Beauty and the Beast, Belle and Gaston
Cartoons, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory, Wicked Wiles

Wicked Wiles: How Feminist Is Disney’s ‘Beauty & The Beast’?

fanny pack feminism gender disney wicked wiles equality analysis pop culture princess film animation

This article is part of the ‘Wicked Wiles’ series examining the positive and negative messages on gender that Disney Princess films impart to their target audience – girls. If you haven’t already, you can check out the introduction here, and search for ‘Wicked Wiles’ at the top of this page to catch up with the series.

Originally published on Fanny Pack, 26/05/2016.


Synopsis

Based on the classic French fairy tale and the 1946 French film, ‘Le Belle at la Bete’, Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) is one of the most critically acclaimed and universally loved in the Princess catalogue. The story revolves around the titular ‘Beast’ – a vain and selfish Prince who is transformed into a monstrous animal by an enchantress as punishment for his flaws – and Belle (the ‘Beauty’), a kind and intelligent girl whom he imprisons in the hope that she might help break the spell put on him. Despite his poor anger-management skills (and inability to use cutlery) Belle slowly begins to tame the Beast’s temperament and work her way into his heart. But, before she can return his feelings and make him human again, an angry mob from her village led by the villainous Gaston – desperate for Belle’s hand in marriage – threaten to destroy everything.

Wait, who taught the Beast how to waltz so well?

Wait, who taught the Beast how to waltz so well? Source: Disney Wikia.

As usual, I’ll be using six key questions to filter the film’s feminist/anti-feminist messages through and ultimately give it a ‘Positive’, ‘Neutral’ or ‘Negative’ stamp on it at the end. So without further ago, let’s see how Disney’s sixth official Princess movie holds up.


How many female characters are there?

  1. Belle
  2. Mrs. Potts
  3. The old beggar woman/enchantress
  4. The feather duster maid (called ‘Babette’)
  5. The Wardrobe (called ‘Madame de la Grand Bouche’, which translates to ‘Madame Big Mouth’. Nice.)
  6. The Triplets (called the ‘Bimbettes’… Hmm.)

Total: 8 principle female characters (with speaking parts) compared to 11 principle male characters (with speaking parts).


Is the villain female, and if so what are her motivations?

In a word, no. And this is a good break with tradition, as nearly every Princess movie so far from ‘Snow White’, to ‘Cinderella’, to ‘Sleeping Beauty’, to ‘The Little Mermaid’ have had female villains motivated solely by vacuous jealousy.

Although the Prince/Beast is the perceived villain to begin with in ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the real villain is Belle’s relentless pursuer, Gaston – clearly the more beastly of the two, personality-wise.

Gaston: 'Belle is mine!'

Source: Giphy.


How do the female characters interact with each other

Apart from Mrs. Potts, who acts as a surrogate matriarchal figure to just about everyone, Belle disappointingly has very little interactions with any other female character. All of her close allies – her father, the Beast, Cogsworth and Lumiere – are male, through a combination of circumstance and choice.

This serves subliminally to reinforce Belle’s ‘otherness’ as she seems unable and/or unwilling to maintain relationships with others of her gender. Unfortunately, this is also reflected across the rest of the film’s female characters, with the tightest bonds of friendship being between men: Gaston and LeFou; and Lumiere and Cogsworth.

Lumiere and Cogsworth: Pucker up, Cogsy.

Pucker up, Cogsy. Source: Tumblr.


Who drives the plot?

For the final two-thirds of the film the answer to this is Belle, with her father, Maurice, keeping things barrelling along through the first act. Yet, even when Belle does become the driving force of the plot, she doesn’t actually attract the majority of the viewer’s emotional investment. That’s because most of this investment is funnelled into the Beast’s quest to regain his humanity instead.

Belle: 'I want adventure in the great wide somewhere.'

Source: Tumblr.

At the start of the film, Belle flitters around a field belting out a song about “wanting so much more than this provincial life”, yet her unfalteringly charismatic character doesn’t develop one bit throughout the story. Geographically-speaking, she also only ends up living what can’t be more than a few miles away from the home she dreamed of travelling far away from. Meanwhile, the Beast’s character enjoys a dramatically shifting arc that also bears the weight of the entire story’s moral as an added bonus. In this respect, Belle – the eponymous princess of this supposed Princess-orientated movie – is effectively side-lined in her own film.


