When I took my daughter Lauren to see Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, like everyone else in the audience I was overwhelmed. Disney, producer of Snow White and other films that have long been part of our very heritage, was back. The animation is stupendous, as are the orchestration and lyrics to the songs. The barroom scene where Gaston shows off his high-octane testosterone and herculean brawn, as well as the sequence in which the personified candlestick, Lumière, sings “Be Our Guest,” are two of the most captivating moments I’ve ever seen on film.
That’s why I read with interest Mary and Leon Podles’ article on the film in Chronicles (March 1993). In the second paragraph they write, “Disney is full of attacks upon the sensibilities of the politically correct,” noting that Beauty and the Beast “perpetrates the most harmful of sex-role caricatures . . . the men in [Belle’s] life are a non-nurturing chauvinist lot: an absentminded professor, a macho jock, his Best Buddy, and the Beast, who is, of course, a beast.”
I don’t know anything about Jean Cocteau’s version of the film or understand the other mumbo-jumbo they wrote about, but I do know they’re off the mark in their analysis of the film’s stereotypes. A third or fourth viewing of the film (my daughters have the videotape) shows that Disney produced a film whose subtext is unequivocally politically correct.
For instance, the antagonist in the film, Gaston, is, as they say, a “macho jock.” But that’s not all. True, he is quite large, “as big as a barge,” he sings, but he also hunts, wants a passel of kids, and expects Belle to be the traditional housewife, all of which, in this day and age, are verboten views. As was amply demonstrated by Belle herself. When Gaston stomps into her house to propose matrimony, telling her exactly what he expects of a wife—the kids, the cooking, the housecleaning—Belle rolls her eyes and says something like, “Yeah, right. What planet are you from?”
By contrast, the only three women in town who admire Gaston’s manly virtues are stereotypical, dizzy-blonde triplets who swoon and flutter their eyes when the musky fellow ambles by in town. Get it? Stupid women like men such as Gaston. Intelligent women, those who read lots of books like Belle, do not.
Disney makes this subtle yet profound point at the end of the film, too. When Belle finally tells the Beast she loves him, which turns him back into a human being, the result is a very effeminate-looking fellow. Unlike Gaston, with his booming voice, chiseled face, and towering muscular presence, the newly spawned Prince speaks softly and has downy features, a normal if not endomorphic Alan Alda look. The sensitive Prince wins Belle’s affection with tenderness, whereas the Neanderthal’s unsuccessful courtship was the metaphorical equivalent of knocking her on the bean with the thigh bone of a dinosaur.
These characterizations aren’t all that surprising when you look at the people who animated and scored the film. The program 20/20 gave viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. Again, it was amazing, showing bona fide creative genius at work. But a quick glance at the physical characteristics and mannerisms of the crew sheds light on the qualities of the characters they created. Not one of the animators or directors, most of whom were men, was what I would call a tower of masculinity. Quite frankly, the head honcho was a wispy little pencil-neck—the kid in grade school who couldn’t hold on to his lunch money.
Mostly they looked like a bunch of pansies to me, and reporter Bob Brown inadvertently let the cat out of the bag, at least for those of us on the lookout for movies and television programs with unsavory or sinister messages aimed at our children: “The music [of the theme song] has an emotional pull beyond what’s on screen because of a tragedy that occurred since we were last here. On March 14, 1991, the song’s Academy Award-winning lyricist . . . died of AIDS at the age of 40.”
If all this sounds a little farfetched, try the following experiment, especially you parents who bought The Little Mermaid, which was produced by the same crowd who gave us Beauty and the Beast. Take a look at the castle on the front cover of the video case. About dead center, buried amongst the pointed spires and turrets, you’ll see something that doesn’t look like part of a castle at all. That’s because what you’ll see is a phallic symbol.
Disney’s back, all right, but parents of the 90’s like me are getting a little more for our money than parents like mine got for theirs.
—R. Cort Kirkwood
Mary and Leon Podles Reply:
We disagree with Mr. Kirkwood’s analysis. We find that the logic of the Disney story remains true to the original folktale of heterosexual love, in which the young woman overcomes her revulsion for the rough side of the male personality (let’s face it, the Beast is a beast) and learns to love him anyway, and in turn her love transforms and civilizes the Beast into the Prince, the mature and loving masculine man.
Gaston represents the man who is not transformed by woman’s gentler nature: not every man is, to the detriment of society. He may tout the traditional values of home and family; he’s still a jerk. This is not to say that everyone who has a traditional family is also a jerk. After all, he is only a cartoon character. The girls who swoon over him are caricatures too: some women are silly, and some silly women are blonde.
We would also argue that the Beast-turned-Prince didn’t look all that wimpy to us. His kind of tenderness, in the 40 seconds or so that we saw him transformed, seemed proper to the man in love. As for his androgyny, we can only say that to us he mostly just looked young. But then we are of a certain age. Youthful beauty is to some extent androgynous; it is, we suspect, nature’s way of making the parties to heterosexual attractions different enough to be intriguing, but not so different as to be frightening.
As for the orientation, morality, and agenda of the Disney artists, we do not deny that traces of homosexual rhetoric can be detected by the wary. Yes, we recognized what they were getting at when Gaston says, “Must our children be sacrificed to appease his unnatural appetites?” We know who is accused of using such language, and by whom.
But whatever their practices and personal agenda may be, they have respected the integrity of the story and conveyed it in their version. Should we not judge the work of art as it exists, regardless of what we may think of the artists? This was our point in the main body of the article: that stereotypes, in this case folktale types of courting heterosexual lovers, convey truths. The p.c. insist that all stereotypes, complimentary or not, must go. We might, if we were more prompt and diligent writers, have used Aladdin as our example. It contains the rankest of stereotypes of Arabs, yet the story is delightful. Perhaps some of the artists involved were Jewish, and some of them even Zionists. Does this mean that they intended Aladdin as anti-Palestinian propaganda? We think not. It’s just a fairy tale. If Beauty and the Beast were to be used as anti-heterosexual propaganda, we would rightly regard the users with suspicion, but not the artists who made it, and certainly not the work of art.
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