Disney’s Cheap Grace

When I was growing up, there were two films the pater of my familias forbade his brood from seeing until we reached the age of 35: A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Bambi (1942). With a smirk and some curiosity, we obeyed.

This loyal filia no longer wonders why Bambi—instead she wonders why not Beauty and the Beast?

Politicized critiques abound, but they miss the film’s crucial theological background. This may seem hyperbolic, but read on: Beauty and the Beast is not just stupid but dangerous. It forgoes showing the effects and difficulties of the different types of love—eros and agape—in order to present romance as possessing godlike, transfigurative powers. The delightful score and charming characters prop up—let’s be kind—a morally obtuse tale.

The version of this tale that Disney made in 1991 is a classic, but only by virtue of its music. Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman—and the actors who performed their songs—deserve credit for the rebirth of the animated musical, with Disney’s trilogy of Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992).

Beauty, surely the best of these, retells La Belle et la Bête, the 18th century fairy tale in which Belle falls in love with a cursèd Beast who had imprisoned her father and now imprisons her. Her love breaks the spell and turns him back into a prince. Disney has just released a live-action remake—a near duplication—of its 1991 classic, updated to seem more relevant, more avant-garde.

The trouble with Disney’s avant-garde, of course, is that it always arrives after the battle. A few decades ago, the depiction of mixed race couples (the remake shows off a good number) could really have meant something coming from Disney, but only by costing something from Disney: courage.

The same is true, more or less, when it comes to the much publicized (split-second and humorous) homosexual dance coupling that’s in the new version. The belated attempt to be daring is rather cloying.

It’s true in spades for the film’s faux feminism. Feminists hate classic Disney princess films. The heroines are too beautiful, often in an ultra-vanilla Barbie Doll way, and their lives resolve into wedded bliss with some boring prince charming. The Beauty and the Beast of 26 years ago already did something to correct this—first, by emphasizing that true beauty “is found within,” and second, by having the bookish Belle reject the advances of the village’s Ken Doll, Gaston.

Also, the film exaggerates and vilifies stereotypical male traits in Gaston (that hairy, hunting, Don Juan of an ex-soldier), and then caricatures men further in the Beast (who is violent, commanding, and even more hairy than Gaston). The taming men need from women, the film suggests, must de-masculinize them, and in his transformation the Beast not only grows soft and gentle, but also grows flowing locks on top of his head even as he loses hair everywhere else.

Evidently Disney wanted credit for going further this time, hence the remake is more loudly women’s lib. Belle is “ahead of her time,” “is not ready to have children,” and announces, “I’m not a princess.” Now an amateur inventor, she shows spunk and prowess in the STEM cognitive areas.

Both films, nonetheless, ultimately fall in line with the patriarchy as Belle, by definition beautiful, wins her prince. Stock feminist complaints about this should be dismissed. After all, feminism has become more broadly attractive since growing less hostile to both beauty and men. No—there are better reasons to be disturbed by Disney’s story.

First, while watching a cartoon one easily forgets that romantic feelings culminate in erotic actions. Live-action renders the film more realist. So, the relationship becomes troubling for adults watching the remake with their children. The too girlish, rather flat-chested Belle (Emma Watson) is to couple with a much larger, stronger, physically expressive male with devilish horns. To this contrast others are added (his superiority in wealth, social status, and age) that further increase the inequalities unbalancing the relationship. In a word, it’s kind of gross. Such parental concerns are harder to put aside when watching live-action.

Second, feminist critiques of pop culture sometimes seem hyperbolic—but here they hit their mark. This is because Disney’s Beast behaves badly, particularly as compared to the not-at-all-abusive central character in Disney’s main sources: Jean Cocteau’s gentle film La Belle et la Bête (1946) and Madame de Beaumont’s influential 1756 version of the story.

Recall what the girl under his spell wishes to forget: The Beast imprisoned her and threatened her with starvation for not playing nice with him. And it is not merely Belle whom the Beast mistreats. In Disney’s most insightful move, the servants have been transformed into their master’s use-objects: a coatrack, a duster, an armoire. Some try to maintain their cheer and kindness, particularly the teakettle Mrs. Potts and the candelabra Lumiere (voiced in 1991, respectively, by Angela Lansbury and the late Jerry Orbach, who steal the show). The clock Cogsworth displays the typical psychological costs of living under the thumb of a domestic despot. It may seem ridiculous for a reviewer to diagnosis the animated timepiece with Battered Contraption Syndrome, but it does become a little creepy when this Disney character’s anxiety is played for laughs.

