Beauty and the Beast

One of the longest running subjects Kazander and I bicker about is the fact that I love musicals and Disney movies.

Although he can’t say much about the Disney thing anymore, because he likes Force Awakens and Rogue One.

Disney knows their shit, y’all.  They generally don’t fuck shit up.

But the classic Disney Princess movies have caught a lot of shit, and 90% of it is completely undeserved.

One of the movies that catches the most hell is actually my favorite Disney Princess movie: Beauty and the Beast.

You hear people criticize this movie all the time, how it’s an example of Stockholm Syndrome, how it encourages women to stay in abusive relationships, hoping that the boyfriend will change, etc.

As far as the abusive thing goes, really?  You think a damn Disney movie will turn a woman into an abuse victim?

It just goes to show how truly ignorant some people are when it comes to the psychology of abuse victims.  But because I don’t want to turn this into a 10,000-word psychology lesson, we’re just going to sum up what I would’ve written and say that no, that claim has no basis in reality whatsoever, because facts, m’kay.

And the Stockholm Syndrome thing is the product of gross oversimplification, and completely misses the point of the movie, and annoys the ever-loving hell out of me.

First, you have to remember that Disney did not come up with the story.  Like all the other Disney Princess movies, Beauty and the Beast was based on an old fairy tale.  They made it more kid-friendly, as they do (you have a problem with Sleeping Beauty?  Check out the original fairy tale.  Holy shit, dude.  Disney’s version is a feminist anthem compared to the original).

Although Disney did break from its normal pattern, and actually made the Beast more aggressive and scary than he is in the original.

The original Beast isn’t aggressive or scary or angry.  Instead, he’s depressed and emo, and he wasn’t cursed for turning a homeless woman away, he was cursed because a sorceress tried to rape him when he was 16, and when he fought her off, she basically did the if-I-can’t-have-you-I’ll-make-it-so-no-one-wants-you thing.

The live-action Disney remake made the Beast slightly more like the original, and in my opinion, it just doesn’t work as well with Disney’s version of the story.  Disney’s Beast needs to be aggressive and angry and hostile.

But politically correct people don’t like that, so they toned him down, and the scene where Belle runs away after the Beast finds her in his room (which is one of the most important scenes in the damn movie) is just awkward in the remake, and it doesn’t fit either character.  The remake really ramped up Belle’s independence, and the fact that she’s a very strong woman.  The Beast barely raises his voice to her, once, and that’s enough to terrify her to the point of choosing certain death over staying in the castle?

No, dude.  It doesn’t work.  Disney’s original version, with him being scary, is better, and they should’ve kept it, for more reasons than just that scene.

Honestly, Disney’s 1991 version is a million times better than the original fairy tale.  A big part of the reason why is because of Howard Ashman.  He deserves the credit for changing the story so completely, and for turning it into the amazing, incredible, touching, heart-wrenching movie I watched as a kid.

I mean, do you understand what’s happening in the story?  Do you really understand it?

First, let’s a take a look at Belle and the village.  They often say she’s pretty, but she doesn’t fit in.  She’s an outcast.  They stare at her.  They mock her.  They shun her for being different.

Meanwhile, Gaston, the villain, is lauded as a hero.  And that’s truly the scariest thing about the movie.  Not the Beast, not the Beast’s temper.  Not the long claws or sharp fangs or dark castle.

The scariest thing about the movie isn’t that Gaston exists, but that he’s universally loved by society.

He fits everything society says a man should be.

They fall over each other praising him, ignoring how cruel and selfish he is, because that’s not as important as fitting in to society’s man-shaped box.

Meanwhile, Belle, who is kind, and smart, and loving, is ignored and shunned because she doesn’t fit what society says a woman should be.  This is one area where the remake actually got it right, in that they make the town even more hostile toward her, where in the 1991 film, the scenes in the town just aren’t long enough to provide as much of that attitude.

But even in the 1991 film, it’s obvious that being good and decent is not as important as fitting in, and the good, decent people suffer for it.  Bullies are rewarded and loved, as long as they fit in.

Because we’ve been conditioned to think that those who are different are somehow less than us.  And it’s everywhere.  Immigrants, Muslims, women, the homeless, the sick, the disabled, criminals, those who are gay (this is a big one, I’ll get to that), those who are poly, those who are atheist or polytheistic or pretty much anything other than Christian, those who are trans, I mean, the list goes on and on and on.

