Tale as old as time

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This weekend I went to see the live action remake of Beauty and the Beast. I’d been looking forward to it for months, luminous Emma Watson starting as Belle, the book nerd heroine that so captivated me in my young adult years.

In many ways, it did not disappoint. It held faithfully to the gorgeous musical score, and I found myself giddily mouthing the words to old favorites like “Be Our Guest” and nostalgically humming along to the beautiful, old line, “Tale as old as time/Song as old as rhyme.” Visually, it was a feast, real world and sumptuous fantasy blending seamlessly. I ached to live in Belle’s little village, with its rough wood beams and beautiful village square. In fact, right on the spot I decided that if I was going to fit in anywhere in that quaint part of the world, I’d be the owner of the frou-frou dress shop.

But, here’s the thing: the original came out in 1991. I was 21 that year, on my own just three years, trying to pay for my illegal studio apartment with my secretarial job in one of the poorest areas of NYC while going to college at night. I still yearned for my fairy tale prince then (an endeavor which would lead to many unhappy circumstances for the better part of the next two decades). I still loved the idea of rescue from a harsh life. I still believed that sometimes boys will be boys, and women have to learn to work with them with good cheer, no matter their shortcomings. In short, I still believed that the only real path open to a woman was through an alliance with a man, and that this disadvantageous bargaining position meant putting up with some crap.

I’d finished my Women’s Studies minor by the time my own children came along a decade later and went through their Beauty and the Beast phase. That’s when I learned the words to every song in the animated movie. My own identity as a reader more solidified by then, that’s when I started to see more of myself in Belle, how she was regarded as a little weird for all that reading, her plain delight in the written word. The library scene – the one in which the Beast, softening from his original viciousness, tells her the library is hers – never failed to elicit goosebumps. This new retelling did an even better job of bringing out this love of words, elevating books to small, portable treasures, having Belle read from them lovingly. For a lover of books for their beauty and their content, it made my heart soar.

But other things have happened in the 26 years since I was first introduced to the tale of Beauty and the Beast. 1991, the year of the animated movie’s release, would prove a seminal year in the history of women in the United States. It was the year that Anita Hill reluctantly told her tale of sexual harassment at the hands of Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee. Her treatment in a culture whose default setting was to tell women to stay quiet, indulge men in power, and not rock the boat awakened a whole new generation of women to the fact that the fight for women’s rights was far from over. The following year, a brassy First Lady burst on the scene, annoying and perplexing those who thought she should be happy to pick out drapes and china patterns, and not mess with things like health care policy. (I’ll admit even I was a little annoyed by how presumptuous and forward Hillary Clinton seemed at the time. The patriarchy doesn’t work unless women are complicit in it, too). After the Hill/Thomas hearings, an unprecedented number of women would run for public office.

Much has happened in my own life, too. I got married, had babies, and discovered the inherent power in motherhood and femininity. I got divorced, desperately afraid of financial ruin, and found personal liberation instead. I found the Prince Charming who gave me everything I wanted – she was looking at me in the mirror the whole time – I published a book, I built a great life. I raised a daughter and son in this feminist landscape. They constantly held up a mirror to my own antiquated thoughts about relationships and gender relationships.

It was the middle-aged woman with a quarter century’s further experiences who sat in the theater to revisit the old classic this weekend. Of course I’d known for some time that Disney versions of fairy tales were problematic from a feminist perspective. Not even the biggest sexist can fail to see the subtext of a woman being asleep until a man rescues her with his kiss. But I still got pretty squirmy during certain parts of the movie.

We’re introduced to Belle as the bookish, restless heroine. But we’re soon shown that her main value is in relation to men. She cares for her father, who has “never been alone,” although presumably he raised her, a parentified child. He’s never gotten over the loss of his love, Belle’s mother, in Belle’s infancy. Somehow Belle feels responsible for him, this grown man, and hovers around him thanklessly giving him the parts and tools he needs to finish a project. Belle’s other worth, of course, is as the object of affection for the thick-headed alpha male, Gaston, who can’t imagine why any woman wouldn’t swoon at his attention. Despite Belle’s unspecified yearning for “something more than a provincial life,” she’s not an actor, but a reactor. Singing about ‘something more,” at the top of a picturesque hill is hardly a plan.

The story unfolds that Belle’s father finds himself imprisoned by the Beast for trespassing. A kind of draconian punishment, but Belle’s father’s karma to work out. Still, Belle rushes to him to exchange her life for his – the trope of the self-sacrificial woman alive and well.

The Beast is, well, beastly to her, threatening to let her starve if she won’t eat with him. The Beast is toxic masculinity incarnate, violent, angry, unwilling to take responsibility. But the enablers around him remember the little boy – he’s so wounded, you see – and make excuses for why he’s the way he is. I feel I only the world wasn’t so cruel. If only his father as been kinder. Many a woman has covered up bruises and told herself something similar. It is a terrible message for girls.

The Beast holds Belle hostage. This is criminal behavior. Full stop. If we wanted to tell women that their lives are worth respect and equality, the area’s constable would show up and take the Beast away to a prison where he can get the help he needs and pay for his crime. Maybe if his spell is only to be broken when he can learn to love another (and be loved in return), he can find his own Sister Helen Prejean who can tell him to let hers be the face of love that he sees. You know, pure, chaste love, unpolluted by gifts of libraries.

But this is a Disney movie. Obviously there’s got to be a “happily ever after,” a hookup, and this particular one relies on Belle letting bygones be bygones. You can just hear her at wine night with her friends: “I mean, yeah, he imprisoned me, and threatened me, but then the wolves bit him, and it was all my fault, and who else was going to take care of him? Plus he reads now. Honestly, give him a chance.”

“Girl, you ran away because he got all weird about the stupid flower.”

“You don’t know him. He’s really sweet sometimes.”

Belle, girlfriend, get thee to a therapist.

Anyway, yeah, so those were the conflicting thoughts I was having as I sat there. Songs good. Costumes gorgeous. Subtle message to young girls that you’ll probably have to take a whole lot of crap to land a guy? Not so good.

But not bad enough to keep me from enjoying it. Guiltily, incompletely, and with a nod to my own evolving sensibilities. Such is the quandary of the feminist who wants to navigate our world without always banging her head into the wall.

The best character in the whole thing? The enchantress who sets the story in motion. Here’s a woman with agency, an actor who causes things to happen. The Beast is awful to her, she does something in return. (And, come on, points for creativity. What a curse). One can’t help but hear strains of the biblical “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me,” in the witch’s retribution. There is some additional information about the witch in this retelling, which I won’t share to avoid spoilers, but which make her an even more fascinating character.

Now there’s a story I’d love to read, that of a woman making her own way in the world.

Hmm.

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