My Problems With: Belle and Character Motivation in Beauty and the Beast (1991)

WARNING: Spoilers for pretty much every major Disney animated musical released from 1989-1999. Also Beauty and the Beast 2017. Also Shrek.

So I initially wanted to make this about the total bullshit about Belle having Stockholm Syndrome, then Lindsay Ellis did this video that pretty much summed up everything I was going to say. Thanks, much better content creator than I who people should check out if they haven’t!

It DID bring up an interesting point for me, and to jump off it I should outline in my own words why Belle did not have Stockholm Syndrome in Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast (source of symptoms is Prime Health Channel if people want to verify this, as it has handy bullet points and I am too lazy and uncreative to break down a broader expansion of its symptoms):

  • Showing admiration for the abductors (This doesn’t happen until well after the Beast stops acting like a dick to her-the nicer he is to her, the more she grows fond of him. And I know a cause of this condition is that they start treating them more humanely, but that tends to be countered by the captors flip flopping between abusive and nice. Belle does not grow attached to the Beast until he legitimately starts treating her like a person; he even tries this passive-aggressive behaviour and it does not work)
  • Resisting rescue attempts (she literally runs away at the first sign that the Beast will attack her. So nope!)
  • Defending kidnappers (Belle only defends the Beast against others after he frees her near the end of the movie. Nope!)
  • Trying to please abductors (Belle pretty much does not take any of the Beast’s shit, and will shout him down if she feels he is mistreating her. Nope!)
  • Refusal to testify against captors (see Point 3)
  • Refusal to run away from abductors (see Point 2)
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So hopefully this stupid meme pseudo-intellectual crap can die the death of a thousand cuts

Watch Lindsay’s video for a broader perspective on this.  She DOES bring up something, however, that I think is a legitimate flaw: Belle’s character arc. She really doesn’t have one

One of the ways the 2017 movie tries to “fix” Belle is by adding some new elements to her character that honestly feel pretty superfluous. She can invent things! And she uses this amazing skill in exactly ONE scene and it’s never referenced to again except to maybe add credence to her trying to escape later. Oh, right, she tries to escape the tower the second she’s in her new room, so no Stockholm Syndrome! Except that wasn’t really a problem as demonstrated above-it’s just a tired internet joke or people reading WAY too much into it. She has abandonment mommy issues! And again, they play very little bearing on the plot except to maybe connect her and the Beast further.

What’s even more frustrating about this, though, is that the object they bring in to resolve the mother subplot, the book, is actually the perfect way to pay off something that WAS wrong with the 91 flick: Belle’s want for adventure. And they freaking drop the book and ignore it altogether as soon as this scene is done. Yeah.

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This would be really handy to get back to your father later-good thing we never bring it up again lololololololo absinthe has been a good friend of mine these lonesome years

This feels like a missed opportunity. In a character-focused story, which this and most of the movies of the 90s Disney Renaissance were, two things are needed from the protagonist(s) in order to keep the audience engaged and the plot moving forward: personality and motivation. Both are kind of obvious, and I don’t need to go into personality here because Belle has buckets of it. Motivation is the hook for the narrative; we need to keep the plot moving and if a character we like is invested in the outcome then we are. Disney famously signals this in their ‘I want’ songs, which has become a staple trope for their brand. Let’s see how it operates in other movies from the Renaissance (for reference, canon Disney musicals from 1989-1999) and see how they both set up the character’s want vs how that is paid off later with their need:

