DARK MAGIC: The Mixed Messages of Beauty and the Beast: The recent live-action reimagining of the classic Disney animation combines catchy songs and impressive spectacle with some problematic ideas about love, class and gender. It's for this very reason, LOUISE LAVERY argues, that the film can serve as an excellent opportunity to help develop critical-analysis skills in upper primary and junior secondary classrooms.
A screening of Beauty and the Beast in a classroom context is, however, an excellent idea if supported by critical-thinking discussions and activities. The film is ripe for analysis and offer opportunities for dominant, alternative, resistant and divergent readings--making it the perfect text to prepare upper primary and junior secondary English students for the critical thinking required of them in older year levels. There is capacity here for students to unpack and explore the ways in which challenging and archaic messages about gender, worth and success are often disseminated to children through beautiful-looking fairytale representations.
FINDING YOU CAN CHANGE, LEARNING YOU WERE WRONG'
Therein lies the rub. Beauty and the Beast, like the identically titled animated film (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise, 1991) it was inspired by, is incredibly beautiful--it is a straightforward, easy-to-understand narrative told with colour, light and sound in gorgeous settings. From the provincial village to the haunting and overwhelming castle that belongs to the Beast (Dan Stevens), this new version is a feast for young eyes. The castle inhabitants, including the fabulous Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), the stately Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) and the adorable Chip (Nathan Mack), are perfectly crafted to position audiences to fall in love with them. The use of beautiful songs from the earlier film (including everyone's favourite, 'Be Our Guest'--although at this point it's quite difficult to not start singing the Simpsons version, 'See My Vest') further draws in audiences, young and old, until they're potentially so starry-eyed about the film that they fail to see the ugliness that lies beneath the surface.
CLASS AND STATUS
There are distinct demarcations between classes in Beauty and the Beast. Belle (Emma Watson) is introduced to the audience as being frustrated and unchallenged by the 'little town full of little people' with whom she is forced to share oxygen. When she sings, 'There goes the baker with his tray like always', the intention is to establish Belle as someone who has more in store for herself than manual labour. This song, however cute, fails to recognise the need for roles like those of bakers and egg sellers to allow her very community to exist. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), an intellectual and an inventor, places immense value on education and reading, but it seems that Belle missed the lesson on respecting the 'commonfolk'. The villagers' subsequent treatment of Belle is one of disdain--they recognise her as 'different', and it's put down to her always having her head in a book; potentially, however, their issue is that she's quite conceited and elitist. They reflect that she has 'a dreamy far-off look, and her nose stuck in a book', while, presumably, their own noses are stuck in the menial but necessary tasks they must perform to survive.
At the conclusion of this number, Belle takes her song up to the mountaintop, looking down on the tiny town beneath her while she is positioned against the vastness of the open sky. It's not really a composition that would be lost on anyone, but it further positions Belle as being above, or better, than those people who she feels she is forced to share her life with.
Interestingly, later in the film Belle reflects on her childhood during a discussion with the Beast. It's revealed that she once lived inside a slum-style dwelling and that her mother died of the plague, causing her father and her to flee. Her father neglected to inform Belle of her own humble beginnings, and it appears to be only through this later revelation that she develops more of a sense of humility and an affinity with the townsfolk whom she initially turned her nose up at.
The premise of the film is that the Beast is a prince who was punished by an enchantress (Hattie Morahan) for, like Belle, acting dismissively towards those he considered beneath his station. However, while Belle's condescension towards those she lives with is seen as a quirk of her intellectualism, the Beast's distaste at a filthy stranger entering his palatial ball is seen as a mortal sin--one that his staff are also punished for. The powdered wigs and painted faces of the royal court serve to further distance their status from the lowly commonfolk, even though it is revealed at the finale that many of them had relationships with the villagers, who, because of the curse, have forgotten about them.
Belle and the Prince fall in love, and she finishes the film as part of his royal court, rising above the station that she (and others) always knew she should not have been entrenched in to begin with. But how much say does Belle actually have in the development of their love affair?
