I don’t think that it is news to anyone that knows me that I am a Disney fanatic. It was my family’s go-to vacation destination growing up. I love the movies to this day, especially what I would consider (as a 90’s kid) the golden age of Disney animated films from about 1985 to 2000.
We don’t have the choice to grow up or not. And as we all did, I grew up. I did not, however, grow out of what I think of as a Disney Outlook on Life, which is a basic belief that everyone has redeeming qualities, that we should love one another, that we should strive to better ourselves and the world around us, and that we should struggle against everything that is keeping us back, even if what stands in our way is us. My parents brought me up with these values, and it helped to see stories in these movies that reinforced these ideals.
In my online travels, I have noticed a certain school of thought popping up surrounding the Disney animated films. One idea I find particularly disturbing is that Beauty and the Beast is somehow a dark drama that encourages young girls to enter into and stay in abusive relationships. Belle, the theory goes, is abused by Beast and, as we see in abusive relationships in the real world, she decides to stay with him. I have even seen it suggested that Gaston is the real hero of the movie and that he was trying to save Belle from her abusive relationship.
I think this is poppycock. Furthermore, I think it is at best misguided and at worst disingenuous to suggest that a Disney movie made for children is advocating for women to stay in abusive relationships because that is somehow their place and they should be kept in it. This analysis strikes me as something that would come out of a freshman level pop psychology introduction course at a university rather than a serious analysis by anyone who has lived in or experienced the real world and people of other frames of reference.
I offer an alternative, and I believe to be more correct, interpretation of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I posit that Beast is the incarnation of a small boy. Like all children, Beast is not yet capable of empathy, and having been hurt early in his life, lashes out in anger at those around him. This is, I would think, a quite typical response by children who have not yet emotionally matured to the point of being able to act compassionately with others or see things from other perspectives. As much as we might like to think of children as miniature adults, that simply isn’t the case; children have to learn these skills that we take for granted as just a part of who we are.
Belle sees the possibility for growth in Beast. This potential is why Belle changes her mind about him. Similarly, Beast sees in Belle the type of compassion and empathy that he lacks. He views Belle as a reason to improve himself, which he tries very hard to do. By the end of the movie, Beast is willing to sacrifice himself for Belle. Beast achieves the ability to empathize and relate to others, which reveals his own nurturing and protective nature.
I would hope that all parents want for their children what Beast was able to achieve; betterment of self and self actualization. All children will have to go through a similar experience in order to emotionally mature and learn that we must care for others and learn to think about things from their perspective. Beast is a success story, and Belle is no tragic victim. She loves beast not only for the potential she saw in him, but for the man he matured into. The real tragedy would have occurred if Belle gave up on Beast at his first misgiving. Would you give up on a child that had a tantrum? Would you label them an abuser? Would you encourage all other children to ostracize them because of their outburst? No, because the more reasoned response is to handle the outburst and use it as a teaching moment.
I’m proud of Belle and Beast. I want for my children what they represent. In the case of Beast, the ability to self actuate and grow emotionally. In the case of Belle, the ability to have compassion for others and to help them through their problems rather than abandoning them at the first sign of trouble. No child is perfect, no life is perfect, and the world is certainly not perfect.
But then again, if the world were perfect, there would be no need for Disney movies.