Welcome to the first installment of Fairy Tale Wedding: Autopsy. Today on the slab we have Beauty and the Beast. Wash up, glove up, and let’s get cutting!
The Story We Know
In the year of 1991CE, the Walt Disney company released an animated adaptation to teach everyone that beauty is on the inside. The character of Beauty is known as Belle and she’s a gorgeous bookworm just trying to find her way in a crazy world when she has to trade her freedom for her father’s. Her captor, a hideous beast, eventually turns out to be not so bad, just a little misunderstood and in need of a gentle touch. Wacky hijinks ensue and a mob with torches lights Belle’s way to the Beast’s heart. They live happily ever after.
The Original Story
Published in 1740 in La Jeune Americaine et les contes marins, the original Beauty and the Beast was written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. The goal of this version was to help girls of the time come to terms with arranged marriages and is a much longer version.
Beast’s backstory tells us how his father was killed when he was young and his mother had to ride out to war to defend the kingdom. The young prince was left in the care of an evil fairy who tried to get him to marry her when he came of age. When he refused, she turned him into a Beast and enchanted his castle out of spite. The only thing that would lift the curse was true love.
Beauty was the daughter of a King and a good fairy. Her life ended up on the line and the King placed her with a Merchant and his family to protect her. She had brothers and sisters and wealth.
One day, the Merchant lost everything. He made one last attempt to get a semblance of his wealth back and failed. On his dejected way home, he got lost in a storm and ended up at the Beast’s castle. There, he was fed and well cared for, but he decided to steal a rose from the garden on his way out. This led to having to make a deal with the Beast and Beauty ends up part of the deal. She becomes the Mistress of the castle and the Beast her humble servant. Over the course of a year, she gets to know the Beast through daily conversations while telling him “No” every time he asks her to marry him. Eventually, he lets her return home because she is so very homesick. There, she’s tricked into staying home by her evil adopted sisters. The Beast had given her a magic mirror so she could look back on him. When she looks back, she sees he’s dying of a broken heart because she didn’t return to him. Beauty hurries back to his side, professes her love and they get married and live happily ever after.
Why Modern People Should Never Base Their Lives on This Fairytale
While there are some vague similarities between the two versions and there’s a newer live action from Disney that’s more aligned with the original story, I’m going to focus on the Disney animated version. That one is the one that the majority of our society knows the best and I think I’m safe-ish in wagering it’s the one with the greater impact. Also, it’s the one I can watch from the comfort of my couch and make notes on.
The story starts in a quaint French village. We get the sense that Belle and her dad just moved there from somewhere else, likely a city. Life in this town is rough. People have to work for everything. We see a mom juggling a bunch of kids, people who have been up for hours working to have products available for when their stores open, etc. And there’s Belle who just kind of wanders in to get a book and wander out, completely oblivious to the world she just entered.
This story line goes out of its way to establish how odd she is without even touching on why she has her nose buried in those books. The townsfolk (aka society) are oblivious to the fact they probably trained her to be that way. When she does try to engage someone by talking about something she likes, he dismisses her and ignores her. Other men ogle her and women turn up their noses at her. The guy at the bookstore doesn’t seem to think she’s odd at all and they carry on a perfectly decent conversation even while there’s a group of dudes watching her through the window. When that same group tries to wave at her and get her attention as she leaves, they label her as weird again when she doesn’t give them that attention. It was the Disney version of, “If that chick doesn’t like me with my penis, she must be a lesbian. It can’t be any fault of my own or my deplorable behavior.”
When she meets Gaston (and we first meet him), she handles him the way so many of us women have learned to handle assholes like him. She can’t just come right out and say what she’s thinking because who knows how a guy like that might respond and who knows how those who think he’s the hot shit might respond. Just her slipping away from him is considered insane. Gaston is a hot sexy brute! In this town, he’s the best game there is.
Of course, the point of Gaston is to set up that the Beast, comparatively, is a saint. Sure, he’s got a temper, but he’s no Gaston. Gaston is the guy that will stay out at all hours with his bros, spend days away from home hunting in a manly man fashion, and expect to be catered to hand and foot when he bothers to come home. He’s the guy that will treat Belle like a brood mare and it’s implied she better just birth him sons. With Gaston, she’s not remotely a person. She doesn’t have hopes or dreams or sentience as far as he’s concerned.
LOOK AT HOW BAD THIS GUY IS, YOU GUYS. SO BAD.
All Belle wants, as any of us want, is to be able to be her own unique person with her own hopes and dreams and a chance to fulfill them. That’s it. Is that really so much to ask?
Apparently it is.