How do the male characters treat the female ones

If toxic masculinity took cartoon form, it would look like Gaston. Whilst Belle is a flawed but emphatically feminist heroine, Gaston is a perfect send-up of laddish, brutish and gross chauvinism. His interactions with her are all deliberately sexist, offensive, vile and stupid – i.e. The perfect counter-balance to Belle’s pragmatism, wit, and intelligence. Gaston’s attraction to Belle is based firstly on her obvious good looks, and secondly because her constant rejection of him turns his failing courtship of her into a game, and as a proud hunter who “uses antlers in all of his decorating”, you know that Gaston basically just sees her as little more than anther deer to chase, shoot, sling over his back and carry home to become another trophy over his fireplace.

During his solo song (sung in that flawless baritone), we’re given a handy checklist of things to have and achieve before any self-respecting ‘man’s man’ can be counted as worthy of the appendage swinging between his legs:

  • Body hair. A lot of it.
  • Spitting. Be good at it.
  • Hunting. Do it often.
  • Using animals as decoration. Everywhere.
  • Eating 4 dozen raw eggs to become the “size of a barge”.
  • Drinking. All the time.
  • Chess (although because being smart is basically useless, the only way to win is by slapping the board away from your oppenent.)
  • Stomping around in boots. No, really – go out and buy some, now you pussy! (Gaston’s words, remember, not mine.)

With his square jaw, bulging muscles and operatically-deep voice, Gaston is kind of like a Disney prince gone wrong. And Belle, with all her well-developed intellect, seems to be the only person to call this out. Even her father says that he “seems handsome” and suggests Belle should give him a chance in the romance department. The rest of the town – especially his loyal lackey, LeFou, and the horny triplets – treat Gaston like the village hero, never questioning his judgement, and happy to attend an impromptu wedding for he and Belle (before she’s even agreed to it) or sing an ode to his chest hair in the tavern, or later on be led blindly on a witch hunt to kill the Beast he showed them in a “magic mirror”.

Belle and Gaston: None of it. That's what Belle's having.

None of it. That’s what Belle’s having. Source: Disney Wikia.

The Beast on the other hand, with his anger problems, selfishness and emotional unavailability is someone who starts off in a similar place to Gaston – albeit minus the gushing self-confidence. He doesn’t even call Belle by her name to begin with, just “the girl”. The difference between he and Gaston is that rather than forcing himself upon her, the Beast allows himself to be changed for the better by Belle, thus turning himself into a man worthy of her love. As Gaston becomes more and more incensed and crazed to the point of trying to blackmail Belle into marrying him, the Beast learns to control his anger and becomes more docile and open to the needs of others until he earns rather than wins her affections.

Belle and the Prince: Is it just me or did he look better as the Beast?

Is it just me or did he look better as the Beast? Source: Disney Wikia.

The ultimate proof of his transformation comes when he allows Belle to leave the castle to attend to her sick father at the expense of him being able to break the spell. (Although, seeing how close the town and castle seem to be, there’s no reason he should have assumed Belle couldn’t have popped back to the castle later on…)


Does the princess have characteristics beyond her princess role

Most of Belle’s characteristics fit the usual wish list for Disney Princesses we’ve encountered so far: beauty, charm, kindness, a good set of pipes, and a touch of wistful longing for ‘something more’ than the life they’re trapped in. But Belle has another trick up her puffy dress sleeves: intellectualism. Like our previous heroine, Ariel, Belle is curious about the world around her. The difference here is that Belle has been able to satiate her curiosity with books, turning her into an imaginative, ambitious, sharp-witted, and worldly heroine.

Belle and books: Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card!

Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card! Source: CDN.

As I mentioned previously, the downside to all this glowing perfection is that Belle seems to have done all her character development off-screen, but she also has another severe weakness: Her heightened intelligence has given her one hell of a superiority complex.

At the start she sings about her “little town, full of little people” and is bored by the routine of everyone else’s lives. She laments that no-one reads and imagines more like she does. Similarly, the rest of the town look down on her for being intellectual and “weird”.