The new movie adds, unawares, another typical feature of the abused: self-blame. Mrs. Potts rationalizes that the servants have been punished, made mere things, quite justly—for did they not stand idly by when, after his mother’s death, his father spoiled the prince rotten? The remake adds this backstory to extort sympathy for the monster. (Poor Gaston gets no sad backstory.)

One might defend the film by emphasizing the moral of the story: love is blind, and the Beast shows he isn’t really bad on the inside. In the turning points of both Disney films, he saves Belle from wolves as she tries to escape. But if we thought about it for a minute, we’d realize he is saving her from a danger he himself has caused—another abusive pattern.

She nurses his wounds and falls in love—in a mixture of the Florence Nightingale effect and (according to a viral feminist diagnosis) the Stockholm Syndrome. Victims of the latter often are taken in by kindnesses from their captors, believing they have identified a side of the captors that would redeem them in society’s eyes if it were known. “There’s something in him I simply didn’t see,” Belle sings. We may fall for it, too, because it sounds so good. She sings, “I wonder why I didn’t see it there before,” but again, if we stopped to consider, we would wonder at her wonder. Belle, any friend would say, exasperated, remember the imprisonment and starvation thing?!

In the end, a feminist Stockholm Syndrome reading of these films does not suffice. But for one reason only: as Belle explains, “He’s different now. He’s changed somehow.” And this only gives us a better reason to object to Disney’s versions of the tale. We should ask, how did he change? This question, plus a little theology, provides the key for understanding the story.

By way of comparison, there’s another well-known movie about a beast under a curse seeking a belle’s love to save him. But Groundhog Day (1993) illustrates how people, by nature, actually do change: habituation. The endlessly repeated day in the life of weatherman Phil Conners (Bill Murray) as he visits the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, traces his development: from a mean, ambitious user into a man who learns that both happiness and true romance must elude a bad person. Now filling his days with beautiful and noble action, he lifts the curse.

Groundhog Day hints that it took the weatherman thousands of years in Punxsutawney to perfect his character. The woman (Andie McDowell) is inspirational, and she comes around to him in the end, but her love is a side-effect, a reward, not the cause of his transformation. Contrast this with the Beast’s change. When he feels nice feelings of love, he is tamed; when Belle reciprocates, presto, he is fully human.

One might be tempted to defend Beauty and the Beast from the domestic-abuse chorus by retreating into clichés like, “People can change” and “With love all things are possible.” It may even seem unforgiving, unethical—even unchristian—to resist believing such clichés, which contain some truth. Yet, it is important (and difficult) work to distinguish between Christian doctrine and the post-Christian imaginaries it has spawned. As Robert Sokolowski notes, such work “is like trying to distinguish a voice from its echo.”

In theological terms, the Disney story confuses the infused and the acquired virtues. By nature, human virtues of character are accumulated by repeated voluntary action, as in Groundhog Day. But according to Christianity, virtues can also be infused by grace, that is, by God’s love, agape. (A vivid example: Saul, engulfed in light, thrown from his horse—Acts of the Apostles 9.)

In Beauty and the Beast, it is not God who infuses the virtues, but the love of a woman. Disney conflates agape, not even with the more energetic eros, but with milquetoast romantic feelings. These warm sentiments now wield God’s power to convert character, however monstrous. Far from being part of the faith, this belief in the salvific power of love is, from a Christian point of view, hubris.

It gets worse. Both films end in the Beast’s physical transformation, secularizing the doctrine of the transfiguration according to which our bodies, by the power of God’s love, are to be raised and remade in heaven. Brilliance is, by tradition, one of the features of the glorified body. It’s said to glow. Belle has romantic feelings and—zap!—the object of those feelings is raised up, engulfed in light. The Beast’s body shines. Beams shoot from his fingers as he becomes a new man.

Mrs. Potts tells both Belle and our daughters, “Somewhere deep in his soul is a prince waiting to be released.” Maybe. But it is beyond any mortal’s power—even a woman’s—to liberate it.