  • The Little Mermaid: Part of your World
    Want=To be where the people are. Ariel longs to be in a different and romanticized world, free from her father’s kingdom
    Need=To not shun her old life while growing apart for it into a new one. Ariel learns to make peace with Triton and holds onto her connection to her old world whilst going forward to a new one.
  • Aladdin: One Jump Ahead
    Want=To move above his street rat persona, both from his being poor and how society has labelled him
    Need=To realise that his inner strength and compassion make him a great man, not wealth or how people view him. A diamond in the rough
  • The Lion King: I Just Can’t Wait to be King
    Want=…to be King. Simba has a really idealised version of being a monarch that’s just about fun and frivolity
    Need=To accept his kinghood will have responsibilities and hardships, but it’s part of the legacy. The Lion King is a coming-of-age story in the strictest sense, with ‘king’ meaning adulthood and ‘lion’ meaning what 7-year-old doesn’t think lions are fucking awesome?
  • Pocahontas: Just Around the River Bend
    Want=To explore beyond the limitations of her place in life
    Need=That her place in life is protecting her tribe from invading forces, while helping both come together in peace…or something. I don’t know, Pocahontas is not a great movie
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Out There
    Want=Quasimodo wants be accepted by the masses, with an idealised vision of what that would be, and for people to tolerate him even just for one day
    Need=To accept the world’s complexities and show the people what a great man he is-part of the masses WITH his appearance instead of in spite of it
  • Hercules: Go the Distance
    Want=To find his place in life and be seen as a great man in the eyes of the public
    Need=That he just needs one person to see his greatness: Meg (hooooope that doesn’t end like how it did in Greek myth…)
  • Mulan: Reflection
    Want=Actualisation, basically. Mulan wants to be the person she wants to be without the pressures of her family and peers to be a certain way
    Need=To embrace her inner self and make society change for her rather than she change for society (break that glass ceiling, girl!)
  • Tarzan: Phil Collins warbling
    Want=For Phil Collins to sing something vaguely connected to the plot but says shit all about the characters
    Need=For Disney to make him do ANOTHER fucking soundtrack for another movie!
disney_tarzan_1999-680x381
…I mean Son of Man is okay

Each song carefully delineates where the character is at the start of the story. His or her motivation to meet their want drives the plot, and their need comes out of having their perspectives shifted and moving past a personal limitation which was keeping them away from fully developing. This is called a ‘fatal flaw’. Now we’ll look at Belle’s song…Belle.

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Little film, it lacks satisfying character motivation…

Her ‘I want’ is more in the reprise (the first part is more to establish her personality and the town’s view of her as an outsider), but her motivation is clearly established: she wants more than her banal and same-old life within her village. She wants adventure in the great wide open. And her need is…to get married and stay in a castle about 10 miles or so outside of her home.

beauty-and-the-beast-castle
Actually, how far IS The Beast’s castle from Belle’s village?

The Beast just has the more compelling arc, and it drives a lot of the story. It opens with him being cursed, his rage causes him to kidnap Maurice, his desperation to break the curse inspires him to take up Belle’s offer to replace her father, even his rather painful attempts to make her stay more comfortable, and his guarded nature makes him snap at Belle causing her to run. After this limited of interaction with another person unlocks a glimpse of humanity buried under 10 years of isolation and self-loathing, he saves Belle’s life, causing her to see good in him and return to the castle to save his life and uphold her end of the bargain.

This shared realisation and connection brings both their defences down and they begin to fall for each other, eventually causing the Beast to release Belle once she becomes worried about her father, sacrificing his humanity for her. The final fight is with his darker self (I’ll get back to that), and while It is Belle who brings him back to life with her declaration of love, most of the story is about Beast’s growth more than hers.

What especially reflects this is Gaston. Disney villains have a tendency to almost be a dark mirror version of the heroes: Ariel wants to go away from her father’s kingdom, Ursula wants to rule it, Aladdin wants the lamp for glory but has a conscience, Jafar wants the lamp for glory and doesn’t care who he hurts to get it, Simba wants to be king but is too young to realise the responsibility of it, Scar wants to be king but doesn’t care about the responsibility as long as he feeds his own pride/ego, etc.

(this was close to being another list. What can I say, I like lists. Don’t be hatin’)

But Gaston? He’s the Beast’s dark mirror, not Belle’s. Beast is a monster that turns into a man (both literally and metaphorically). Gaston is a man that turns into a monster. The more Beast connects to his humanity, the more Gaston loses his.  He lets his jealousy, pettiness and cruelty take him over until he’s at the point where he becomes a straight up murderer, something the Beast, even at his worst, would never stoop to. And this plays into the main theme of seeing inner beauty and how people tend to overlook it. The townspeople adore Gaston and reward his self-centeredness, yet find Belle ‘weird’ because she reads books and is a dreamer, and are utterly afraid of the Beast and want to kill him based solely on how he looks.

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Though, in their defense, she talks to sheep.

So I must think Belle is an awful, terrible, wretched protagonist and you know where this is going because this is an overdone bit, I think even I’ve done it, but no, I love Belle. I think she’s one of the best Disney characters in their canon.

Belle’s motivation does not drive the plot nor does it get a satisfactory conclusion. However, her personality most certainly does. Outside of the fact that she’s, well, the protagonist, she’s put in the unique perspective of being both an ‘outsider’ and yet confident and brave to be able to talk down the Beast in moments even when she’s scared. As stated above, all the other townspeople reacted with fear and hatred, so Belle is the only person who would be able to connect to the Beast once he started treating her better. It’s ultimately her kindness, open-mindedness and empathy that put Beast on the path of earning her love, and yet she’s not a pushover or unwilling to call him out on his shit.

gaston1
Calling this guy out on his shit doesn’t seem to work. And why should it ?!