People like Trump, true, cruel bullies, are rewarded for criticizing and further ostracizing those who are different, because people are so quick to see them as less.  That they don’t fit in, so they don’t belong with us, and they must be put in their place.  Or killed.

This is a common theme that comes up in many of Disney’s movies, but the only one that even comes close to Beauty and the Beast is the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

So, look at the Beast.  He’s bitter and angry, and hates himself.  In the original, the Beast asks Belle to marry him every night.  Disney’s Beast doesn’t ask, doesn’t bother asking, because he’s convinced himself that he’s unlovable, that he’s a monster, and that he’ll never be anything more.  No one trusts him because of the way he looks, because he’s a beast, because he’s an animal, because he’s less than human.

His character, and the bitterness you see in that character, shows just how badly being ostracized can mess with your head.  It shows how being told by society that you’re a monster makes you start to believe it, yourself, and affects the way you see yourself.

Howard Ashman worked on the musical score, he wrote all the lyrics while Alan Menken wrote the music, and while he didn’t direct or write the script, this movie is and always will be his.

He was an openly gay man, dying of AIDS, when this movie was made.  And sadly, he passed away before it was released, and never got to see the success of his last great work.

But the story was very different when they gave him the script and told him and Alan Menken to write the music for it.  For one, it wasn’t originally supposed to be a musical.  And secondly, the Beast wasn’t meant to be a central character.  There wasn’t much to his character at all, really.

It was Howard’s idea to make it a musical, and to change the Beast, to make him one of the main characters, to make him more central to the story.  He recognized immediately the way Belle is ostracized by society, and gave birth to the love story in which she and the Beast can find comfort in each other after society rejects them both.

As an openly gay man, dying of AIDS, in 1990, he knew quite a lot about that.  He connected with the way Belle is treated by society, while Gaston is beloved.

He, as a gay man, also faced the same stigma that they wrote into the Beast’s character.  Because compare the Beast and Gaston.  Under the bitterness and anger, the Beast is kind, compassionate, and selfless.  Even in his rage, he never hurts Belle or her father, and he risks his life to save her after she runs away (and is injured to the point that he cannot stand or walk on his own).

Quick tangent:  It’s interesting to note that in this scene, after he collapses, unconscious, in the snow, Belle turns to her horse, intending to leave him there to die.

She doesn’t, of course.  She changes her mind and helps him, but that’s a significant moment.  He risked his life for her, he protected her even when he was angry, even when he knew that she would never love him, she would never break the spell (because at this point, you know he doesn’t think she’ll ever forgive him for his outburst).  He saved her, not for his own selfish reasons, but because he’s a good man, and that’s what a good man does.

Belle, on the other hand, turns to ride off.  For that moment, she becomes society, she sees him the same way society sees him.  She turns her back on him, she intends to leave him there.

But she stops, and it’s a very important, revealing moment in her character development.  Because it shows that she’s not perfect, that she’s human, that she can let her fear and distrust overcome everything else, the way any human can.  And it shows just how easily even good people can become victim to the conditioning society has ingrained in us.  She could have easily gotten on her horse and left.  She was tempted to.  It’s what she wanted to do.  But she turns, she sees him lying there, and sees herself in him.

It’s not the fact that he saved her that makes her stop, but her own realization, her own discovery of the man underneath the monster.  She shows her own strength here, in her ability to go against society, her ability to go against what society says she should do.  She makes the conscious decision to see him as more than a monster, and she helps him.

He’s completely stunned by this, and by her fearlessness when he yells at her later, while she’s tending to his wounds.  She inadvertently hurts him, and he roars so loud, right in her face, that it blows her hair back.

But unlike the last time he roared at her, there’s no fear.  She meets his anger fearlessly, she yells right back at him, she matches his fire with her own.  It’s yet another important point in her character development.  She is never the “damsel in distress,” at any point in this story, but here we see her not as his prisoner, but his equal.  She establishes herself as his equal, she commands his respect as his equal, and now that she sees him as a man, the roaring and the temper don’t scare her.

Again, she made the conscious decision to see him as a man while he was lying there in the snow, and now that she does, the monster doesn’t frighten her.  She yells right back at him, she doesn’t hesitate, she doesn’t show even a hint of fear.

It’s safe to assume that no one has ever spoken to him like this, and this is obvious in the way he stammers and stumbles over his words, his anger immediately gone.  It’s here that he starts to see her as more than just another person to reject him, and it’s here that he lets her see a glimmer of his vulnerability.