Although many reasonable people believe in agape and many don’t, human romantic feelings cannot effect such transformations. Surely most adults wouldn’t say they can, but Disney’s original is meant for children, and the remake targets ’tweens. Such ideas maintain momentum in the imagination even after the intellect has dispelled them. Their naivete isn’t just lame; it’s bad for women and girls. One needn’t be a Freudian to recognize the Beast as symbolizing the darker sexual forces sometimes at work, in some people, of possession, control, and use.

It is not just Christians who should reject this Disney doctrine, this secular sacramentalization of the sentimental. And it is not just feminists who should mock this insouciant portrayal of abuse. What the film complacently endorses—a mélange of babe-in-the-woods spunky feminism, wimpy waxed men, and romantic wishful thinking—is no match for the monstrous potentials of human nature.

My seven-year-old loved the movie. “Didn’t he change kind of fast?” I asked. “Oh,” she said, “you mean how he made a joke and she was like, you make jokes now?—and all of a sudden he was a good guy?” I said yes, following up: “Do you think that really happens?” A long pause . . . “No.”

Good girl!

Reader Discussion

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on March 31, 2017 at 10:12:34 am

Like mother; like daughter. You have a very fortunate seven-year-old.

Cardinal Ratzinger writes (in an essay entitled, "Gratia Praesupponit Naturam") of a set of categories developed by St. Bonaventure. Your essay contains echoes of his teaching.

"Three 'courses': cursus naturalis [natural course]; cursus voluntarius [voluntary course]; cursus mirabilis [miraculous course].

The Cardinal explains: "this means that human will is presented as a separate middle order between mere nature and God's own freedom".

The essay appears in "Dogma and Preaching - Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life".

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Image of Linda Smith
Linda Smith
on March 31, 2017 at 11:22:48 am

Haven’t seen the new movie. But I gotta say, the previews weren’t doing anything for me. And I like Emma Watson! If you can’t extract a compelling 30 seconds out of a 90(?) minute film, that’s not a good sign.

But here’s the story arch that I recall from then animated version: Beast is cursed for being a spoiled brat, and in his shame locks himself and his staff away where he never has to confront any rejection. Belle arrives and, because she does not kow-tow to him, forces the Beast to face unpleasant facts about himself, and to grow. Yes, there is a turning point when he rescues Belle from the wolves—but it’s not hard to see that the Beast, seeking rescue from his curse, had a self-interest in the rescue. But later there is a turning point when he encourages Belle to leave and go rescue her father. It is THAT moment, when the Beast is willing to sacrifice his own hope of salvation without any prospect of gain—other than the satisfaction he takes in Belle’s happiness—that is the sign of redemption. The Beast has learned to love, and explicitly NOT in terms of eros.

What to make of Stockholm Syndrome? Yes, a psychological dynamic causes prisoners to come to identify with their captors, and to see their humanity—but that doesn’t mean that the humanity doesn’t exist. I find no contradiction here. Rather, the apparent contradiction arises only if we give in to the temptation to divide the world neatly into Good Guys and Bad Guys. If we can lay aside the need to judge, and simply accept that a person can behave abusively yet also have redeeming qualities and a capacity for growth, the contradiction evaporates.

Sure, if I were the inventor, I might well hate the Beast and caution my daughter against making long-term decisions while under the influence of a well-known cognitive bias. But that would not justify my denying the Beast’s humanity or capacity for growth. And, if I embrace Christ’s message, it would not justify my withholding compassion and forgiveness. But I would be sorely tempted to draw some different conclusion—not because a different conclusion would be justified, but because entirely predictable psychological dynamics would encourage me to do so.

Is the Beast’s transformation “cheap grace” because it occurs quickly? Well, as I note above, the transformation actually occurs over an unspecified length of time; only the final magical change occurs quickly. And that kind of symbolism seems entirely consistent with traditional narrative. The movie Lincoln depicts the ending of black subjugation at the conclusion of the Civil War, culminating in the passage of the 13th Amendment. It’s a powerful, and more or less historically accurate, account of events. Yet we all know that black subjugation did not end. The passage of the amendment was an important historical event in its own right, but it also served as a symbol of a much longer social transformation that does not fit neatly into the story. That’s the nature of narrative.

