Disney films are, in general, regarded as good, wholesome, family-friendly fun. Many of Disney’s films are retellings of familiar fairy tales among them Cinderella and the Little Mermaid. Often the Disney retelling changes certain features of the story. For example, the Little Mermaid in the movie survives her experience and gets to marry the prince for whom she gave up her underwater life. However, in the actual fairy tale, she does not achieve this goal and loses her life. Despite the best intentions of Disney to tell happy, family-friendly stories, the ways in which they tell the stories often results in problematic depictions of characters or events. The purpose of this paper is to examine the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast and identify and discuss problematic, stereotyped, and positive role models that occur.
One does not need to get very far into the movie before the first incident occurs. The presentation of the prince (who becomes the Beast) is problematic if not stereotyped. He is described as being very handsome, rich, and in possession of everything he might need. This seems to make him unkind and spoiled. The problem is that just become someone is handsome, rich, and in possession of everything he might need does not mean that the person is going to be unkind and spoiled. This depiction also sets up the next problematic incident which also involves the prince/Beast.
When the prince/Beast refuses the fairy shelter from the elements, she sees that he is spoiled and unkind and decides to curse him. This is the curse that changes the prince into the Beast and enchants the inhabitants of the castle. This is problematic because it seems to suggest that just because the prince is unkind that he deserves to be cursed. That may seem unfair; it does not necessarily teach him a lesson until it very nearly kills him. He could have learned kindness in a much less awful way, not to mention sparing all the inhabitants of the castle from the curse.
Very soon the movie’s heroine, Belle, is introduced. Belle is a typical Disney heroine – beautiful, thin, white, and charming. But she doesn’t appear to think too highly of the villagers. In fact, she describes the village as “this poor provincial town,” which seems a rather snobbish thing to say and therefore problematic. The people of the village appear to work hard and do what they need to do to stay alive, but Belle seems to spend most of her time reading books. This speaks to a certain socio-economic or class issue.
But the villagers don’t necessarily think too highly of Belle either. Their description of her, which can be simplified to a strange and “funny girl,” seems to cast some derision on the fact that she likes to read and daydream. It might also be a thinly-veiled dig at the fact that Belle doesn’t appear to work for a living. This could very well be the villagers’ response to the fact that Belle may appear well-off and is a reflection of the class issues hinted at by Belle’s comments.
However, there does appear to be a positive role model in town: the bookseller who lets Belle borrow books (because in reality she does not really have much money) and gives her the copy of her favorite book. This individual seems to support the fact that Belle likes to read and seems to appreciate that there is more to life than just work. He is kind to Belle and seems to understand her better than the villagers do.
Returning to Belle, the villagers seem to think that because Belle is beautiful, she shouldn’t be odd. She should fit in better because she is beautiful which seems to suggest that she is normal by the villagers’ standards. This is a stereotype and supports the idea that beautiful people should fit in because they’re attractive.
Gaston appears very early on the movie and declares his desire to marry Belle, though he doesn’t really know her. Virtually everything about Gaston is problematic: he’s sexist, anti-intellectual, misogynistic, classist, and arrogant. He seems to enjoy hunting and hurting animals; he seems to enjoy hurting people, too. He is presented as a hyper-masculine and sadistic individual, a negative portrayal of men as well as of hunters.
The trio of blonde women who follow Gaston around are also problematic and stereotyped. They are beautiful but shallow. They think Gaston is wonderful because he’s so strong and handsome; they can’t seem to see his viciousness and hatefulness. The idea that his attractiveness excuses his negative behavior in their eyes is very problematic.
One of the final comments that the villagers make about Belle before she returns home is very problematic. They sing, “It’s a pity and sin, she doesn’t quite fit in” speaks volumes. They seem to think that a person who doesn’t conform to their idea of normality andards is not only pitiful but somehow wrong. That is deeply unfair to Belle and her perspective, especially since there doesn’t really appear to be anything wrong about or with Belle. She may be different but she certainly isn’t sadistic like Gaston, but the villagers seem to accept and admire Gaston which seems very wrong.
The final problematic incident to be examined is a comment made by Gaston. He describes Belle as the most beautiful girl in town which, according to him, makes her the best. The idea that beautiful equals the best is problematic because in implies that beauty is the only thing of value. This disregards intelligence (such as Belle’s) and other positive things about people that have nothing to do with attractiveness.
Despite telling a great story with good messages (don’t judge a book by its cover; love and kindness are good), Beauty and the Beast has some problematic and stereotyped features. In fact, the movie punishes ‘bad’ characters like the prince/Beast and rewards good ones, which oversimplifies things. However, there are some positive role models like the bookseller.
- Hahn, D. (producer), Trousdale, G., & Wise, K. (directors). (1991). Beauty and the Beast
[Motion picture]. United States: Buena Vista Pictures.