His anger and his frightening appearance have become the walls to keep everyone out, but inside, he’s lonely.  And sad.  And hopeless.  But he endures.  He keeps going, even though he’s so sure he will never be anything worth loving, he will never be anything more than a monster.

Meanwhile, Gaston is cruel, selfish, intolerant, and close-minded.  But he’s good-looking, charismatic, “brave,” and successful, so society loves him.

He’s everything society says a man should be.

But what is a man, really?  What makes a man?

Is it just a grown male human?  Is that all it is?  Or does it go deeper than that?  Does it mean more than that?

The Beast is Howard Ashman.  Being gay and being sick in 1990 carried a hell of a stigma, and most of society didn’t see him as a man.  He wasn’t what they said a man is supposed to be.  So he was ostracized, ridiculed, and attacked for it.  This was something he understood at a very personal level, and he wrote it into the story.

Because when you look at the Beast and Gaston, you have to ask; which is the monster, and which is the man?

Belle is the only one who can see the truth.  She looks past the Beast’s appearance and gets through the walls he keeps around himself.  She teaches him that he has a soul, that he’s worthy of love, and that he’s not a monster.

The only thing I don’t love about the story is how depressed he gets when she leaves, because he’s based his entire concept of self-worth on the fact that she cares about him.  When the angry mob attacks, he gives up, he doesn’t care, he simply wants to die.  He’s lost all hope, as he had before she came, but this time, he doesn’t want to fight anymore.

But given the story itself, and the life of the man who created the character, along with the fact that he was extremely ill while writing for the movie (he was tired, too, and knowing that his death was inevitable, I have no doubt he had moments where he just wanted to give up), I can understand it.

For Howard, it was a metaphor for AIDS.  It was a curse, that brought sorrow to him and everyone who loved him.  It was about his self-loathing, his regret, his despair, and through it all, the tiniest seed of hope, that he didn’t even want to really acknowledge, that maybe, just maybe, there was a miracle waiting for him, a way for the curse to be lifted.  And through it all, his partner, the man who stayed with him despite the stigma, the one who loved him when he couldn’t love himself, was there by his side.

Knowing this, the lyrics to the songs take on a whole new meaning.  You look at Human Again (which was originally cut from the film, but they added it back in when the special edition was released), and you see Howard’s own hope in it.

When we cast off this pall
We’ll stand straight, we’ll walk tall
When we’re all that we were
Thanks to him, thanks to her
Coming closer and closer

The Mob song is by far the darkest, most frightening song of the movie, not just because of what’s happening in the plot, but because it shows so clearly the mob mentality that turns men into monsters, and how easy it is to incite that kind of fear, and violence.

We don’t like
What we don’t understand
In fact it scares us
And this monster is mysterious at least
Bring your guns!
Bring your knives!
Save your children and your wives
We’ll save our village and our lives
We’ll kill the Beast!

In the title song, the way the Beast sees himself is really illustrated, and it touches on Belle’s ability to show him that he’s worth loving.  She shows him he can change, that he can let down those walls, that he can let her in.

Tale as old as time,
Tune as old as song,
Bitter-sweet and strange
Finding you can change
Learning you were wrong

Belle saves him, more than once.  First she saves him from his bitterness and despair.  Then, she saves him from his own self-loathing.  Next, when Gaston is standing over him, ready to kill him, she saves him by giving him something to fight for.  And lastly, when he is lying there, dying, she saves him again by breaking the curse for him.

People deride this movie, saying that Belle is “weak,” and I want to punch them in their stupid faces.  Belle is every bit the hero of this story.  She gives the Beast something to live for, she shows him that he’s not worthless, she teaches him how to love himself by letting him love her, even before she’s able to reciprocate it.

She makes it clear from the beginning that she doesn’t need the Beast (his name is Adam, but it’s never mentioned in the movie).  She doesn’t need anyone, and this shows in all her actions.  In the beginning, he’s her captor, but she doesn’t care.  When Madame Garderobe tries to talk to her, tries to convince her to get to know him, she snaps, “I don’t want to get to know him!  I don’t want anything to do with him!”

She’s strong and defiant, and even when she was afraid of him, she damn sure wasn’t going to let that affect her.  She wasn’t going to give in just because she was afraid.  She wasn’t going to let him have his way just because he could get loud and scare her.

