Beauty and the Beast

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Hello, this is Pod Academy.

Of late, there has been much talk of sexism, in particular sexual harassment, behind the scenes in the film industry. But what about the films themselves? Pod Academy’s Tatiana Prorokova took a look at the hit movie Beauty and the Beast. One of the highest grossing films this year, it has taken over $1bn worldwide.

The recent adaptation of the famous Disney cartoon – Beauty and the Beast – is the film that through a children’s story raises the profound questions of female oppression and sexism that have existed in our society for centuries.

The story focuses on the girl Belle (played by Emma Watson) who lives with her father in a small village in France. Belle is considered weird by most of the villagers and the reason for that is her love for books. The girl is frequently portrayed with a book in her hands; such an image, however, provokes rather negative responses from the people around her primarily because they believe that education, which, in this context, is access to books that Belle has, is not for women. The scene that illustrates this idea even more vividly takes place later in the film when Belle is teaching a small girl how to read. The crowd largely disapproves of that. Sexism thus manifests itself not only through the reactions to the girl who likes reading but also, and perhaps even more crucially, through the idea that men and women have different privileges. This foregrounds gender inequality and reminds the audience about the perverse norms that were generated and sustained by patriarchy.

Belle later finds herself in the castle, where she came to save her father (played by Kevin Kline). She chooses to stay there instead of him, sacrificing herself for the well-being of her parent. Her stay in the castle supports the ideas of sexism and female inequality in multiple ways. First and foremost, being the Beast’s (played by Dan Stevens) prisoner, she is literally locked in the castle. Yet one can interpret this imprisonment from a different angle and argue that it figuratively embodies the existing gender inequality. The visibly subordinate relationship between Belle and the Beast metaphorically visualizes patriarchy in the family life or perhaps even stands for family tyranny. In this respect, the image of the Beast only intensifies the power and cruelty of the oppressor. The castle becomes Belle’s cage where she is both literally and symbolically locked. The girl can only wait for someone from the outside to come and save her. That savior, as the audience can easily guess, could be Gaston (played by Luke Evans) – the former soldier who wants to marry Belle. Belle is thus portrayed as a fragile girl who is oppressed by a male and who can be ultimately saved only by another male.

In the castle, the enchanted servants forcefully redress Belle so that she can look like a real lady – again, the image that is constructed by patriarchy as the only right one and imposed on women. Belle is portrayed in a pompous dress, she is wearing a wig, and her face is richly covered with vulgar makeup. The girl ultimately rejects these clothes, preferring to stay in her old ones.

While the castle symbolizes Belle’s cage, it is pivotal that this is the only place where she is not laughed at for her love for books. The Beast shows her his large library and Belle’s heart seems to melt, for she now has something that she wanted to have so much – access to education. Nevertheless, Belle remains a prisoner; thus while she gets something what she likes, she is still under full control of the Beast.

Apart from Belle, there is another important female character in the film that is introduced to support the issue of sexism provoked by patriarchy. This is Agathe (played by Hattie Morahan). Agathe is first introduced to the audience as a beggar who saves the life of Belle’s father but later turns out to be the enchantress. There are several scenes in the film with Agathe and Gaston that reinforce the issue of sexism. First, Gaston generally thinks that Agathe is crazy because she is not married; thus an unmarried woman, i.e., a woman without a man cannot exist in a patriarchal society without being considered even more inferior than she already is. Second, when Belle’s father tells everyone that Gaston tried to kill him, and Agathe confirms that this is true, everyone still believes Gaston. This arguably happens not only because Agathe is an outcast due to her poor social and financial status but also because she is a woman: the word of a man appears to be more trustworthy than that of a woman.

The film’s final attempt to recover the image of a woman and balance the roles of women and men takes place in the end. Both Belle and Agathe are depicted as saviors: Belle, because she falls in love with the Beast despite his appearance, and Agathe, because she removes the spell from the castle and thus saves lives of its inhabitants and the villagers who came to fight against the enchanted creatures. Yet even in this, as one might argue, triumphant and powerful images of the two heroines, the film discriminates against women. Belle falls in love with the man whose prisoner she was. If she had been free to choose, she might have simply run away from him. She is thus forced to live the life that he imposes on her, including the ultimate marriage. In turn, Agathe appears to be a witch – the image even more dehumanizing than that of a crazy beggar.

Beauty and the Beast is thus a powerful story that raises the acute issues of female oppression and sexism that women continue fighting against even in the twenty-first century. The genre of the film helps deal with these serious socio-political and cultural issues in a rather careful way, despite their far-from-being-fairy-tale nature.

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