This past opening weekend, Beauty and the Beast set a number of box office records. Yet, this latest fairy tale remake has me shaking my head once more. At the risk of sounding like a broken record myself, I ask again: When is Hollywood going to stop “retelling” these stories that — in this case, by its very name — smack of patriarchal sexism? As The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri tweeted last year when Disney released the trailer for the movie (which also broke viewing records), Beauty and the Beast “is just another story about a hairy guy with a bad personality whose friends think he deserves a beautiful smart woman.” Ain’t that the truth. What’s also upsetting, however, is that in selecting the fair Emma Watson to play the role of Belle in this live-action remake, Disney chose yet again to define beauty as a white woman.
From the feminist perspective, the message behind Beauty and the Beast, like its fairy tale brethren, is insidious. Nonetheless, an article by a female journalist on Time’s Motto.com lauded six positive things girls can learn from the story, including that “[i]t’s not always the man that does the rescuing”. To me, the very notion that a person needs “saving” is one of the most insidious aspects of these stories, as well as much of today’s romantic fiction. Fundamentally, the fact that even the male protagonist needs to be saved is just as sexist as the man coming to the woman’s rescue. That is, the act of saving itself puts the rescuer in a position of self-sacrifice, which does not allow her to evolve to a greater state of being beyond martyrdom.
Moreover, when a man saves the woman in a story, he’s branded as the hero. Yet, when a woman saves the man, she’s generally portrayed as exhibiting her good and virtuous self. This subliminal theme, which equates goodness with sacrifice, is detrimental to women. In fact, from a young age, girls are conditioned to be “good girls” while it’s acceptable for boys to be “bad”. The underlying message to young girls is that in order to be “good” they must ultimately sacrifice themselves for another, in this case a beast who manages to prove he isn’t just a sad, insecure, pathetic creature.
The very title of the film, Beauty and the Beast, is objectification at its worst and reminds us that no matter what the story preaches about looking beyond the surface to know someone, beauty is still everything with regard to women while men can be beastly and hairy or even have a “dad-bod”. Part of the problem with this objectification of beauty is its abject subjectivity, which serves to marginalize those who don’t fit within certain prescribed parameters, especially women of color. We’ve been socialized, not only by these stories but also through images in the media, to regard a very particular type of body, hair and skin color as the paragon of such beauty.
The obsessive focus on being beautiful has kept women from remembering that they already are beautiful. They were born beautiful and a profound and ageless beauty resides within each of us. And yet, that sense of their own beauty is squashed by the dangerous storytelling to which young girls are exposed during their formative years, inculcating in them that they’re not pretty unless they’re a Princess who looks a certain way. Disney’s latest remake is just another incarnation of the same story that continues to hurt women who face patriarchal values of beauty every day, as well as minorities who are faceless and underrepresented in these insipid princess movies as well as Romance stories.
As a Romance writer, it’s clear to me that our distorted notion of beauty has also warped our view of love, keeping it superficial and void of anything truly real.
In our world, beauty is measured, literally and figuratively, by how others perceive us. If our view of beauty expands so too will our capacity to understand holistic love because it would be inclusive rather than exclusive.
The Beauty and the Beast retelling is just one of many examples of what is sorely lacking in the story-telling arena. Minority women, misperceptions of beauty, misogyny and sexism continue to prevail. The challenge remains for people to begin to expand their limited perceptions to see beauty in every being, to reverse the damage that has been done and is being done to girls and women with dark skin, with layers of fat, or with less-than-proportioned features.
It’s time to recognize that the only way in which we can lift up the next generation of women is to give them a new story in which they can see themselves portrayed as they are — perfect — not because of their external beauty, but for their ability to see and express their internal beauty. Enough with the broken record, I say.