She pushed him, she forced him to break out of the anger and bitterness that had become his defense.  And once he did, she fell in love with the man she found underneath.

This story is about how society sees people who are different, how quick the mob is to attack, and how that mindset is wrong.  Both Belle and the Beast are good, kind people, but because they’re different, they’re ostracized and rejected.  This story is about how two people, lonely and misunderstood, find comfort and understanding in each other, and can turn to each other when society turns its back on them.

And this is a story that’s actually paralleled in Phantom of the Opera, which, while most likely unintentional (although it’s possible the author took inspiration from Belle et la Bete), is eerily similar.  And I love that the same people who criticize Beauty and the Beast just love Phantom of the Opera, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version is seen as one of the greatest love stories.

…. Are you serious?

The only difference between the two stories is that Belle is strong enough to be Adam’s equal, while Christine is too weak to do the same with Erik.

Belle forces Adam to shed the walls he has around himself, she doesn’t let his anger and outward appearance scare her, and she doesn’t allow him to continue being bitter.  She’s strong enough to stand up to him, even when she’s frightened of him.  She’s strong enough to go against society’s expectations, she’s strong enough to see the man under the monster.

She’s strong enough to face him, to basically tell him, “Alright, that’s enough.  You’re going to stop being a dick, and you’re going to stop now.”

Christine, on the other hand, cannot do that with Erik.  She can’t stand up to him, she can’t push him, she can’t stop him from becoming the monster society has convinced him he is.  She’s weak, she takes the easy route, she goes with the pretty face that society loves (although Raoul is obviously not a villain like Gaston is).

She goes with the one that’s the easiest to love, and the one society loves.  She goes with what society says she should do, and Erik is left abandoned.  She’s weak, and she allows herself to be manipulated, even when she’s aware that it’s happening.

Throughout the story, she never does anything.  She never moves the story along on her own.  She requires other characters to drive the story, and all she does is follow and react.

I love the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, but I can’t stand the story.  I can’t stand Christine, I can’t stand the fact that she turns her back on the beast, and I can’t stand that she allows him to manipulate her even when she’s aware that he’s doing it, and she lets her own fear defeat her.  I can’t stand the fact that she can’t meet him as his equal, she can’t say to him, “Alright, that’s enough.  You’re going to stop being a dick, and you’re going to stop now.”

Both Adam and Erik suffer from the same curse.  They’re both shunned by society.  They’re both seen as monsters.  Convinced that it’s true, they both use it as their defense, to keep people away.  They both take advantage of it, because they prefer people being afraid of them to people being repulsed by them.

Unable to love themselves, they both look to a woman, hoping she’ll be able to love them.  Still clinging to their bitterness, they both end up kidnapping and/or imprisoning her, even as they hope she’ll be able to see what’s underneath all the anger and bitterness.  Through their despair, there’s still that tiny, tentative hope.

Belle rises to that challenge, she breaks right through the Beast’s defenses and society’s expectations, and she saves him.  She lifts his curse.

Erik’s curse is never lifted.  Because Christine is too weak and small and scared to meet him as his equal.  She can’t save him.  Hell, he’s the one who kind of realizes, “Hey, I’m being kind of a dick.  Maybe I should knock that off.”

In the musical, he realizes this and even finally shows her his vulnerability on his own, lays himself completely bare to her, he shows her every part of himself.  He realizes everything he’s done wrong, everything he’s done that has hurt her, and how he had been trying to control her, rather than love her.

He realizes this and opens himself up to her, he lets go of the hate and anger, and shows her the man underneath.

More than that, he begs her to save him.  Publicly.  He begs her to be strong enough to love him.

He submits wholly to her in that moment, he gives himself completely over to her.  In that moment, he is hers, and he’s begging her to accept him, to save him, to lead him, to guide him and teach him how to be a man, instead of a monster.

He’s willing to let go of all the hate and anger that has kept him going for his entire life, he’s willing to leave everything behind to follow her, if she’ll just accept him.  He begs her to accept him, to lead him, to save him.

Say you’ll share with me one love, one lifetime,
Lead me, save me from my solitude
Say you’ll want me with you here, beside you
Anywhere you go, let me go, too.
Christine, that’s all I ask of you

Of course, she fucks that up, too, because she’s an idiot and a coward, and he goes right back to the anger, but now he’s even more pissed off because he knows that she will never love him.  It makes him even more of a dick.

Until, again, he realizes he’s being kind of a dick, and he should probably knock it off.

