Opinion: Alluring misogyny of Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast: Emma Watson stars in the latest version. The tale itself includes some worrying messages for young people.
Beauty and the Beast: Emma Watson stars in the latest version. The tale itself includes some worrying messages for young people.

Feminists are clashing over whether Beauty and the Beast is good or bad for the sisterhood. For Emma Watson and her supporters, it's all about progress. In the 1991 cartoon, Belle was already pushing back against patriarchy with her free-minded feistiness and adoration of books. Watson's Belle goes a step further by being an inventor in her own right and showing considerable ingenuity when escaping from the Beast's castle.

The film's feminist credentials are underpinned by Watson's promotion of the HeForShe campaign, which stresses that the movement is not about hating men, but rather liberating and empowering them alongside women. After all, it's the Beast who is eventually freed by the Beauty.

On the other hand, feminist critics say the film's revisions further conceal a deeply misogynist tale. Belle remains defined by her servitude (she invents a washing machine) and shows disturbing signs of Stockholm syndrome by eventually falling for her violent captor.

As a fella and fanboy of the 1991 cartoon – there, I admit it – I have come to agree with the critics. Indeed, with Easter and school holidays here, I feel very uncomfortable with the thought of my son and nephew watching the film, even more so than my niece.

Of course, not everything about Beauty and the Beast encourages men to demean and mistreat women. The curse upon the Beast is punishment for his ghastly behaviour. Once he develops inner beauty and learns to love, his humanity and good looks are restored.

But these more sanguine messages only come to the fore when I switch on my rational parent or Disney filter. To put one's manly self on the couch is to grasp the far more powerful and primitive messages embodied in Beauty and the Beast and which make it such a nasty piece of work. The story is all about desire, insecurity, anger, menace and authority. It's this tale old as time, true as it can be.

Critical feminists err in suggesting that the film advances an alpha-male disdain for women. After all, the dashing Gaston is the villain, not the hero. However, the tormented Beast is more alluring and dangerous than any beefcake buffoon or blonde, blue-eyed, teen idol could possibly be.

The Beast's beta-ness is not a problem in and of itself. The problem is that he does everything to Belle – he ignores, ensnares, berates, intimidates her – that the evil alpha Gaston dreams of doing. But the Beast is excused because he's isolated, has been afflicted by ugliness and is sorting himself out. The message for all-powerful awkward types of the 21st century: just trap that dame so that she can find out how screwed up and in need of love you are.

Once I perceived the misogyny in the story, I quickly found other problems. The portrayal of the working class is unbecoming. Belle abhors her provincial life and the people in her village. And the servants in the Beast's mansion are objectified in the most stark and horrific manner as a result of his misdeeds; yet they remain ever loyal. 

So what should be done when the next iteration of this tale is inevitably made? The fundamental problem is that the Beast abuses Belle and is far too easily redeemed. Perhaps it would be better if he maintained his beastly appearance, or maybe Belle could be transformed into some sort of monster (as in Shrek). Until Disney gets more creative and ethical, the best thing to do is avoid the film and suggest others do likewise.

Dr Kim Huynh lectures politics at the Australian National University.