Yes, I actually let my kids watch Beauty and the Beast

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.

Beauty and the Beast

The 1991 Disney version is bad enough. I mean really, it’s a bizarre mix of bestiality and Stockholm Syndrome held together by a cast of talking tableware.

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.

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14 thoughts on “Yes, I actually let my kids watch Beauty and the Beast

  1. I wonder what connection, if any, one can make to Daniel chapter four,

    “Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox…”

    We are beasts because of what sin has done to corrupt our ‘humanity’. Yet, the beauty of Christ loved us so. And as Nebuchadnezzar was restored, so can we through Christ,

    “At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation…”

  2. There are frequently parallels to Scripture in good stories because Scripture deals with the heart of man and the path to salvation, themes most good stories touch on, if only on a human scale.

    I thought of the verse that says he’ll take our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh.

  3. I like your take on it. I have always allowed my children to see movies (as long as they were age appropriate) and then had a discussion with them as to the morality of it and compared it to what the Bible teaches. Makes for good discussion.

    1. I think the discussion is good to prepare them for reasoning through what they see, especially when there are things in it we disagree with.

  4. I like your view and agree with it. Beauty and the Beast is my all time favorite Disney movie. I didn’t think of Beast as the one who changes the most. I found your view of the Beast true and accurate. Thanks for giving me a more insightful perspective to the depths of his situation and heart changes.

    Personally, I will let my boys watch the movie because I think it has a lot of great lessons for them to learn. Thanks for an interesting read.

    1. There are a lot of lessons. I tend to be a little more lenient than a lot of my friends with books and film (to an extent). I see them as opportunities to discuss our culture, our values and compare what is good and what values we should uphold. It’s like a “safe” way to introduce them to what they are going to see for themselves in the world as they grow.

      I draw the line at graphic violence and sex. Some things just can’t be unseen.

  5. I see Beauty and the Beast as a story that teaches kids that physical appearance isn’t everything. I took a look at the history of Beauty and the Beast. In the original version, the Beauty was a shallow girl who was obsessed with finding a handsome man. She hated the beast. But the shallow girl was human and had a heart and she was able to change, to see the Beast as worthy of love. A good discussion will get kids to explore the things that are in their own hearts and, maybe, it will get adults to do the same.

    1. That’s interesting. I’ve never read that version. I’ve only read the one summarized above, where Beauty is the humble, feminine one with few desires and it is her sisters who are wicked, even to the point of scheming against her, hoping the Beast would kill her in a rage.

      That’s the interesting thing about fairy tales. Being oral tellings, they are modified for the audience across generations and across eras. I looked at a sort of geneology of Beauty and the Beast and it is interesting how many tales researchers think are related.

  6. Thanks Dana for some great insight and discussion. Have to be honest in saying that my kids are now adults and when they were young they enjoyed the story very much so we did go to see “that” movie. I kept waiting for the aha moment that the director said was “delicious”. I almost didn’t go worried about the hype and of course as usual I did not find it to be as bad as all of the alerts. Let’s put it this way, the kids and I agreed we have seen much much worse in our community at events or on magazine covers in grocery stores. It’s insinuated, yet to young eyes I’m not sure they would get it. Only one 2-3 second scene at the end confirms the insinuation. I have spoken to others who have younger kids and they too feared going. When they did they were irritated at the hype. Maybe we are becoming desensitized, yet we had some great discussions after and know that we don’t agree with the insinuation. Disappointed, sure! Yet it’s still a Hollywood movie and just entertainment. Better to be able to discuss while the kids are still at home then to release them into mayhem unprepared for worldly viewpoints. I praise God for the opportunity to have the discussions. I guess I needed to comment just to let everyone know that the hype isn’t worth the boycott. In my personal opinion. Thanks again Dana for bringing up more discussion points about the story.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your insight! What you say is what I feared. I read one post (from a gay activist no less) who went, excited about this new breakthrough and walked away wondering if he really would have even noticed if it weren’t for the hype. He found it a major let down and felt what little was there only confirmed stereotypes anyway.

      That’s what bugs me. I remember some religious organization saying that Harry Potter was so bad that it could be used as a handbook for witchcraft and it being confirmed by some supposed wiccan. When there is that much hype and you finally read the book and your reaction is, “What?” you gloss over any real problems, you slammed every door shut for honest discussion and you’ve made your organization close to irrelevant in discussions of culture.

      But I don’t think they care about that. I think the ones fanning the flames know that their base will get fired up and donate money and that’s what it’s really about.

    2. For the money or for their own recognition that they are hip and accepting. I think they just went public with media hype to gross more in sales for every genre. Sad…Walt Disney himself would be horrified. He wasn’t perfect yet he tried to protect families, that’s why he created Disney in the first place. Another whole discussion….

  7. B&B has always been my favorite fairytale and I’ve loved every version of it. I was even such a fan of the Linda Hamilton/Ron Perlman tv series. Now Linda’s character being named ‘Catherine’ makes sense, thanks to your write up! I totally agree that the love aspect is the lesson. True love, that can only exist once we see beyond the superficial, changes and heals. That’s one lesson that never gets old. P.S. In the movie, I loved the song ‘Evermore’, sung at that moment when the Beast set Belle free, that moment when we all knew he had been transformed. 🙂

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