Beauty and the beastly patriarchy

‘I want so much more than they’ve got planned’ – quoth Belle as she almost skipped off into the book-filled sunset before, erm, being imprisoned for like no reason at all and then marrying her gaoler.

This won’t be news to many people, but having recently re-watched Beauty and the Beast, the colossal sexism of the thing has only just struck me. Commonly discussed issues include:

  • Primacy of physical beauty: Belle seems to have an independent mind but I’d say her looks vie with her bookishness as her defining characteristic: we are constantly reminded of them (and of the incongruousness of her bookishness – contrast with the three otherwise characterless cookie-cutter Gaston enablers), and look at her name, for goodness’ sake. Compare with the Beast who gets the girl regardless of looks.


  • Endorsement of abusive relationships: The Beast eventually treats Beauty with basic politeness but still insists on keeping her imprisoned, for which he is rewarded with her love, leading to accusations that the film endorses Stockholm Syndrome.

But honestly, while we normally level accusations of sexism against films that portray women as over-sexualised stock characters whose only conversation fodder is the men, I’d say this film treats men about as badly as it treats poor Belle. The film is just full of terrible men:

  • Belle’s father actually thinks Gaston might be a good friend for Belle, and is pretty ineffectual in helping her out of the Beast’s clutches
  • Lumiere is a sort of sad womaniser
  • Cogsworth is a pedantic goody-two-shoes
  • The Beast has the emotional capacity of a toddler; throws tantrums when his will is crossed; can’t understand why Belle doesn’t like him when he shows her a modicum of goodwill; his table manners are revolting; he’s clumsy and gauche. Judging by his treatment of inadvertent visitors like Belle’s father, he’s clearly too dumb to realise that his lack of kindness to strangers (the sorceress) is what made him a Beast to begin with. I’m not 100% convinced by his transformation of character, although interestingly he only starts eating/behaving like a human being under her education; she ‘saves’ him.
In no way is this attractive
beast 2.jpg

Most obviously, Gaston pretty much epitomises the sorts of misogyny reported on; he importunes Belle, won’t take no for an answer (‘no one says no to Gaston’), thinks he’s entitled to her attentions, thinks anyone would be lucky to have him, refers to her as his future ‘little wife’. He is clearly odious and presented as so, but unfortunately the structure of the whole film actually reinforces rather than refutes some of the awful things he says. How much of the happy ending is the pursuit of Beauty and the Beast’s relationship after Belle admits her love, and how much of it is the Beast’s transformation? The latter does not contribute to the pursuit of the relationship (since Belle loved him anyway), meaning the Beast’s good looks merely become the cherry on top reward for Belle’s love despite his beastliness. Is that so different to Gaston’s ‘don’t I deserve the best?’ attitude, which assumes Belle’s beauty is the reward for his?

Standard Friday night

Belle doesn’t quite make it out of the ‘little town full of little people’, escaping ‘provincial life’ for the adventure she yearned for. Yet perhaps these initial frustrations are just an excuse for a good sing-song; after all, her favourite part of the book she got from the little town library is where the heroine meets Prince Charming, but ‘doesn’t realise that it’s him’ until later on (Chapter 3, to be precise). So perhaps, in the delayed realisation that the terrifying Beast is her Mr Right, she gets what she wanted after all. Gaston’s fear that by reading she would start ‘getting ideas, and thinking’ is premature. 😦

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