Armchair Meta: Beauty & the Beast, Trope subversion and Disney


In 1991, Disney released Beauty and the Beast to worldwide audiences. It catapulted the Disney renaissance that The Little Mermaid set in motion in 1989. As with many of their properties, Disney sought to update classic fairytales to a modern audience. Adaptation is a necessary part of retelling these stories and Beauty & the Beast is no stranger to adaptation.

The particular story we’re most family with was written late 1700s France by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and then rewritten Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. In turn, the story is a possible retelling of the Eros and Psyche myth, and there is a 2nd-century Italian fairy tale and the Wikipedia article claims there are possible proto examples going as far back as 4,000 years ago. This story is well-worn and familiar concept and there are some fairly ridiculous tropes associated with it depending on the version. Damsel in Distress (Beauty), Shapeshifting, Eros and Psyche (trope), and depending on the version the awful trope of Noble Savage. Not all tropes are good, yo.

The original versions held that Belle’s father returned home and if one of his daughters didn’t agree to go live with the Beast, he would be killed. She is damseled in Beaumont’s and Villeneuve’s versions as they’re both a treatise on accepting arranged marriages. The original tale is less about female independence and more about accepting one’s lot in life and maybe it won’t turn out so shitty. Rantasmo has two great videos on both the 1991 animated version and the 2017 remake. Check him out, he’s awesome.

To continue, and if you haven’t fallen down a pit of tvtropes (I apologise if you have), the 1991 animated version needed to change. There are too many characters in 1946 film and even more in the French stories including several sisters and brothers, longer back story about the father being a failed merchant, and in the Villeneuve version there is even more back story of Fae involvement and apparently both Belle and the Beast are half Fae, it’s weird and Disney needed to cut things down, trim the fat from the plot and keep it to a 90 minute run time. They also couldn’t espouse the joys of arranged marriage, it was the 90s and they needed more traction with kids these days. So the protagonist has to change and it’s no longer Belle accepting her fate, it’s Beast’s journey. He’s given more of a POV and as such we see his character arc.

What Disney did in this movie was turn Belle’s outward seeking acceptance of fate plot and turn it into an introspective one where she is bookish, kind, but slightly odd, she is an outsider in a provincial French village, aside from Gaston, and some ‘well she can’t help it’ from a few of the more forgiving villagers, Belle is as much an outcast as Beast. And let’s get one thing straight, Gaston’s ‘acceptance’ of her is only insofar as she is physically beautiful enough to be a good possession. In the 1991 version, he still thinks she’s weird and reads too much and he plans on changing that.

Belle starts the story off curious, odd, bookish, and firmly aware of who she is, this is not a self-discovery mission for her, nor is there any change outwardly from beginning to end. She is still a compelling character. The plot doesn’t always have to change the character, her arc is based on events, her father goes missing, she goes to find him, he’s trapped by a beast in a castle, she takes his place, she tries to leave, decides to rescue the Beast after he saves her life, she goes to rescue her father Gaston and then she goes to rescue the Beast from Gaston.

DISNEY GAVE BELLE THE GODS DAMN PRINCE’S CHARACTER ARC!

No really look at it again.

Now compare this to The Prince from Snow White, or Prince Phillip from Sleeping Beauty, hell even Eric from Mermaid has a traditional Prince story arc. They don’t need to be changed by the narrative, they’re complete from the beginning, they are proactive and do the rescuing. In an effort to give more sympathy and pathos to the Beast they subverted the damsel in distress trope.

Beast starts the story off as a neglectful selfish prince. He’s cruel and unkind to his staff, turns those in need away, and he’s vain and puts too much importance on appearance. He’s cursed by an enchantress and trapped in his castle. Depending on the version he might be able to move about freely but his appearance is met with terror or violence, so he becomes bitter, lonely, and angry. He lashes out to those who stumble upon his home because they risk his safety.

Belle comes into his life and although she is scared of him at first, she doesn’t hold his appearance against him, she demands he treat her with respect. The biggest moment where he runs after and fights off the wolves is one of my favourite scene. She’s been terrified of him and his reaction to her going near the Rose, he regrets his actions and goes after her and protects her from the wolves, risking his life in the bargain.