Belle realises the whole town is staring at her. Hmm, my ears are burning...

Hmm, my ears are burning… Source: LoveLace Media.

During this opening number we see a woman struggling with a comical amount of children – literally juggling babies in her arms – whilst desperately trying to buy some eggs. Meanwhile, Belle sails past on the back of a cart, smiling and singing about the joy of reading – unburdened by the troubles of being a working class mother. This is the best insight we get into Belle’s P.O.V: All sweetness and pleasantries on the outside, but internally judging the other women around her who have slavishly ‘given up’ on any hope of independence or self-empowerment.

Mother struggling to buy eggs while Belle rides by in the background. "I need six eggs!"

“No ma’am, a baby is not acceptable payment for eggs.” Source: Tumblr.

Belle’s quest for self-betterment is both her greatest strength and weakness. She is presented to young girls watching the film as a woman ahead of her time – a model early feminist before the term was even invented who dreams of living life beyond her designated place in society. Yet, by doing so, she can’t help but dole out pity to the other women around her who were not able to choose to live their lives in the way that she has so luckily been able to. In some ways Belle is the epitome of some of the feminist movement’s problems: white, elitist and judgemental. And also kind of a hypocrite – after all, let’s not forget that the only two books we see Belle actually engaged with are romance stories – one (pictured below) she reads a passage from referencing “Prince Charming” and the other is ‘Romeo and Juliet‘. Maybe her desires aren’t quite as wildly different from everyone else’s as she might wish.

Belle reading a romance book: "Look, sheep, someday my Prince will come. I-I mean, I'll be going on my gap year to like, find myself, and stuff."

“Look, sheep, someday my Prince will come… I-I mean, I’ll be going on my gap year to like, find myself, and stuff.” SourceLost In Drawers


wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representation

Yes, I know. How can one of Disney’s foremost feminist heroines be merely a ‘Neutral’ in terms of gender representation? Hear me out.

The core philosophy of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is to love what’s inside of someone rather than just what’s on the outside. This makes it the first time a Disney Princess film has broken the nonsensical ‘love at first sight’ BS that has been at the heart of every previous story – and this is where most of its plus points come from. Belle saves the Beast – not just physically by breaking the spell, but emotionally and psychologically by changing his behaviour and smoothing his sharp edges. He begins as a self-loathing, literal monster, and ends up as a well-rounded man who literally and figuratively reclaims his humanity thanks to Belle. Belle, meanwhile, is rewarded with the one thing she (secretly) always longed for: someone who truly understands her. Both of them begin as loners and societal misfits, but they end as the perfect fit in each other’s lives.

Belle and the Beast in the snow

Source: ImagesMTV

However, this nice, mushy message comes at a cost: Belle’s agency as a character. As I’ve established, when we are introduced to Belle she has no more growing left to do in this film other than learn to be less of a judgemental bitch and find a suitable husband. In fact, I was left feeling a little cheated by the end. The opening, uplifting number makes us anticipate the journey of a modern woman ready to go globe-trotting… only to lead down the same well-trodden path of her finding the nearest castle and Prince to hook up with and stay put in his library for the rest of her life.

In the end, Belle is actually demoted to the usual passive ‘Prince’ role – a one-note hero who swoops in to save the day in the nick of time, leaving  the Beast fulfilling the lead, active ‘Princess’ role. This, ultimately, is why what should have been a ‘Positive’ film for gender representation, has sadly balanced out into a ‘Neutral’ one instead.


 

Next up in the Wicked Wiles series: ‘Aladdin‘.

Advertisements
Standard
Steven Universe Pearl and Rose Quartz
Cartoons, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Society and Politics, Visual Cultural Theory

Won’t Somebody Please Think Of The Children? – Steven Universe And The ‘Gay Agenda’ In Kid’s Cartoons

Originally posted on the Fanny Pack blog on February 3rd 2016.


 

won't somebody please think of the children the simpsons helen

Well, won’t they?

