Belle is considered one of the “good”, but still problematic princesses in the Disney collection. On the one hand, she loves to read and is unafraid of being different from those around her. On the other hand, her story seems to teach a rather dangerous narrative of love being able to change a man from fierce monster to loving husband. The idea that a good woman’s love can make a man a better person can lead to women getting into and staying too long in bad relationships—I do not know how common this is. I only know that I’ve seen it happen within my own family.
I don’t, however, think that is what Belle is meant to be teaching. Disney’s Belle has not one, but two beasts—The Beast and Gaston—neither of whom Belle saves.
Belle’s love may have ended the curse, but it did not ‘save’ the Beast. The Beast, like Belle, saved himself.
Is he gone? Can you imagine, he asked me to marry him!
Me, the wife of that boorish, brainless…
“Madame Gaston”— can’t you just see it?
“Madame Gaston”— his “little wife”.
Why didn’t Belle agree to marry Gaston?
On face, Gaston and the Beast are not the different. The main difference, at the start of the film, is that the Beast was punished for his arrogance, while Gaston is praised for his. The Beast and Gaston both also initially need Belle for their own purposes. Gaston requires the most beautiful woman in town as his wife to remain at the peak of the social pyramid. The Beast requires a captive female (captive only so that she is near him long enough to fall in love) to break his curse. In neither case do they require Belle for herself. They only need someone like her, so they try to trap her. Gaston pulls together a speedy wedding, leveraging peer pressure. The Beast trades for her father’s safety.
Neither man is a very likely prospect for proud and independent Belle. So why does the Beast end up the better choice? Why couldn’t her love have transformed Gaston just as deeply?
There’s something sweet
And almost kind
But he was mean
And he was course
And now he’s dear
And so unsure
I wonder why I didn’t see it there before
The first major difference between Gaston and the Beast is how they react to Belle-the-person. Belle does not back down from nor make allowances for either man. When she challenges them (refusing Gaston’s suit, shouting back after the wolf attack), Gaston responds by need to control or posses her; the Beast responds with growing respect for her. This grows into the defining difference between the two.
Gaston cannot acknowledge the needs or desires of anyone outside of his own person. He is the center of his universe. When Belle refuses him, she challenges his self-worth and entire reason for being. Her refusal is an attack, so he counterattacks. The problem with Gaston is not just his arrogance or his initial treatment of Belle, but rather his utter refusal to change or at all consider Belle’s own desires.
No one can change another person, except the person him or herself. Someone can inspire change, but ultimately, if the change is to be more than superficial, more than temporary, the person must decide to change on their own.
(For a bit more on this idea, I direct you to this review of Mansfield Park, the inspiration for this post)
If he could learn to love another, and earn her love in return by the time the last petal fell, then the spell would be broken.
Even the Beast’s curse did not demand certain changes of him. The curse required that he (a) learned to love someone, and (b) was loved back. Interestingly (in a Penelope sort of way), the curse does not demand romantic love. The problem is not the lack of a good woman (or man) in his life, but rather his selfishness, his tendency to see people as means to his personal happiness rather than as autonomous entities worthy of respect.
Secondly, and tying back into the point above, the curse does not tell him how to accomplish any of this. It does not say ‘be nice, considerate of others, etc etc etc’ nor does the curse ensure he’ll develop these qualities (the Beast went many years without doing so, judging by his behavior at the start of the film and the fear among his servants). He is not magically compelled or guided. He has no compass telling him how to behave. If he wants to break the curse, he has to want to change on his own.
Yes, Belle inspires the change. However, she provided a similar moment of inspiration for Gaston. The difference is that the Beast chose to see her differently, chose to adjust his paradigm and actions, chose to grow as a person—and Gaston did not.
When the Beast let Belle go to her father, he had already saved himself. His form was still beastly, but his mind and heart were not. He respected (and, yes, loved) Belle enough to consider her wants and desires as equal to, if not ahead of his own. Gaston, however, continued to regard Belle as a means to his own happiness and goals.
Belle’s kiss at the end of the film only restores the Beast’s body. Her love only broke the curse; it did not suddenly make the Beast a better man.
So, the moral isn’t that love makes people better, but that a good, even transformative relationship requires a foundation of respect.
Belle does not teach us that we should try to change the people around us or that we are responsible for the actions of our loved ones. Instead, Belle teaches that we should not make excuses for others’ behaviors and that we shouldn’t allow social pressures to compromise our own desires. At the same, her story teaches that we must respect others and their desires. She teaches that we should only accept relationships in which we are respected, which seems like a rather good lesson to me.
Just a little respect: Belle, the Beast, and Gaston