She has the chance to leave, free and clear. The wolves are gone, he’s fought them off, but now he’s vulnerable and could be hurt further if she leaves. Possibly die. No matter how scared she might have been before, she can’t leave him there alone. So she saves him, takes him home and helps patch him up. In fanfiction te, ms we’re knee-deep in hurt/comfort territory here, and if you think you can’t make an entire book out of it,  AO3 would beg to differ. This is the turn in the relationship and it’s wonderful. She’s no longer scared while Beast most certainly is. He has no frame of reference for this treatment. She’s taking care of his wounds and scolding him for his temper.

At this point Belle is there entirely by choice. Beast would not stop her if she walked out the door, the climactic act where he releases her is at that point a formality, a necessary one in which he needed to vocalize she was no longer a ‘captive’, but it was a formality.

Beast is transformed by her, far more than any spell, she fights with him treats him as an equal, understands him and offers him kindness, spars with him verbally, and in the remake both of them share a love of reading and romance and being taken to far off places. I love the updated version so much because we get so much more of their interactions and more of Beast’s personality.

The 1991 version was heavily influenced by Howard Ashman. There are many articles about this and how he took the magical curse Beast suffered with and used it as an allegory for the AIDS epidemic during the time of the film. Broadly speaking the movie both 1991 and 2017 are about two outsiders that find love and understanding in a each other in a world that doesn’t accept them for who they are.

Beast is given a more traditional damsel in distress role, the actions happen to him. He several moments of agency throughout the films, but he is prince locked in a tower the princess must rescue. Beast’s first moment of agency is when he risks his physical health to save Belle from the wolves. He puts himself in harm’s way and learns that he can trust Belle. She doesn’t leave him to die in the woods, she’s concerned for his safety. This is new territory for him. There are small pieces of him making choices and trusting her more. Giving her the library, opening up to her over the course of the movie and them seeing more in each other. His next big choice is when he releases her from captivity. I believe he has already made this choice unconsciously after giving her the library, but I think he’s even surprised by it when he lets her go.

But the choice while difficult is the only one he could make. He knows this. Belle worried for her father, and he’s hurt, she needs to go see him and make sure he’s okay. The original stories have it that she is given only 3 days and must return, but Disney removed the time restriction and in doing so give Beast more agency. He knows he’s sacrificing himself in this moment. It’s more explicit in the 2017 version — thank you Menkin for giving me Evermore, I adore this fucking song — but it’s still there in the 1991 version. At this point I could argue the curse could be lifted. If she came back into the room and told him she loved him, it might have worked, but I don’t think he’s changed enough.

He’s been changed by her, and he feels it, but he hasn’t really shown it. Narratively speaking his changes are too internal and since we don’t much from his POV aside from Evermore, and a few brief moments in the animated version, so we need something more. The last moment the biggest one that I think cements him earning the removal of the curse is when he doesn’t kill Gaston.

He is physically powerful, he could easily outmatch Gaston, even with a gun or torch. He doesn’t wish to fight anymore here. He doesn’t believe he is worth saving and his heart is broken because Belle is gone. He is surprised, but fends off Gaston, sparing the man’s life because he doesn’t wish to kill. Him not killing Gaston, choosing instead to spare his life and turn his back on his old habits is the last step needed to make sure that Beast is fit for having the curse removed. He will no longer use his power, prestige, or physicality over others. He has not only learned to love someone, but he has learned to treat others respectfully.

Whether we as an audience agree with the move to spare Gaston, it would have been a very different ending and I don’t think it would have went well in the end. Beast needed to do this to show that he had been changed by Belle and he had learned the lesson of the enchantress, not only as it applied to Belle, but also how it applied to his staff and his subjects.

Disney, created a wonderful update to this classic, gave a princess the heroic journey, and damseled the prince. Now all it needs to do is give me the super gay version. I swear I need the version where the outcast peasant boy rescues the lonely prince in his tower. Will also be happy with peasant girl rescuing princess, and other variations on gender and sexuality. Give them all to me.

This has been Armchair meta.

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