Belle’s dad ends up a prisoner of the Beast. She trades her freedom for his. And this is where shit starts to get real weird.
Watching this movie with a more critical eye, I came to realize something: both Belle and the Beast are at the mercy of the castle staff. The castle staff are freaking out because they know their time is coming to an end. Sure, the Prince will “lose his humanity” too, but at least he gets to be an organism. The rest of them? They have to stay as furniture. Can you imagine being a human and having to stay as furniture? Plus, what does that actually mean? Will they truly cease to exist or will they still be aware of themselves and their surroundings while being frozen in a table? Are these answers they have? If not, you know they’re wondering these things and they aren’t liking their odds. They’ve got to get the Beast married off and quick.
And what does that sound like?
It sounds like everyone’s mother/father, aunt/uncle, grandparent who won’t leave well enough alone, doesn’t it? That sucks you hear the ticking of the clock, Grandpa, and you want to see your grandson get married before you die for entirely selfish reasons, but that’s not your call. It’s not your life. Stay out of it.
But, as with real life, that conversation doesn’t happen here.
The second Belle became a fixture in that castle, the staff started to manipulate her and the Beast. There is no concern for whether or not they’re actually suited to each other. All that matters is she showed up just in time so they are going to shoehorn her into fate and prophecy so that they can get what they want before it’s too late.
Oh, and don’t forget: He’s not Gaston.
Here’s what the Beast actually is: He’s a petulant jackass with anger issues waiting for someone to come and save him instead of seeking his own salvation and the salvation of those he is responsible for (his staff). This is a guy who thinks sandwiching one nice thing between a bunch of terrible things means those terrible things never happened. The people around him never once point out that, maybe, just because he nicely asked his prisoner to dinner doesn’t mean she’ll forget she’s his prisoner. Instead, they just indicate he needs to maybe learn to control his temper a little better and then tell her that, maybe, she just needs to give him a chance because he’s really a nice guy down deep. He’s certainly no Gaston.
Never once does it seem like Belle has the option to not be married. If she doesn’t learn to love the Beast, it really seems like she’ll be stuck with Gaston. It also puts the onus on her to forgive the Beast his anger and his faults. Why? There’s no communication at all. She has no idea about the curse or that it can be lifted. She has no reason at all to stick it out with this asshole outside of she’s a prisoner and it’s better to go along with your captor if you don’t want your life to be completely miserable. But it’s not really presented in that way, is it? It’s presented as this is her duty. She is a pretty lady who happened upon this castle and it’s her duty to fix this Beast and fix their problems and make them better. And the Beast is being convinced that he’s entitled to have her in that way.
No. No. No. No.
Well...what about his grand gestures?
You mean saving her from the wolves and giving her a library?
Grand Gesture 1: Wolves
With the wolves, there’s really not any gray area. Either he’s a full-blown psychopath who just shrugs and lets her get eaten or he helps her because, if he doesn’t, she gets eaten. He didn’t have to help her, but most decent-adjacent people in that situation would help her. They didn’t have 911 in those woods, so he was the only game in town and he did the right thing. He doesn’t get a medal for that.
Yet, Belle clearly feels obligated to him for saving her life because that’s how we’re taught. No matter the cause, if a dude does something that appears above and beyond even when it’s just the right thing to do, you owe him. She takes him back and nurses him back to health. Nevermind she could (should) have taken him back to the castle, left him with the staff, and still escaped. They kind of touch on reality with the, “Well if you hadn’t….” but...they fight about that like a couple fights about how dinner got burnt. “Well, if you hadn’t distracted me…” Except that conversation never backtracks to, “Well, if you hadn’t imprisoned me in the first place...”
Grand Gesture 2: Library
First, how did he even know she cared about books? We knew because of the first part of the movie, but I don’t recall any meaningful sit downs where they discuss their hobbies. Possibly it comes up when she’s nursing him back to health, but that’s as deep as their conversations got? No, “So...uh...why is your butler a clock?” And it’s not like he has to give up a huge part of himself for this library. He already had it. All he had to do was open the doors and some curtains to a room that he never used and was already in his house. This was not a grand gesture. This was an afterthought.
Yet, he still got a cookie for it.
A cookie he never began to deserve.
With a grand gesture, he should be taking time, giving of himself in a meaningful way. He should be doing it simply because he wants to see her happy and without any expectation that he should be owed anything afterward. Sure, Disney did try to present things in that way, but the message that was sent was, “Do big looking thing for lady, lady gives lady rewards. Aww yeah.”