BUT HE WAS MEAN, AND HE WAS COARSE AND UNREFINED'
The majority of the criticism of the tale of Beauty and the Beast is levelled, and rightly so, at the fact that she is a prisoner in the Beast's castle. Belle rushes to the aid of her hapless father, caught by the Beast for the crime of seeking shelter from a storm, and offers herself as his replacement. The deal is done, the dad is sent away and Belle is, for all intents and purposes, doomed to wander the halls and passageways of the living, breathing castle for the rest of her days.
The issue is, though, that, apart from Belle being occasionally mournful for her lost father, no-one seems to be all that bothered by her imprisonment. Earlier in the film, during her reprise of the 'provincial life' song, she dismisses the advances of Gaston (Luke Evans) and says that 'no-one can change that much', expressing that she desperately fears a life of trapped, soulless domesticity--much like the one she gets flung into in the castle in a few scenes' time.
Herein lies the major topic for classroom analysis regarding the film's representation of gender and relationships. There is a prevailing myth in our culture that, if a woman (or a man) suffers through their partner's flaws for long enough, everything will turn into the fairytale ending that Belle chases: if we stay a little longer, if we tolerate just a little more abuse, if we look past the laziness, the boorishness, the casual racism, the intolerance, the beastliness (or whatever the case may be), our partner will see our long-suffering kindness and they'll shed their 'beast' skin to reveal the royalty beneath.
To his credit, the Beast isn't particularly on board with the idea of trapping Belle into a relationship (though he seems completely fine with the part about keeping her prisoner). In angst somewhat reminiscent of the 'incel' movement, (1) he roars the question, 'Who could ever love a beast?' and orders his servants to let her wither away: 'Go ahead and starve! If she doesn't eat with me, then she doesn't eat at all.' His rage, sense of ownership and pathological entitlement--expressed in his belief that the pretty girl should sit and smile at him under threat of punishment--all position him as the poster boy for obsessive, controlling partners. A beast, indeed.
Elements of the Beast's humanity begin to return after he heroically saves Belle from wolves that attack her during an escape attempt. It is this act of physical bravery, despite his less-than-charming personality in all scenes prior, that appear to convince Belle that he's a person worth spending time with. Odd that this combination of courage and brutishness seems to have been the exact same quality that led her to dismiss her suitor Gaston, but the heart wants what it wants (particularly when there are singing teapots involved).
Belle nurses the Beast back to health and sings about how she can feel a change within herself--a shift that's supported by the staff and that the Beast happily agrees with. They bond over literature and learning, and their conversation becomes easier and lighter. A love grows between them that is bolstered by shared interests and perspectives. When the Beast says, referring to his own property, 'I feel as if I'm seeing it for the first time', he's actually talking about his capacity to be somewhat decent.
This is a highly, highly problematic message for younger students, and one that needs to be thoroughly explored in upper primary and junior secondary classrooms. The cycle of abuse, the inability to truly change another person and the Stockholm syndrome that can come with being in a controlling, abusive relationship are messages that must be understood rather than passively internalised. When Belle sings, 'True, that he's no Prince Charming, but there's something in him that I simply didn't see', she fails to include that she is still a prisoner in his castle. She is still kept by him, as much an accessory as the candlestick and the feather duster, and she does not have the autonomy or capacity to leave.
NO-ONE FIGHTS LIKE GASTON'
Gaston is practically the dictionary definition of toxic masculinity. Like in the original animation, he is represented in the new imagining of the text as a ridiculous joke, but there is an insidious truth behind his posing and flexing. The raucous 'Gaston' song, in which he explains all of his varied masculine skills, serves to make him somewhat endearing to the audience when, in fact, he's absolutely awful.
Gaston embodies a similar sense of ownership and entitlement to that displayed by the Beast, only he doesn't have any magical wardrobes backing up his cause. His pursuit of Belle--'Just watch, I'm going to make Belle my wife'--has little to do with Belle as a person and everything to do with her as an object to be acquired, to demonstrate his status. Unlike in her relationship with the Beast, however, Belle is capable of standing up to Gaston and continually asserts that she is not interested and that he has no power over her.
