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Beauty and the Beast’s new Beast isn’t modern, he’s a modern day abuser

I love Disney. A lot. I have gone to countless films on the day of release to emerge at the end, jittery with joy. I do a killer rendition of A Whole New World (both parts, obviously). There truly is no happier place on earth to me than Disneyland.

Of course, I’m aware of how problematic Disney can be, especially when it comes to gender. As I grew older and more politically aware, I began to notice glaring issues in the films I’d grown up loving – none more so than Beauty and the Beast, essentially a bestial tale of emotional abuse behind the pretty yellow ball gowns and twee, sentient crockery.

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Belle doesn’t exhibit the characteristics of someone with Stockholm syndrome, says actor Emma Watson when questioned about her latest role.

Much has been written of the 1991 animated film’s normalisation of domestic violence, from the Beast’s physically aggressive actions to his refusal to let Belle eat at all unless she dines with him. But the makers of the 2017 reboot – as well as star and noted celebrity feminist Emma Watson – are adamant that their heroine is not a damsel in distress. “[Belle] has none of the characteristics of someone with Stockholm Syndrome because she keeps her independence; she keeps that freedom of thought,” Watson said of her character. Indeed, the film has been widely praised as a feminist win for Disney.

Watching the new version, it’s clear that the filmmakers have tried to fashion Belle into a more independent woman – she’s an inventor, she teaches young girls to read, she wears practical boots and she’s not afraid to be mouthy. But giving the character a feminist makeover doesn’t negate the troubling nature of her relationship with the Beast – in fact, many women who do suffer in abusive or manipulative relationships are headstrong feminists.

This failure to recognise that independence and susceptibility to violence and abuse are not mutually exclusive is dangerous, because it purports that only the “weak” can find themselves in such situations. Belle is intelligent, bookish and spirited, but she still ends up imprisoned in a castle with a temperamental, unpredictable man-beast, the air heavy with the constant threat of violence. And then, to her surprise, she falls in love with him. As someone who has been in relationships with similar men, watching the film was an acutely uncomfortable experience – a sugar-coated depiction of the cycle of abuse, in which women often find it impossible to leave.

The Beast, too, is given a makeover. In 1991, he was illiterate – in 2017 he’s a bookworm, and he and Belle bond over Romeo and Juliet (“I had an expensive education,” he drawls). He’s interested in travel, which delights Belle, who’s tired of her “provincial life”, as she sings approximately 8000 times. He even gives her a library, which obviously undoes all of the terrifying hours she spent trapped inside his home, hoping he didn’t maul her to death. Compared to the original film, we’re given more of an insight into why Belle might fall for the Beast – but consider the amount of abusive men who are well-educated and well-read.

The Beast’s interest in worldly pursuits makes him, in many ways, a more believable abuser – someone who can speak the language of his victim to create a sense of rapport and security. In Belle’s case, this comes after he has already exhibited abusive behaviour – in the case of many real-world women, it’s the other way around. The fact that he’s read the most basic Shakespeare play and appreciates culture and art doesn’t erase or forgive his violent behaviour, nor does it prevent it from happening again in the future.

The Beast’s history is fleshed out further in the remake, and we learn that he is the way he is because of his own neglectful, cruel father. It’s certainly a more sympathetic and holistic rendering of the character, but does a tragic backstory justify abusive and dangerous behaviour? And the age-old question lurks beneath the surface of the film – can abusers truly change?

Something that hadn’t occurred to me in the 1991 film, but seemed more pronounced in this one, was the enchanted characters’ investment in Belle and the Beast’s relationship, which would secure their own freedom. It sometimes feels almost enabling. At one point, the teapot Mrs Potts says, “People say a lot of awful things in anger – it’s our choice whether or not to listen.” This has been cited as one of the moments that saves the film from peddling a victim/abuser narrative, but to me it read a lot like excusing bad behaviour and shifting the responsibility onto Belle – that being a victim is something she can defy with her own resilience. That’s simply not how intimate partner violence works.

The message seems to be, as ever, that if women look hard enough to see the good in broken men – if we are kind and patient enough – we will find it, even if it comes at the potential cost of our own safety. It’s a classic tale of emotional labour – of woman as saviour. It should also be noted that the Beast never apologises for his behaviour; of course, he and Belle live happily ever after anyway.

Recently, Disney has made efforts to become more progressive, depicting strong female leads without love interests (Moana, Brave’s Merida) and LGBT characters (Josh Gad’s brilliant LeFou in the new Beauty and the Beast). They’re certainly on the right track – so why not create more original stories with the politics to match our current climate, rather than rehashing an old story that is, at best, a beast in feminist clothing?

For a Disney diehard like myself, Beauty and the Beast was certainly a trip down memory lane and a visual feast in many respects, but at its core, it remains an unavoidably troubling tale of power imbalance and abuse. It is not portrayed as a cautionary tale, but rather a celebration of the transformative power of love – and in an age where violence against women is still endemic, it’s irresponsible to present these all-too-common stories through rose-coloured glasses.

After all, the Beast was always just a man.

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Source: http://www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/life-and-relationships/beauty-and-the-beasts-new-beast-isnt-modern-hes-a-modern-day-abuser-20170330-gva2kg.html

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