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The Worrying Message Behind BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

By on March 20, 2017

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

When I was a child I used to bring home every lost, diseased and injured animal I found on the streets. Growing up in the rough high-rises of 1970’s suburban Dublin, there were quite a few. Our tiny fifth floor apartment was already bulging at the seams. Along with 5 siblings, my liberal parents, over time, assented to a dog, an Australian parakeet with a missing leg, a pregnant hamster who soon became 7 hamsters, a flighty guinea pig named Moses who chewed through whatever container we put him in, and an unwanted catfish who lived in a converted baby bath outside on the balcony.

I wasn’t familiar with the story of Beauty and the Beast when I was seven (the animated movie came along a couple of decades later), but if I had somehow been able to see that film I know I would have adored it. I would have lived and breathed it. I would have absorbed every atom of that transformative tale because it would have spoken to me on an intense and very real level. After all, it was the story of a socially awkward and bookish girl who rescues an injured creature and over time nurses it back to health. There was also a fabulous mansion to explore that would have thrilled my high-rise concrete-bound imagination no end.

And while I can’t gift myself an experience that only my seven year old self could truly appreciate, I can live it vicariously through the eyes of my own seven year old daughter, which is exactly what I did over the weekend when I took her to see Walt Disney’s 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast.

Harry Potter’s Emma Watson stars as Belle, a bright, beautiful and independent young woman, who is taken prisoner by a beast (Legion’s Dan Stevens) in its castle. The movie log-lines read: “despite her fears, Belle befriends the castle’s enchanted staff and learns to look beyond the beast’s hideous exterior, allowing her to recognize the kind heart and soul of the true prince that hides on the inside.”

Aww, right? Well maybe not so much. While my daughter was thrilled with the music, dancing, costumes, and performances, the film left me feeling uncomfortable. There was a message here, a subtle one, and leaving the theater I wondered if it was one she had picked up on. Later as I read online reviews from critics, and from fans on social media, I began to wonder if anyone had anything to say about it, or if the ridiculous controversies about two men dancing with each other, or the equally silly Stockholm Syndrome theme had distracted all of us from what was a more real and insidious issue.

And before we address what that is let’s clear the table of all the things it isn’t. My darlings, sometimes men dance with each other. Sometimes men kiss each other. Sometimes men get married and have families together. Or decide not to. It’s no biggie. The world continues to turn. Yes, the movie had what was technically a ‘gay’ moment. No, it didn’t do enough to address the shocking lack of representation of LGBT people on the big and small screen. Yes, LGBT people are most often depicted as white men, and that needs to be addressed. No, not with a sex scene. It’s a kid’s movie, for fuck sake. I don’t want to sit next to my seven year old looking at anyone getting it on.

Secondly, if you’re worried because your abducted daughter might one day fall in love with her kidnapper because she saw this movie as a kid, then you should know you will have bigger things to think about when that day comes. (sidebar: why is nobody worrying their daughters will grow up with a desire to marry the family dog? Guys, she falls in love with a dude sporting fur and horns!)

Ok, are we good? Then let’s talk about the actual worrying message sandwiched between the exquisite costumes and the wonderful music in this movie which is: Girls, if you are willing to put up with a whole lot of crap, at some point in the future you can change a man into what you want him to be. Yes, he may be cold, aloof, arrogant, angry, destructive, rage-fueled, and more, but deep inside that angry heart is a ‘basically good man’ who can be brought out with your patience and love. But mostly your patience.

Mrs Potts, played by Emma Thompson, delivers the following piece of sage advice during a certain scene: “People say a lot of things in anger. It’s up to us whether or not to listen.” For women, and young women in training, the advice here seems to be put up or shut up.

By the time I was a young adult and living on my own, I had stopped bringing home broken animals. I brought home broken people instead. I was sure I could fix the manic or angry young men, the angry young women, the heavy drinkers, the fair-weather friends, the all-take-and-no-givers, and even some dysfunctional family members too, if only I hung in there. I spent an embarrassing number of years pouring myself out like Mrs Potts, being patient, being humble, putting the broken people’s needs ahead of my own needs, and trying “not to listen” to an inner voice that told me I was only damaging myself. I hoped that one day my great unsung effort would transform the limping dogs into a handsome — reciprocating — princes.

Of course it didn’t.

Ladies, we may be a lot of things, but we don’t have the magical ability to cure addiction, anger issues, selfishness and other defects with our tremendous power of meek acceptance. Life doesn’t work like that, and it’s not a healthy message to pass along to our daughters either. That particular life lesson I only learned through spending time among the right people.

Walking out of the theater with my skipping, dancing, bright-eyed child (who was neither harmed by the brief sight of men dancing, or the notion of falling in love with a furry animal) I thought about long-suffering Belle who, through her gentle approach, patience and acceptance of her situation, eventually wrought a change for good in the Beast.

But I don’t want my daughter to want to emulate Belle. I don’t want my child to grow up to be meek, accepting or patient where her self worth is concerned or to put the needs of the unworthy and the ungrateful before her own. I want my daughter to be motivated to toss her Dad back in the cell, to grab the nearest horse and to get the hell out of dodge, telling the Beast in passing to call her when he’s got his issues sorted.

The world is wide, and life is too short to be anyone’s prisoner.

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