By: Lauren Phillipps
It taught young girls that they could find their prince. It taught us that being a little different from everyone else didn’t have to be devastating. Beauty and the Beast became a source of identity for so many little girls. Belle was like us because she was an ordinary girl, and yet she gave us something to aspire to. Her love for reading made her interesting, her kindness made her likable, and her failure to conform ultimately helped urge her on to her place in the palace. Last week I found myself sitting in a theater, waiting to see a childhood favorite played out with live actors. And it was lovely. But my twenty-eight year old mind found so much more than I expected. The controversy over Beauty and the Beast has focused on what director Bill Condon described as Disney’s first “exclusively gay moment. ” While concern over the inclusion of and focus on that moment is legitimate, it is my desire that we don’t want to fail to address, or perhaps even see, other themes within the story.
Nostalgia, Guilt, and Redemption I found Maurice’s construction of the music box one of the most poignant scenes in the film. The music box he has built displays a woman holding a tiny infant and a man tenderly leaning over them. Behind them is a painting of the woman and the child, and as the camera zooms out, an identical painting sits behind Maurice. He is reconstructing his own story. As he does this, he is singing, asking himself how a moment can last forever, and comes to the conclusion that love preserves memories. This is his way of relishing and re-creating a cherished memory. In fact, it seems that he has been unable to do more than live in these memories for quite some time. His secrecy surrounding his wife’s death seems, partially, to be motivated out of remorse over leaving his wife when she was dying. When the music box is left in the woods after Maurice flees from the wolves, his past is literally left behind, and the present commands his attention. Moreover, the man who left his wife to protect his daughter is saved when his daughter refuses to leave him. She takes his place, and in so doing, is given a glimpse into the events of her mother’s death. Belle’s uncovering of the truth, in a sense, frees Maurice to leave his guilt. He is redeemed, in both a literal way and figurative way, by Belle’s sacrifice. How many of us walked into this movie hoping to relive a piece of our story, to prolong a moment or a feeling that we can’t have back, just like Maurice?
Virtuous Women Belle is presented as an odd, but morally upright girl. Her kindness and selflessness are evidenced by her willingness to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner and in her choice to remain with the Beast when he is wounded, rather than run away. Belle’s virtue comes to her easily; it is her nature. And it is this nature that coaxes the Prince out of the Beast.
The theme of the virtuous woman preserving, protecting, or revealing man’s good character is a common Victorian theme. Coventry Patmore famously encapsulated this concept in his poem, “The Angel in the House.” Women were viewed as a type of safe haven from the outside world, a sanctuary for men to return to after they’d spent the day in a hard, depraved world. The Victorians failed to acknowledge the fallenness of all mankind, whether male or female, and assigned women an inherent moral uprightness. Women cannot be the salt and light of the world merely because they are women. In fact, this system of thought values women for their ability to preserve and spread virtue, and it values virtue for its ability to reform and subdue men. Virtue becomes a type of currency, and love becomes the ultimate reward for the virtuous woman (Aimee Byrd wrote a wonderful article on this idea here). Our beauty and virtue do not exist for the sole purpose of winning a man’s heart, and I found it interesting that Disney inserted elements of feminism to “modernize” the story, when in fact the story itself is built on a foundation of thought that feminists combated.
Obedience to the Lord, or virtue, does not increase the inherent value I have because I am made in the image of God. All humans have derivative value (value given to us by God, assigned at creation), and though sin mars us, it does not make us less valued by God. I cannot help but wonder if the idea that a woman’s virtue makes her valued has influenced Christian thinking about virginity; a woman whose “virtue” has been shattered is sometimes portrayed as offering something far less precious to her husband on their wedding day, even if she is currently walking in obedience to the Lord.
I want to be careful in making this point. Scripture praises women of virtue, and sets forth examples of virtuous women for us. In fact, 1 Peter 3:1-2 tells wives that their respectful and pure conduct may win over their unbelieving husbands. Kindness, forgiveness, and forbearance are good things, but they are not merely mechanisms for change. These attitudes arise in us when we abide in Christ and his forgiveness of our sin. Trusting the Lord to work through our obedience (and trusting him even if our obedience yields different results or seems fruitless) requires humble dependence on the Lord because we are sinners. My obedience to the Lord is a sacrifice of self that I make because of Christ’s work on the cross, and not something I do so that others see it and amend their behavior. Women need to trust the Lord to work change in their husbands, and obey the Lord’s commands for their treatment of others regardless of whether or not their obedience yields change.
Evangelicals will greatly benefit from exercising discernment over all ideologies of a film, and not only those that are blatantly ungodly. We must aim for obedience that is not merely outward, but from the heart (1 Sam. 16:7), and considering the themes of books and films we partake of is an essential part of conforming our minds to biblical thought; it helps us eradicate thought processes that are more worldly than godly. Beauty and the Beast features themes of common grace: kindness, forgiveness, forbearance, and love are gifts of God in a fallen world. What a wondrous thing it is that we can be forgiven of wrongdoing, offer forgiveness to others, and live harmoniously with those we love.