One of the most enduring myths about homosexuality that it’s opponents cling to dearly is that it’s a choice, and by extension, the threat that it poses to children if this choice is ever allowed to worm it’s way into the developing brains. Rather than considering the idea that external influences only awaken or reinforce existing parts of our sexual subconscious, LGBTQ rights’ opponents often characterise any discussion of sexual orientation in schools or media as a brainwashing toxin of a sinister ‘gay agenda’ seeping into the sensitive minds of the youth – tricking their ‘naturally’ heterosexual brains into pondering devious sexual behaviour.

seduction of the innocent book cover

Frederic Wertham’s 1954 book asserted that Batman and Robin’s “hidden” romance would impact negatively on young comic book readers.

Sexual ‘deviancy’ in adults can apparently be treated with regular visits to your local conversion camp, or simply marrying someone of the opposite sex and suppressing all those unnatural urges to do what comes naturally to you. But before it’s too late, how do you prevent all those liberal influences from ‘recruiting‘ children into homosexuality? In schools, regulation of the curriculum can be very effective. Only twelve states in the US require teachers to discuss sexual orientation, and even more disturbingly: three of those twelve dictate that teachers only impart negative information. In 1988, the UK government passed the now infamous Section 28 amendment, stating that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. (This harmful legislation wasn’t repealed until 2003 after years of hard-fought campaigning from pressure groups like Stonewall.)

That leaves the other major influence in most children’s lives: cartoons. Like every other form of mass commercial entertainment, cartoon creators have to continually walk a fine line between cookie-cutter commercialism and original artistic expression; between pleasing their ratings-obsessed executives and staying true to their visions as storytellers. But what do you do when this vision involves a young boy being raised by a group of lesbian alien super-heroines? How much of this vision are you going to be allowed to stay true to before your network bosses start to catch a whiff of that ‘gay agenda’ you’re obviously trying to push on unsuspecting children?

Steven Universe Cartoon Network

The cast of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe: (clockwise from left) Amethyst, Garnet, Pearl and Steven

This is a question that ‘Steven Universe’ creator Rebecca Sugar has had to face in the wake of Cartoon Network UK’s decision to censor an episode of the show that recently aired in the UK. You may think I’m joking about the lesbian alien super-heroine thing. I’m not. Three of the show’s main characters form part of an all-female team called ‘The Crystal Gems’ who come from a similarly all-female planet of imperialistic aliens whose personalities and powers derive from gemstones. When one of their members – ‘Rose Quartz’ – falls in love with a male human on Earth, she sacrifices her own body in order to have their half-human, half-gem-powered son: Steven Universe. The Crystal Gems soon adopt him into the team to replace his mother and essentially act as surrogate mothers/aunts/sisters.

Steven's parents: Rose Quartz and Greg Universe

Steven’s parents: Rose Quartz and Greg Universe

The controversial scene in question comes from an episode in which it becomes clear that one of the Crystal Gems – ‘Pearl’ – had romantic feelings for Rose Quartz. These feelings were only intensified when Rose Quartz started to find herself drawn strangely to Greg. As in typical with Steven Universe, these feelings eventually came to a head in a musical number called ‘What Can I For You’, which is where the censorship comes into play.

Interestingly Cartoon Network US didn’t make the same censorship decision as their UK counterpart, leading to fans of the show creating side-by-side comparisons of the censored and uncensored versions of the same scene:

Two women dancing intensely… Hmm. It’s almost disappointing how un-gay the scene actually is. Following a very vocal backlash online from the show’s adult fans, the network defended it’s decision with this statement:

“In the UK we have to ensure everything on air is suitable for kids of any age at any time. We do feel that the slightly edited version is more comfortable for local kids and their parents. […] Be assured that as a channel and network we celebrate diversity – evident across many of our shows and characters.”

However, as Pink News points out, this decision conflicts with the BBFC’s ‘U’ rating guide (the rating which all Cartoon Network shows for children aim for):

“Characters may be seen kissing or cuddling and there may be references to sexual behaviour. However, there will be no overt focus on sexual behaviour, language or innuendo.”