He redeems himself, because she isn’t strong enough to save him.  Even when she finally sees him for what he is, even when she finally sees the man through all his anger and self hatred, she still rejects him.

Because Raoul is prettier.  And younger.  And wealthy, we can’t forget wealthy.

No, Beauty and the Beast is the way this story is supposed to go.  Phantom of the Opera is what would’ve happened if Belle was weak, the way the movie’s critics like to say she is.

The movie is dedicated to Howard, saying he “gave a mermaid her voice, and a beast his soul.”  He was made an executive producer of the movie, due to how much he influenced the story, and his life and influence played a big part in the live-action remake.

Disney has played with gay and queer themes before, but it had always been subtext, or implied, or just enough to make people wonder.

Yeah, they didn’t do that with the remake.  I mean, the director of the remake is openly gay, but openly gay crew members isn’t anything new (as evidenced by Howard Ashman, himself).  Adding it to the movie, however, is completely new.

Not only do you have LeFou, the first openly gay Disney character (and I just have to say, I’m totally in love with Josh Gad.  Laugh if you want, but find me something he’s done that is not unbelievably awesome.  Totally in love with the guy), but you’ve got quite a few little queer things thrown in.  Most notably, you’ve got the bisexual man and his cross-dressing “wife,” and you’ve got one of the mobsters completely thrilled with Madame Garderobe’s transformation of him.

I actually love the changes they made to LeFou.  Especially the changes in the Mob Song, where he really starts to doubt Gaston, and starts asking himself whether Gaston is a man or a monster.

There’s a beast running wild, there’s no question
But I fear the wrong monster’s released.

And I totally awwed at the end, where he and the cross-dressing mobster accidentally find themselves in each other’s arms.  Totally adorable.

But it’s a more optimistic picture of society than what Howard painted.  How even Gaston’s closest follower and most loyal friend, the one who followed him blindly, the one who worshiped him, the one who idolized him, even he can realize that what they’re doing is wrong.

LeFou was Gaston’s biggest fan.  Completely in love with him, there’s nothing LeFou wouldn’t do.  No one loved Gaston as passionately as LeFou did.  No one clung to the idea of Gaston’s heroism like LeFou did.

But even LeFou, when confronted with what Gaston is, knew that what they were doing was wrong, and eventually turned away from him, saving Mrs. Potts’ life.

It’s a more hopeful outlook, that even the most close-minded and fanatical can change, that no one is too far gone to turn back.  I really like that idea, I really like the idea of redemption.

But with Howard Ashman being so instrumental in making the story what it is, it’s fitting that this is the movie in which they decided to bring the gay and queer themes out from obscure subtext and make them prominent, fearlessly facing the backlash they knew would come from the very people Howard Ashman felt ostracized by.

A company as universal as Disney would generally try to avoid taking sides in any political or moral divide.  The fact that they very obviously and proudly chose a side here is a beautiful tribute to Howard.  It’s his pain that made the story, it’s his struggles with society that inspired the Beast, and it’s his spirit that Disney was loyal to.

The rest of society turned its back on Howard, and everyone like him, but Disney showed here that they would not forget Howard Ashman, they would not forget that it’s because of him that Beauty and the Beast became such a massive success (it is the first ever animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture), and they would not forget the battle he fought and the pain he endured.

I mean, when you look at the story, when you see it for what it is, it’s impossible not to love it.  The heart of the story, the way Belle saves the Beast, the way she teaches him how to love himself, the way she teaches him that he’s worthy of love, is beautiful.  She teaches him to be vulnerable, she allows him to take comfort in her as she takes comfort in him.

And it begs the question, “What makes a man?”  And it encourages us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, at the way we see those we don’t understand.

Yeah, not Stockholm Syndrome, m’kay.  Don’t tarnish Howard Ashman’s memory by reducing his work to that.

4 thoughts on “Beauty and the Beast

  1. Coyote from Orion says:

    I saw the latest one with Emma Watson. Was very impressed.

  2. Mr Fire says:

    This is one of the nicest bits of lit crit I’ve seen on any movie in a long, long while. Beautifully done. You make your case for the animated version about as well as it could be made.

    There is no such thing as Stockholm Syndrome. It’s a political, not a psychological diagnosis.

    Let me tell you this, Jen. Were I a publishers representative, I would be getting in touch to pitch to you the idea of turning a collection of these posts into a book. They’re that good.

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