLE basement?
4. If I'm pretty and sweet enough, my abuser will turn into a charming prince.
In the traditional Beauty and the Beast tales, the Beast is a kind, gentle character who only looks ugly. In Disney's version, he's a raging asshole with an anger management problem. But Belle's love magically transforms him, and they live happily ever after! Uh, yikes.
In my own personal version of the tale that I am writing now, I've gone back to a more traditional Beast character and a radically different Beauty. My character Bellynda lives in a patriarchal society, and instead of learning to be sweet and obedient, she has learned to be hard and manipulative to get what she wants. Her father is weak and cowardly, as in the older tales (and, arguably, in the Disney version). But instead of being a martyr for her father and then husband, she schemes and uses them for her own ends. I wouldn't call her a "bad" character. In fact, she's great fun to write. She's not a villain. She's just imperfect, and she happens to err on the side of screwing over other people rather than sacrificing herself. She calls it like it is and works the system, manipulating the same men who think they rule her existence. I haven't posted any excerpts with her in them yet, but stay tuned!
It's all about tapping into fantasies... but as I get older and wiser and more experienced, my tastes change.
How about you, readers? Are you aware of the types of fantasies that resonate with you?
For further hilarious and insightful reading about the cultural fantasies and messages in Disney animated films, check out Disney's Dolls by Kathy Maio and last year's Cracked.com article.