OK, so not that Beauty and the Beast. Without having seen it, I’m not sure what to make of it or the controversy. It seems odd that Disney’s big coming out would involve the comic relief and the villain, but whatever. I kind of hope it is as bad as all that because I’m kind of tired of Christian groups sounding the alarm over nothing. Sometimes, it seems like they’re part of the marketing. Float a little controversy in front of the right people and you have instant buzz and instant curiousity. Because seriously, it’s like the second highest grossing film EVER. Right behind Harry Potter. The controversy isn’t driving too many people away.
Or is it?
What is the main message of Beauty and the Beast?
If you are to believe Disney’s marketing, it’s only the greatest love story ever told. It has everything. A father held captive by a beast. A girl who offers herself in his stead. A curse that can only be broken by love . . . a love that has to somehow be able to see past a beastly exterior. And a beastly temperament. And, you know, that whole being held captive thing.
Most people will tell you it’s a fairy tale with an important moral: Beauty is only skin deep.
But Disney is Disney. They’ve built an empire on harvesting fairy tales and cleaning them up for the mass market.
What was the original Beauty and the Beast about?
My 10 year old actually read the original (or one of its many versions) and was quite disappointed in the movie. It strayed too far in too many key points. Rather than Gaston as a counterpoint to the Beast, you have narcissistic, worldly sisters as counterpoints to Beauty’s perfect femininity. And the spell breaking love is demonstrated through a tear rather than a kiss.
But this, too, was a story with a message. It is also controversial, though not quite so much for the plain features of the text. The controversy comes more from not being able to agree on the inspiration for the story to begin with.
So what was the inspiration for Beauty and the Beast?
Camp 1 says this a prepatory tale for young ladies awaiting arranged marriages. Don’t fret about his looks or manners. Learn to be happy in your new prison. The man may be a dolt, or even a genuine beast, but your femininity and social graces will captivate him, change him and turn him into your prince. I think the most compelling case for this is the social milieu of the major characters. They are neither peasants nor royalty. They seem to belong to the closest thing to a middle class that feudal Europe had to offer. I don’t know how many of the original fairy tales you have read, but this isn’t really typical.
Camp 2 says it’s a fairy tale inspired by real life. Petrus Gonsalvus was a very real man with hypertrichosis, also known as “werewolf syndrome” for the excessive hair growth that occurs all over the body. He first came to the court of Henry II in 1547. He became quite famous due to his condition, moved from court to court and was studied across Europe. While in the Netherlands, he married the very beautiful Catherine. Although he lived as a nobleman, he was never quite accepted as fully human. I think the most compelling case for this view is, well, the “beauty” and the “beast” aspect of the history.
Or maybe it’s a bit of both. I could totally see some well-meaning 16th century parents telling their daughters, “Look, at least you’re not marrying that guy!”
And what does that have to do with the movie?
Disney chose to play up the being-held-captive side to the movie. Themes involving arranged marriages don’t go down so well these days, but Belle is not the only prisoner. The Beast is cursed. His temper is an expression of his own captivity. He continually convinces himself that there is “no point” to pursuing Belle or doing anything to encourage her to like him. And then he lashes out.
He was cursed for not sheltering an old woman. Now he is forced to live his life as the witch saw him. He’s hideous, forced from human contact and held captive in his own castle. With Belle’s arrival, he protects what dignity he has left by pushing away the one thing he needs to make it all go away. He is the one who chooses to open his heart and allow himself to love. He makes the first step and ultimately releases her from her bond to him. The great act of love is him releasing the one thing that could release him.
So what’s the real moral of Beauty and the Beast?
I think it is clearer when you compare the Beast to the beastly Gaston.
On the one hand, you have a cursed man. His very humanity was taken from him, he’s been driven into a solitary castle with no human contact and his only hope is to somehow find love. On the other, you have the very model of manliness. Strong, good looking and the desire of almost every woman in town. One is a beast because of the prison he was forced into. One is just a beast.
So the Beast takes Belle captive in exchange for her father’s freedom. Maybe more in hopes that the curse can finally be broken. But the climax of the movie is not when Belle returns. It is when he, out of love, releases her from her bondage. He is the one driving the story forward. He is the one with a major conflict. He is the one who changes.
Belle is the same young woman at the end as she was at the beginning. He was the one with a love powerful enough to change, and powerful enough to allow her to see his humanity.
I don’t see “Beauty is only skin deep” so much as “True love changes you for the better.” It’s like that greatest of all love lines in As Good As it Gets, “You make me want to be a better man.”
And that is totally a message I want my children to ponder.