Anyone who has watched an hour of TV or Hulu in the last couple weeks has seen the ads: Beauty and the Beast! The biggest movie in the world! The beloved classic story! The romance! Disney's new live action Beauty and the Beast is a worldwide phenomenon!
In the first two weeks, the new Emma Watson version of Beauty and the Beast grossed $766 million in box office sales. It is an ancient story that speaks to many common themes in human experience - cruelty and kindness, love and violence, punishment and redemption - and for this reason, it has always been popular and well received in its many re-tellings over the years. However, from a Jerk Radar perspective, Beauty and the Beast sends some very disturbing messages about the roles of men and women in adult relationships.
(Read no further if you really want to believe in Belle's ability to magically reform the Beast with love, because I might just permanently ruin this story for you!)
Let's be clear about this: the Beast is an excellent example of an abusive partner. He imprison's Belle's father for taking a rose from his garden. He holds Belle prisoner in exchange for her father for months on end. He insists that Belle eat dinner with him every night and asks her to marry him, despite barely knowing her and despite her repeated refusals. He yells at the servants (and at Belle) and breaks things, and expects everyone to do his bidding and even read his mind, and feels justified in having a raging tantrum when things don't go his way. The servants are all terrified of his rages but make excuses and try their best not to upset him for fear of setting him off yet again. Yet in the end, he magically becomes a kind and handsome Prince due to Beauty's decision to love him despite his abusive behavior toward her and pretty much everyone else around.
Of course, we all know that Beauty and the Beast is a fairy tale, and that fairy tales are not real. However, it is very easy to underestimate the impact such stories have on our beliefs about life and love. Years of experience in domestic abuse relationships have shown me that the themes in this movie very deeply contribute to women's vulnerability to abusive partners.
Here is a look at a short synopsis of the plot of the 1991 animated version:
"An arrogant young prince and his castle's servants fall under the spell of a wicked enchantress, who turns him into the hideous Beast until he learns to love and be loved in return. The spirited, headstrong village girl Belle enters the Beast's castle after he imprisons her father Maurice. With the help of his enchanted servants... Belle begins to draw the cold-hearted Beast out of his isolation."
Notice a few things here. First, the Beast did not become abusive because he was put under a spell - he was put under a spell BECAUSE HE WAS ABUSIVE! The enchantress in question was posing as a poor old woman begging for food and shelter, and he scorned her and thereby earned her wrath.
(New rule: treat everyone nicely. The person you just disrespected just might be a magician with an anger control problem!)
Second, he needs to "learn to love and be loved," but it doesn't seem he's made much progress despite his punishment, as he KIDNAPS the person he is trying to learn to love! Despite over 10 years of suffering as "The Beast," he has not learned an ounce of humility or compassion, and all his servants, and at first Belle, are appropriately terrified of him.
Third, Belle, HIS PRISONER, is somehow responsible for "drawing the cold-hearted beast out of his isolation!" How did she manage to earn this enviable job?
This is a very disturbing message of this fairy tale - that a woman who is beautiful and kind enough can (and apparently should) take a person who has kidnapped her father for picking a flower, and then held her prisoner in exchange, a person who has infantile rages and breaks things when upset and has no apparent concern for anyone's feelings but his own, and "draw him out of his isolation!"
According to Fandango's summary of the tale, "Belle learns to see the good man hiding behind the Beast's monstrous exterior."
But in what universe is there a good man in there behind the monstrous body? He is in this whole predicament specifically BECAUSE he was a heartless jerk, and everything about his behavior suggests he continues to be a selfish jackass until Belle somehow magically (and unrealistically) transforms him into something different.
Worse yet, toward the end of the story, Belle manages to get a furlough from the Beast to tend to her dying father. She is able to see the Beast in the magic mirror and promises to return in a given time. When she fails to keep her promise (for various reasons, depending on the version you're reading/seeing), she sees in the mirror that the Beast is "dying of grief." And she, instead of being relieved to have escaped and letting the Beast suffer the consequences of his own abusive behavior, somehow feels like it's HER fault he is sad and miserable and she has to go back and make him feel better! In real life, this is not romantic at all, but could only be understood as a manifestation of Stockholm Syndrome (think Patty Hurst), where the victim of a kidnapping becomes unhealthily attached to the kidnapper as a way of surviving the abuse.
The real kicker is that she goes back and kisses him, and he turns into a handsome prince, who is somehow NO LONGER A JERK, despite there being zero evidence of his having reached square one in the "loving others" department before she arrived! So the ultimate message is this: if you meet an angry, hostile, controlling jerkwad, if you're a good (and beautiful) enough woman, you can magically transform him into the "good man hiding behind the Beast's monstrous exterior."
How many women have continued for years to try and encourage their partners to get into drug/alcohol treatment, to go to some kind of counseling, or otherwise change their abusive ways? How many women have continued to put up with violence and abuse and believed that it was their job to somehow "solve" the problem when the problem lies almost completely in the abuser's hands?
Of course, we can all watch such a movie just for the fun of it and suspend our disbelief. But in terms of having one's Jerk Radar tuned up, it's very important for you to take a good look inside yourself and see if you've ever felt the push to "take care" of someone who has not treated you well, and/or made excused for bad behavior by saying "he had a rough upbringing and just needs to learn to love." It may work in fairy tales, but in real life, giant assholes don't magically turn into loving, handsome princes just because you're good looking and are nice to them.
There is nothing romantic about falling in love with someone who holds you hostage!