During their “falling in love” montage, he’s this oafish animal that she has to mother into a decent person and she’s starting to question if maybe she’s a furry. It’s implied that, with a little patience, all of his anger will just poof away. Kindness and gentleness will beget kindness and gentleness and it will happen relatively instantly.
Then he shows her her father in the mirror and hesitates before letting her go. Does that mean he had no intention of letting her go had her father been doing well? Realistically, there are two reasons for that hesitation. One because he was contemplating what it meant to damn his staff by sending her away. The other option was he didn’t want to let this pretty object he owned and controlled go free. Later, he states he let her go because he loves her. Apparently his conscience couldn’t let him continue to hold her as prisoner even though it had no problem imprisoning her in the first place.
But wait, I hear someone say. Maybe he didn’t want her to leave because he loved her and would miss her terribly after she left?
Here’s my problem with that: If he truly loved her, truly didn’t want her to leave him, but also wanted her to help her father...why didn’t he just go with her or present it as a “we are going to help him” scenario? The only thing keeping him in his castle was how he looked, but they could have figured out ways around that. It didn’t have to actually be that final. If dude wants to blend their lives together, then they need to actually blend those lives and everything that goes with it.
Except Belle may not have wanted his help, of course. When she gets back to her town and finds Gaston about to have her dad sent to the asylum, she doesn’t hesitate to throw the Beast under the bus to save her dad. The townsfolk, led by Gaston, turn into a walking guillotine heading for the Beast’s head. Belle realizes, in that moment, the Beast might need work but at least he’s not Gaston and at least the castle isn’t this backwoods narrow-minded town with the accompanying townsfolk. Oh no! What has she done?!
We return to the Beast where he’s basically given up on life because the one girl that ever showed him kindness or gave him the time of day left him. He gave her all of his cards then let her leave to deal with some pretty intense stuff all on her own then went straight into mopey/give up mode. He apparently had no reason to continue without this girl that he knew for a few months holding his hand and telling him it will be OK. Without a girl telling him he has value, he just lets the villagers bust in to slaughter his staff and destroy his castle. It’s not until he hears her voice that he decides to get up and fight and defend because giving him drive and ambition is her job and her job alone. No one is actually in charge of their own destiny and their own lives here.
In the end, of course, Belle is seen to be rewarded. She puts up with imprisonment, anger control issues, and the Beast putting her in danger for the reward of a beautiful prince. The implication is that he’s a perfect and upstanding guy and they’re going to live happily ever after. There’s no hint that he’s probably going to have some massive PTSD. Obviously, his anger issues were related to his being an animal. There’s no way that stuff is ingrained and can only be changed with a lot of therapy and a willingness to improve as a person.
And, don’t forget: He’s never been as bad as Gaston!
So what? Just because he’s not the worst choice doesn’t mean he’s the best choice. He’s just a choice. You know what else is a choice? Not choosing. Belle could have just decided not to marry anyone. The only person on the planet that any one person absolutely has to live with the rest of their lives is themselves. That is the only person you can’t escape. Why not be as happy with you as you possibly can? Why settle for “not Gaston”? Is being miserable with another person genuinely better than being happy and content on your own? If you meet someone randomly, decide you like being around them, decide you want to be on the adventure that is life with them, great! Then be with them. Adventure and learn and grow with them. Expand horizons together, work with each other to achieve hopes and dreams and let no success come at the expense of the other.
Never forget to think about the stuff we don’t see, the stuff we don’t know with your “Yeah, but...”.
We don’t know for sure everything Belle had to give up when she gave up her freedom, but we do know what she had to put up with and we don’t know if that trade was worth it. A fancy library and a pretty husband will only get you so far when he wrecks it every few months because you’re not paying enough attention to him. We don’t know if he tells her she’s nothing without him, just some farm girl that he pulled out of the mud. Does he have days where he feels like complete shit for taking her prisoner and, instead of talking to her about it, screams at her how lucky she is that he took her prisoner? Maybe she wants to go do things, but he decides they’re going to do what he wants instead because he feels like he’s owed it after being locked up for so long? Do they fight about who was more imprisoned? Where does the castle get its money? Who maintains the lands and the holdings? Is Belle going to feel comfortable taxing her favorite bookstore because Lumiere wants a raise? Are they actually paupers in a big house? Maybe Belle doesn’t want to have kids because she’s worried they’ll look weird. Maybe the Prince wants to have all the kids because he’s hoping they will look weird and will make intimidating soldiers. What happens when they realize the castle staff played them like five dollar fiddles and they don’t actually have anything in common?
Yes, beauty is more than skin deep.
But you don’t have to actually put up with beastly behavior to find it.