I mean, hell, this is especially standout if you compare to the three classic Disney princesses. Snow White has absolutely zilch in terms of a solid personality and the most active thing she does in the story is clean the dwarves’ home. Cinderella gets a bit more personality displayed due to her frustration and upset of how her family treats her, but is also a pretty passive character where everything just happens to her. Aurora gets a bit better treatment than the previous two (hell, she actually interacts with her prince a bit before they fall for each other!), but her story almost makes her the catalyst for the conflict between the Fairies and Maleficent. I know I’m comparing movies that have 30+ years gap between them, but that’s also kind of my point: putting the effort into making Belle’s character stand out actually paid off.

(also it’s not like the other princesses get that great a deal in the Renaissance. The next one that gets a solid character AND has motivation that pays off in the story is Mulan, but let us not diverge…again)

The original Beauty and the Beast story is about a girl who has to learn to look past the ugliness of a beast to see what a wonderful human being was inside. Pretty straightforward ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ stuff-very nice and well-rounded fairytale. So, the way they modernised it for a 1991 audience by switching the core development from Belle to the Beast actually helped it work, because you had a protagonist who didn’t appear shallow and instead had to look passed an ugly personality rather than her being physically repulsed by his appearance. This was a clever move, and I think it works as you have a love story with two incredibly endearing and likeable characters. There’s a reason this movie has resonated with people harder than any other Disney movie from that era sans The Lion King-lots of them even!

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Hey, long live the King.

Having said all this, there is the fact that Belle has been described as a little too perfect. And…yeah, maybe she is a little? I mean, she’s not entirely without flaws. She has a tendency to be kind of snobby, and she’s resolute to the point of foolhardy stubbornness that can get her into trouble, but these flaws are usually justified within the story because she comes across some pretty terrible people. And yeah, her lacking a fatal flaw is a problem, and unfortunately she doesn’t have as clean an arc as other characters. You know a movie that took this very framework and actually managed to make it more balanced a decade after this movie came out? Shrek.

shrek
Yes. That Shrek

Okay, stop. Stop. Hear me out, here.

Shrek is not a better movie. Not by a mile. It’s a pretty petty, mean-spirited flick that connected to an audience back then with subversive characteristics that do not really hold up that well. But I actually like how they played up Shrek and Fiona’s relationship. Shrek is seen as a monster, but actually takes joy in it. Fiona is another quirky and confident dreamer (though hers is more based on fairytale tropes), but this time the curse is on her as she turns into an ogre at night. So now they both have fatal flaws: Shrek pushes people away and refuses to connect with them, Fiona falls for the princess ideal too much because she wants to break the curse. What they both need is human connection to look pass this for who they are, like BatB, except this time it’s not to make them better people, it’s to make them to look past their insecurities and find a connection.

shrek-and-fiona-wedding
Honestly, these guys are a sweet couple. Shrek would be interesting to look into, in spite of its general meme-iness nowadays

Again, that’s not to knock Beauty and the Beast, or even the characters. Hell, Shrek came out 10 years after BatB! And really, that’s the point of reflecting on this and seeing how these potential missteps were corrected. Belle is the result of fixing them, and Disney tend to try to match modern sensibilities with their products. We’ve seen more recent examples of this with movies like Frozen and Moana. And that’s great! I think it’s important to examine past films with a critical eye, both to see how they came to this point and how we can learn and continue afterwards. Beauty and the Beast is a great movie, and its potential shortcomings can be learned from to make something that connects with people moving into the future.

Man, I wonder how the new film did with this after 26 years of learning from its predecessor.

 

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Wouldn’t that be interesting to look into…

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2 thoughts on “My Problems With: Belle and Character Motivation in Beauty and the Beast (1991)”

  1. Nice job on this one. I love Beauty and the Beast and even if Belle doesn’t have a strong arc, it’s nice that you acknowledge that she can still be a great character because she is.

    Still adore your dig at Phil Collins. Easily the worst songwriter for Disney movies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heh, yeah, doesn’t fit the movie at all. Just…kind of vaguely.

      Yeah, I think it’s important to make that distinction. Not having a clearly defined or even fulfilled motive doesn’t stop a character from being great. Neither does criticising a movie make you hate it. I love Belle, but writing around her is flawed.

      Like

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