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Disturbing 90s Flashback: Disney's Beauty and the Beast

I grew up on Disney movies and other fairy tale films. The Last Unicorn, The Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Legend, The Neverending Story, and every animated Disney movie from The Little Mermaid on (watched religiously, several times a day) fed my imagination, their lighthearted family fun tempered by my favorite childhood book, an illustrated Favorite Tales from Grimm. As a super-religious child, I even worried that my rabid love of fairy tales bordered on the sin of idolatry. But that's another story.

I'm not about to trash Disney movies and say they're no good. Obviously, they are aesthetic and theatrical masterpieces, and obviously they tap into deep-rooted fantasies that many of us share. Beauty and the Beast, in particular, was incredibly successful and almost universally adored. After The Little Mermaid, Disney made a special effort to make their next heroine, Belle, into a more empowered woman than Ariel, with a more developed leading man than Prince Eric.

In my opinion, Disney was not as successful as they intended. Recently, I heard the soundtrack to the movie and took a little trip down memory lane. Oh, those catchy and beautiful songs that I sang along with countless times as a kid! Listening to them with adult ears, separated from the magical animation, I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

It became clear to me that there were some truly heinous fantasies going on from the start.


1. I'm better than all of you.

Belle is supposed to be sweet, kind, a little strange, and lonely. But in the opening "Bonjour" song, she suddenly sounded like a spoiled, snotty bitch to me. The villagers say hello to Belle as they pass, and she largely ignores them as she walks while reading (not as bad as texting while driving, but still rude) and whines about how there's got to be something better for her than this dumb village. To be fair, the villagers gossip amongst themselves about how she's a weirdo. But they seem genuinely interested and kindly towards her, while she simply acts as if they are beneath her because they do not share her interest in romance stories. "I want so much more," she sings to herself in a meadow, but she isn't clear what she wants or how she's going to get it. She's just too good for this place.

2. The servants love nothing more than to serve me.

This is the whole point of the "Be My Guest" song. It reminded me uncomfortably of the Happy Slave Myth. Seriously, just listen to the song sometime. It's all about how the servants have no greater desires in life than to serve a master or mistress and cannot be happy if they are not doing so. Enough said.

3. Arrogant jerks are okay after all if they're rich.

Belle spurns the attentions of Gaston, who is handsome, athletic, social, skilled, and adventurous. He's also a big bully and an arrogant jerk who has no interest in romance stories or any other kind of reading. Makes sense that she scorns him, right? Until she meets Beast, who is also a big, bullying, arrogant jerk who continuously insults her and threatens her with violence and, to top it off, is illiterate. But he also lives in a castle. Flava of Love, anyone? Or is it Stockholm Syndrome? If Gaston had just locked Belle in a basement in the BEGINNING of the movie, would he have won her over in a few months? Especially if it was a CASTLE basement?

4. If I'm pretty and sweet enough, my abuser will turn into a charming prince.

In the traditional Beauty and the Beast tales, the Beast is a kind, gentle character who only looks ugly. In Disney's version, he's a raging asshole with an anger management problem. But Belle's love magically transforms him, and they live happily ever after! Uh, yikes.

In my own personal version of the tale that I am writing now, I've gone back to a more traditional Beast character and a radically different Beauty. My character Bellynda lives in a patriarchal society, and instead of learning to be sweet and obedient, she has learned to be hard and manipulative to get what she wants. Her father is weak and cowardly, as in the older tales (and, arguably, in the Disney version). But instead of being a martyr for her father and then husband, she schemes and uses them for her own ends. I wouldn't call her a "bad" character. In fact, she's great fun to write. She's not a villain. She's just imperfect, and she happens to err on the side of screwing over other people rather than sacrificing herself. She calls it like it is and works the system, manipulating the same men who think they rule her existence. I haven't posted any excerpts with her in them yet, but stay tuned!

It's all about tapping into fantasies... but as I get older and wiser and more experienced, my tastes change.

How about you, readers? Are you aware of the types of fantasies that resonate with you?

For further hilarious and insightful reading about the cultural fantasies and messages in Disney animated films, check out Disney's Dolls by Kathy Maio and last year's Cracked.com article.

Comments

  1. Very interesting. I totally agree with #4. You could turn this into a feature...:)

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  2. Ditto on the interesting. Keep it up.

    www.a-pen-in-neverland.blogspot.com

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  3. This was a good laugh and very interesting! I watch a ton of Disney movies since my daughter's 3, and I'm always thinking things like this after the 80th time I've seen one. :)

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  4. Damn Illuminati.

    The conspiracy theorists just may have a point...rats!

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  5. Those two links at the end of the post are amazing. They pretty much say it all! I don't think there's a conspiracy going on at Disney so much as the company knows how to tap into our basest cultural fantasies. They range from superficial (pretty = good and ugly = evil) to sinister (racial superiority).

    However, on a side note, a few years ago I spent some time on Snopes.com and discovered that all those "dirty parts" supposedly hidden in Disney films ARE actually part of a conspiracy--by Focus on the Family! Most of those well-known "subliminal messages" are either innocent glitches or mean something non-sexual (for example, the message flash in The Lion King is "SFX" for "Special Effects," not "SEX"), but Focus on the Family has made up a juvenile story about each one to vilify Disney. I guess FOF isn't sophisticated enough to figure out what's obviously wrong with the films, so they have to make stuff up. They're kind of like The Turtle Club for Christians. Ha!

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  6. Interesting about those glitches...!

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  7. Yeah... It's a full-blown conspiracy by the Christian right, probably the same types of people who "found" demonic messages in Beatles songs. But the stories on Snopes.com behind each supposed sexual message are pretty amusing!

    This is an example of what I often see--parents being afraid of the wrong things. Sometimes worried guardians of morality overlook the real harmful messages while seeking out evil that doesn't exist.

    However, I would like to note that even though I loved Disney movies as a kid, and now as an adult I see some awful messages in them, those things kind of blew over my head at the time. I took my main values from my parents, not cartoons. I don't think it does kids much harm to watch pretty princess cartoons if they get empowering messages all day at home. I watched Looney Tunes also, and never tried to put anyone to sleep with a mallet. Haha.

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  8. You're so great! Hah. I agree with you all the way that if the child is being raised in a good home with values and good examples in their day to day life, watching Disney's Sleeping Beauty isn't going to do any harm. I can explain to Darcy later that no, love doesn't usually happen that fast, dear, and if it does, there's probably an issue you should be looking for...

    Haha.

    You're going to be a great mom, I can tell. :)

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  9. This was awesome and I couldn't agree with you more! Amazing how different we look at some of our beloved Disney movies as adults versus when we were kids.

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  10. And on an interesting side note, now you have a bunch of Disney World ads on your blog.

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  11. The link to this article showed up in your sidebar so even though it's from 2010, I'm commenting.

    Now that you are a mom to a toddler, how do your feelings about the nature of Disney movies? Same?

    PS #2,3 and especially 4 are all in the exact premise of "50 Shade of Grey". It's okay that's he's a flaming, manipulative asshat because he is a bazzillionaire and all his servents love working for him even though he treats them like property. Oh and she changes him with her sweet and understanding disposition.

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    Replies
    1. Now that I have my own little princess, my feelings on this topic are still about the same. Except that now those feelings are shared by many, after the publication of articles and books like Cinderella Ate My Daughter.

      My two-year-old is currently wearing Tangled socks. Though it has its issues like any film, I think it's a pretty cute movie. I am fascinated with how Disney evolves with parents' cultural tastes.

      Delete

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