As an extension of this hegemonic representation of Gaston's model of masculinity, he behaves towards other characters with similar disdain. He treats his offsider, LeFou (Josh Gad), as an accessory. The women of the town are either bestowed with the gift of a smile and a wink or splashed in the face with mud. He threatens and cajoles Maurice into supporting his intentions of marriage. When Maurice continues to refuse, Gaston leads the town to believe the old man is insane and ties him up in the woods to leave him to the elements.
Gaston's refusal to take no for an answer ultimately leads to his death during the film's final conflict. While some viewers would see this as a comeuppance, the issue here is that, while he was alive, it was only Belle and Maurice who criticised his behaviour. He was loved, lauded and adored by the town during his life--a representation that is all too reminiscent of the way these types of men are often well respected by society. While Gaston is the film's villain, his cartoonish, over-the-top buffoonery makes his personality traits little more than a punchline, and a means of distracting from the many negative qualities that the Beast shares with him.
The discerning classroom teacher will see many aspects of Gaston's representation, behaviour, dialogue and relationships with other characters as opportunities to explore issues to do with respect and treatment of others.
REPRESENTATION OF MENTAL ILLNESS
The last problematic representation in Beauty and the Beast (to be discussed in this piece, anyway) is that of its treatment of mental illness.
Maurice is portrayed from the outset as a 'quack' - an eccentric, madcap 'Doc Brown' (2) -style inventor who is shunned by the town and viewed with suspicion. His general goings-on and ideas are dismissed as the ramblings of a madman. It's in his gentle conversations with Belle that his peaceful and intellectual nature is revealed, but she nonetheless takes on a carer relationship for him. She tells him, 'Everything I am is because of you', which could be her reflecting on her love of literature but could also be read as her feeling of being similarly ostracised by the villagers.
Maurice confronts Gaston about his evildoing in the pub. Initially, it looks as though the assembled crowd may believe him, but the battle is quickly lost when Gaston reminds them of Maurice's status as a 'crazy' person. In this, Belle's father is pathologised even without a proper diagnosis; a sinister man with a locked carriage appears from the asylum all too ready to whisk him away.
Representations of mental-health issues in film, particularly children's film, must always be explored carefully. The ease with which Maurice's mental stability is used as a plot point to justify his shoddy treatment, and the fact that the villagers are so quick to label anyone different from them as 'odd' and 'strange', is telling and worth exploring in an upper primary or junior secondary classroom.
POSSIBLE LESSON IDEAS AND ACTIVITIES
How to explore these problematic aspects of Beauty and the Beast becomes an interesting challenge. The dominant reading is that this is very much a sweet children's film, and teachers are likely to encounter resistance to conversations and activities that suggest there is more at stake than some singing and dancing furniture.
Conversations about the problematic aspects above may prompt some interesting discussions. Exploring relationships, gender roles and respect for others could be done via character studies, as well as relationship maps showing how different characters treat each other.
Writing short stories showing alternative endings or perspectives, particularly exploring gaps and silences, is an effective way to prepare junior secondary students for what is to come at the senior end of the Australian curriculum. For example, reflections on the problems that the Beast's servants have with keeping Belle prisoner or LeFou's lamentations about the way Gaston treats others would be an excellent way to introduce alternative perspectives.
Beauty and the Beast is a wonderful film that classes will enjoy. However, it cannot be viewed in a vacuum, and any class work must reflect on the messages and implications that accompany these representations--and the impact they may have on an impressionable young viewer.
One final warning for the classroom teacher: be prepared to have the songs stuck in your head for weeks. Please, won't you be our guest?
(1) Abby Ohlheiser, 'Inside the Online World of "Incels," the Dark Corner of the Internet Linked to the Toronto Suspect', The Washington Post, 25 April 2018, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2018/04/25/inside-the-online-world-of-incels-the-dark-corner-of-the-internet-linked-to-the-toronto-suspect/>, accessed 19 June 2018.
(2) Played by Christopher Lloyd in the Back to the Future series (Robert Zemeckis, 1985-1990).
Louise Lavery is a freelance writer based in Brisbane. She worked as a senior English teacher for over ten years in schools across Queensland and Victoria.
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2018|
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