I remember being obsessed with Disney movies in the 80s. I was exactly at the right age to enjoy the rise of Disney’s second Golden Era of animation.
When The Little Mermaid came out in 1989 I insisted that my poor mother take me to see it again and again. My mother, who has always been a feminist, hated the movie. At the time I never understood how The Little Mermaid could have been seen as a movie with a bad message. Yeah, Ariel was only 16 when she got married to Prince Eric at the end but 16-year-olds are basically adults, right? Like, they have boyfriends and drive cars and study books with algebra and sometimes calculus in them! To 7-year-old me, 16 seemed like a perfectly good age to marry a 25-year-old man.
And yes, I know that Disney canon has officially retconned Prince Eric’s age to just-turned-18 (the movie starts with the sailors celebrating Eric’s birthday) so that Prince Eric is less than two years older than Ariel.
Still, I think Disney just did that to make the scenario less creepy. Prince Eric always seemed like a twenty-something guy to me. The fact that during the birthday scene Eric’s elderly passive-aggressive courtier Grimsby is bemoaning the fact that Eric was not married yet sort of implies that Eric is well past his teen years. (Eric’s actual age is never mentioned in that scene.)
It must have been easy during the late 80s to brush off feminist criticism. “Geez, it’s a fairy tale! Stop being such a stick-in-the-mud about kids films!”
Still, judging by Disney’s next film Beauty and the Beast, someone at Disney must have been listening to feminists.
Beauty and the Beast has a quiet feminism to it that The Little Mermaid lacks. Right off the bat, Belle in Beauty and the Beast is a lot older than the 16-year-old Ariel. We never really get an exact number but the fact that Belle’s father is elderly (“I’m old. I’ve lived my life.”) puts Belle well into adulthood.
What struck me the most while rewatching Beauty and the Beast was the villain Gaston. As a bad guy Gaston was REAL! And I mean that in the worst sense of the word. Sorceresses who turn into dragons like Maleficent? Witches with magic mirrors? Those villains were safely fantastical. Rapists in 19th century France who forced themselves on women while the entire village approved?
That’s real folks.
Rachel Armstrong Kolar and Thomas Kolar, who host the podcast “The Wonderful World of Darklords,” point out that Gaston is far darker than a regular playboy. Gaston clearly has lots of gorgeous women throwing themselves at him but he does not want to enjoy himself with a consenting woman. Gaston wants the woman who does NOT want him.
Even pre-adolescent girls knew that there was SOMETHING frighteningly true-to-life in the scene when Gaston forces himself into Belle’s house and proposes to her. Belle is alone with a man who is far stronger than her. That man is clearly sexually aggressive. Belle needs to find a way to get herself to safety without being hurt. It’s all very anxiety-inducing.
The message of the scene is clear: Hey girls, it’s okay to not want a boyfriend. It’s NOT okay for others to pressure you into getting a boyfriend. And if any guy tries to force himself on you like Gaston did, that’s a bad thing!
It’s a bit of a “Well, duh” message but believe me, for early 90s Disney that was a strong form of feminist validation. And it was important for Beauty and the Beast’s audience, pre-adolescent girls, to hear it.
Contrast Gaston’s behavior with the Beast. I was struck while re-watching the relationship between Belle and the Beast by the emotional sophistication Disney managed to pack into the film.
It’s easy to see the Beast’s behavior at the beginning of the film as having a traditional masculine toxicity. The Beast imprisons Belle in the castle. He tells her where and where not to go. He’s very closed-off emotionally. He’s socially awkward. He makes cringey small talk while Belle weeps over losing her father.
The audience is aware that the Beast’s behavior is driven by self-loathing, fear over remaining a beast forever, and years of loneliness in his castle.
Belle, of course, does not know this. She only sees the Beast (understandably) as a danger every bit as likely to hurt her as Gaston.
Watching Belle and the Beast’s relationship evolve into a real partnership with mutual compassion is wonderful. In the social media age of “My feelings and ONLY my feelings are valid” it’s nice to watch a children’s movie where both Belle and the Beast are forced to make allowances for one another while building their relationship.
One scene I adore is when Belle and the Beast are eating breakfast. Belle is eating porridge with a spoon. The Beast, however, is eating porridge messily with his huge paws. The Beast doesn’t have the manual dexterity to hold a spoon and Belle won’t eat with her hands, so they both compromise and sip the porridge directly from the bowls. It’s a neat and civilized way to eat while being inclusive of the Beast’s limited dexterity.
We see the Beast progress from epitomizing masculine toxicity to epitomizing masculine virtue when Belle tells the Beast that she needs to leave the castle. The Beast knows that if she leaves there is a good chance that he will remain a beast forever. Belle may not return, certainly not before the enchanted rose sheds its last petal and dooms the Beast to live out his life in animal form.
The Beast sacrifices himself to give Belle her autonomy. It is an example of masculine virtue. The later fight between Gaston, who whips up a mob against the Beast, and the Beast drives the point home that the REAL beast was Gaston the entire time.
When it comes to feminism, I will admit that Beauty and the Beast is no Moana. Still, the quiet strain of feminism that the movie showed to its late-20th century audience of little girls is wholesome. Yes, Belle gets her Prince Charming in the end, but only after the movie makes it clear that Belle marries the Beast as a choice. Belle’s husband is her choice that she made on her own time and in her own way. And after the Beast has learned to respect her freedom.
Even my mom agrees.
Plus my mom loved the fact that I was old enough to go to the movie theater by myself when Beauty and the Beast was released.