Why 'Beauty and the Beast' Pissed Me Off as a Child (And Kind of Still Does)
Reading Kristy’s post about how no one exemplifies male entitlement like Gaston got me thinking about Beauty and the Beast. About how Jerry Orbach does the best overexaggerated French accent, and how Beast in his human form looks weirdly like Jesus, and about how everyone in the Beast’s castle has to be stuck in a time loop, right? Because otherwise the family members of all his servants surely would have started to wonder where they are. There wasn’t exactly a hugely reliable postal service in pre-Revolutionary France, but still. “Hey, when was the last time you heard from your brother Lumiere?” “Oh, not long. I think… ten years? Really?”
But always the lingering bitterness at the back of my mind that has always kept me from fully embracing Beauty and the Beast…
Belle bugs me.
And here’s why.
It’s nothing to do with her. She’s caring, she’s moral, she’s headstrong, she sticks up for people. She’s not as good as Disney princess as Mulan or Tiana, but hey, who is? The sense of irritation her character engenders came from my own personal sense of bitterness, which I’ve been nursing since way before I hit puberty, thank you very much.
See, Belle was the Disney princess I, as a babynerd, was “supposed” to like. She’s the smart one, the bookworm, the social outsider. She’s the “not like those other girls” Disney princess. She’s not boy-crazy like Ariel or a bit of a wet blanket like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. She’s a brunette, just like me! She likes books more than people, just like me! She has no friends to speak of, just like me! If I lived in a musical, people would totally sing a jaunty tune about how socially awkward I was!
She’s the prettiest person in her village, and I… no, wait.
At seven years of age, I sensed bullshit. Belle was the “nerd” princess? Belle was me? To quote the great Judge Judy, Disney, don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining. Them holding up the town hottie and expecting me to claim her as my own because she reads a few books felt, to my young self, like the worst kind of pandering. They wanted to sell pencil cases and sticker books and, even worse, a false idea about what being a nerd meant. It meant people looking at you weird because you talked about Star Wars too much and had terrible dress sense and maybe didn’t bathe as often as you should. It sure as shit didn’t mean the most popular boy in town falling over himself to try and marry you.
Of course, the message of Beauty and the Beast is that what’s inside matters more than physical appearance. That Belle is valuable not because she’s pretty, but because she’s just and honest and sticks up for other people, and Gaston failing to see that is one of the reasons he’s a dick. Believe me, I know. The juxtaposition is kind of the whole point. The story’s called Beauty and the Beast, not Average-Looking Girl, But She’s Actually Pretty Nice Once You Get to Know Her and the Beast.
Further, my opinions on issues relating to feminism when I was seven were… shall we say not as well-formed as they are now. For example, the whole concept of gaining worth from being “not like other girls!” (I read and wear pants, she likes sports and wears short dresses, that bubbleheaded bitch) is horribly insidious sexism. I know that now. I didn’t then. And it’s not like Belle wanted to be pretty, anyway. If the Enchantress had come along and offered to make her average-looking just so Gaston would get off her dick and let her finish her damn book, Belle might have accepted. It’s not Belle’s fault that she incurred my youthful wrath by being hot. It’s not even Disney’s fault, really, because they peddle in fairy tales and happy endings and wish fulfillment and has never pretended otherwise.
Who wants to be an average-looking Disney princess?
But that’s the thing, isn’t it? That’s why I can’t feel too bad about my little self’s knee-jerk reaction against Beauty and the Beast, why it still kind of pisses me off that the list of traits given to heroines for young girls seemingly always has to have “is conventionally attractive” in the number one spot. (“You have to keep them pretty.”) Because the nerd girl always has to be hot once she takes her glasses off. Because the teenage social outcast always seems to be played by an actress who’s also a makeup spokeswoman.
That’s nothing against Emma Stone in Easy A or Zooey Deschanel in… the filmography of Zooey Deschanel. “[Insert actress here] is too pretty or too girly or to whatever to be a nerd” is bullshit, because A) wow, sexist, and B) there’s no right or wrong way to be a nerd in the first place. (Even if you’re a Disney princess. Belle, I apologize. I had issues.) But it still rings a little hollow when a movie like Easy A says “What you’re like inside matters more than you look,” when the main character has exact sort of superficial physical beauty society values to fall back on.
#HotPeoplePrivilege. It’s a thing.
Again—I WANT TO MAKE THIS PERFECTLY CLEAR—this is not a women vs. women thing for me. This is not “I can’t take Zooey Deschanel seriously because of her fucking Peter Pan collars” or “Emma Stone shouldn’t have gotten that role” or “Belle’s too pretty to be a real geek.” This is women vs a system that values looks to the exclusion of other traits. This is particularly true when we’re talking about women in the film industry, which has sold beauty and poise all packed up in film reels to the grabby, unwashed masses since before movies could talk. You didn’t necessarily have to speak well or be intelligent or even be a good actor back in the days of the silents. You just had to look good.
But now, a hundred years down a line… where are my ugly women? Fuck, even my average-looking women? William Leith wrote a good piece on the subject in The Telegraph back in 2013:
If you’re a woman, a huge proportion of your role models are beautiful. So if you’re normal looking, you feel ugly. And if you’re merely pretty, men feel free to comment on how un-beautiful you are.
As a normal-looking man, I find myself in a completely different position. Being normal makes me feel, well, normal. Absolutely fine. As if the way I look is not an issue. That’s because it’s not an issue.
As a normal-looking man, I’m in good company. Sure, some male actors and celebrities are very good looking. Brad Pitt. George Clooney. Russell Brand.
But many of Hollywood’s leading men, like me, look like the sort of blokes you see every day, in real life. Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Bruce Willis, Jack Black, Seth Rogen, Martin Freeman, Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Brendan Fraser… In fact, you might almost say that most leading men are normal-looking blokes. […]
When I watch the news, on whatever channel, it’s presented by the classic partnership of an ordinary-looking guy and a gorgeous woman. After the news, I watch the weather. Male weather presenters look like standard males. Female weather presenters look like models. […]
The message, to me as a man, is: it’s what you do that’s important, not how you look. But how do women feel? I can only imagine.
Why does everyone still have to be beautiful? And (for the most part) white and young and thin and able-bodied? I know, I know—Hollywood has representation issues! Call in the newsies, we have a groundbreaking exposé here. Still, just as children’s movies should open themselves up to more diversity in terms of race, gender, sexuality, etc. (this is true of movies in general, as well), kids on the hunt for on-screen role models should more frequently be shown—shown, not just told—that you can have your happy ending even if you’re not the most beautiful girl in town. That being ugly doesn’t make you the evil stepsister. That “only bad witches are ugly” is a slanderous falsehood, fuck you The Wizard of Oz.
That normal-looking girls can be princesses, too.
Rebecca has a Twitter account should you want to follow her. And yes, if you’re curious, Dove’s EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL commercial schtick does piss her off. Yes, it’s a good message, but can we stop pretending Dove is the patron saint of progressive feminism instead of a billion-dollar corporation trying to sell you shit? Let’s just be honest here. Like, they’re still treating physical attractiveness like it’s the be-all-end-all. Click here to contribute to her new line of Rebecca’s Soaps for the Disillusioned. Tagline: “No, it won’t make you beautiful. It’ll keep your face clean and make your skin feel nice. Because it’s fucking soap. What else do you want? Why does it really matter if you’re beautiful-looking, anyhow? Other qualities are important too, you know! Maybe you’re intelligent, or you volunteer at a soup kitchen, or you’re a really good juggler.” She expects to get enough money to go into production by the 31st of never.
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