It’s also notable that this is a repeated decision from Cartoon Network, who also censored a gay kiss on an episode of Clarence last year between what some consider to be the first overtly gay characters in a children’s cartoon. This would have been more of an impressive milestone if it not for the fact that these two men merely served as the punch-line to a joke in the episode about a woman being stood up for a blind date, rather than central protagonists – as is too often the case with any LGBTQ inclusion in children’s media. Subtext and throwaway humour has sadly long been the modus operandi of any writer/animator in order to slip anything ‘covertly’ gay past possible censorship. Other recent examples include Gobber from How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Oaken from Frozen.

Frozen's Oaken waves to his family

Oaken waves to his implied family in Disney’s ‘Frozen’.

What makes Steven Universe different from any other of these examples is that the sexual orientation of its characters is far from throwaway. Just like the mythical island of Themyscira (home of Wonder Woman), all the gems hail from a single-gendered planet meaning that the only romantic relationships they have the option of pursuing within their own species are same-sex ones. Whereas as we live in a hetero-normative society, they live in a homo-normative one. Needless to say the show also passes the Bechdal test with flying colours.

The gems also possess the ability to fuse with one another to become stronger, which they can only achieve through dancing in perfect synchronisation to fuse both body and soul. Some of these fusion rituals are harmlessly flirtatious but others can be more meaningful. For example, it is revealed later in the show that [SPOILER ALERT] the body of the leader of the Crystal Gems – ‘Garnet’ – is actually the result of two gems (Ruby and Sapphire) that fell so deeply in love that they decided to fuse together indefinitely, which quite frankly sounds like the purest expression of marital bliss ever.

Clearly, LGBTQ themes are so core to the underpinnings of the show’s characters that to try and remove even the slightest hint of them – as Cartoon Network did – has a detrimental effect on the nature of the show. This threat was not lost on any of its fans either, as a petition to air the uncensored version of the episode in the UK and Europe has so far picked up over 6,000 signatures.

It seems to me that what Cartoon Network means by “celebrating” diversity actually translates through its actions as ‘tolerating’ diversity. Gay characters can exist as sanitised background noise or pithy punch-lines to straight character’s jokes, but as soon as they become living, breathing protagonists with feelings that children might start to identify with, the executives get squeamish. Sure, they want to pander to the demands of liberal, politically correct parents, but they also have to be mindful of being accused of pushing that ‘gay agenda’ by the more puritanical or conservative parents.

Where is the consistency in living in a country that legalises same-sex marriage but simaltaneously continues to strip same-sex relationships from children’s media as if it is something perverse that they should be protected from?

Why – in the same episode – is this sexual behaviour acceptable:

Rose Quartz and Greg Universe (Steven's parents) embrace lovingly in the episode 'What Can I Do For You?'

Rose Quartz and Greg Universe (Steven’s parents) embrace lovingly in the episode ‘We Need To Talk’. This scene aired uncensored.

But this isn’t?

Pearl and Rose Quartz share an intimate dance

Pearl and Rose Quartz share an intimate moment in the same episode. This scene was censored in the UK.

Studies show that the later children identify as being gay, the more frequently they are bullied by their peers. And with 1 in 2 young people in the UK identifying themselves as being “not 100% heterosexual“, it seems that the more examples of positive examples of healthy, loving, and normalised same-sex relationships they have access to at an early age, the better off their mental health and well-being will be later in life.

Please send a message to Cartoon Network UK that same-sex relationships shouldn’t be censored from children’s cartoons. Sign the petition here.


 

IMAGE CREDITS:
  1. Screenshot of Helen Lovejoy from ‘Much Apu About Nothing’, The Simpsons, 1990.
  2. Cover of Frederick Wrexham M.D’s book ‘Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth‘, 1954.
  3. Steven Universe‘ banner, Cartoon Network, 2013.
  4. Screenshot from ‘We Need To Talk’, Steven Universe, 2014-15.
  5. YouTube clip comparing Cartoon Network US and UK airings of a scene from ‘What Can I Do For You’, Steven Universe, 2015-16.
  6. Screenshot of Oaken waving to his family from Frozen, Disney, 2014.
  7. YouTube clip from ‘The Answer’, Steven Universe, 2016.
  8. Screenshot of Rose Quartz and Greg embracing from ‘We Need To Talk’, Steven Universe, 2015.
  9. Screenshot of Rose Quartz and Pearl dancing from ‘We Need To Talk,’ Steven Universe, 2015.
Standard