Groundhog Day is an interesting point of comparison. It’s unclear how long weatherman Phil Conners takes to transform—clearly long enough for him to become an accomplished pianist. But to say that any depiction of grace is “cheap” unless it takes decades seems hard-hearted; after all, Christ’s public ministry lasted only about three years. Moreover, Conners’s motivation at the film’s end is far from clear. Much like Churchill’s commentary on the United States, it appeared that Conners could be counted on to do the right thing—after having exhausted every other alternative. He chose to act nobly not out of any special impulse to nobility, but because he simply found it to be the most rewarding of the various lives he had tried. Connors acts from a pretty other-worldly—indeed, a godlike—perspective.

In contrast, the Beast’s perspective is more like our own: He makes decisions in real time, without assurances of outcomes or the opportunity for do-overs. (Admittedly, the story’s authors do have these advantages, but let’s put that aside.) Thus I find the Beast’s transformation more “realistic”—if less theologically interesting—than Conners’s.

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Image of nobody.really
on March 31, 2017 at 11:43:03 am

Goodness gracious! One wonders exactly what the screenwriter ACTUALLY intended / envisioned and what his / her level of philosophical or theological knowledge is.

As a much much younger man, I did a little experiment. Submitted a poem for discussion by an honors Writing class. Authorship was anonymous.

What a blast listening to all the interpretations. Hearing one that was particularly off the mark, I (still anonymous) offered another possibility via several questions. Absotively luvv'd it when the *critic8 insisted that i could not possibly be right.

Even better when at the end of the discussion, I informed the critics that I was the author.

Methinks, we may all read too much into too little - but not all the time!

I seriously doubt the screenwriter knows "agape" love and his / her sole intent was to create a vehicle for the expression of his / her own "progressive" thinking; then again, I could be that old critic at the Proletarian Harvard who himself is reading too much into a silly child's story.

In a way, this is not unlike, commenting on the *political* thoughts of some fat comedian or Hollywood starlet. I'd rather just eat the popcorn and forget about the movie.

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Image of gabe
on March 31, 2017 at 12:09:53 pm

Hi, Gabe: Thanks for the read and the comment: the issue isn't how much theology the screenwriters knows. Rather, the writers are caught in a post-Christian system of images that they don't need to understand to be caught in. The images (and the notions they package) persist, even when the intellect has not be theologically trained. Enjoying movies is fine -- but they also train our imaginations, and that isn't (just) child's play. How do you want your daughter's imagination to have been shaped? What can you do to help her intellect reflect on the meaning implicitly carried by those images?

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Image of Molly
on March 31, 2017 at 13:49:34 pm

Or, in the words of John Maynard Keynes:

[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

And what is true of economists and moral philosophers is true of social messages generally. We are all free to decline to think about such messages. But that doesn't protect us from absorbing them. Growing up, I'd constantly hear "You only go around once, so you gotta grab for all the gusto you can!" It was a silly beer commercial--with a powerful subtext about the nature of life and meaning. How America has been changed by being saturated with commercial messages such as this, we'll never know.

If you have concerns about such subtexts, the best way to deal with them is not by ignoring them, but by pointing them out, making them explicit, and reminding people that there are other possible views.

More to the point: Talking about movies is fun!

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Image of nobody.really
on March 31, 2017 at 17:02:03 pm

Molly and Nobody:

I do not disagree with either your comments regarding the *importance* of the screen medium (or written, for that matter) or with the sentiment. There was a time,at least to my failing mind, when the *message(s)* were somewhat more wholesome, more forthright and, frankly, more normative. Then again, perhaps, it is the attempt to "re-shape" what is normative to which I object. I could go on about the paucity of character development, plots relying upon the most tangential connections, and an appeal to the "low" in us as opposed to the "high" (apologies Leo Strauss) but I will refrain.

As to what I would prefer my grandchildren are provided for enculturation, Let them read books and great literature; then they may be sufficiently *enculturated* to withstand the current acculturation process.

Of course, their real problem will be dealing with a curmudgeon of a grandpa! Ha!

And if movie "reviewing" is fun, brudda, go for it with GUSTO (another beer commercial; probably for some LITE beer which I suppose is fitting for the rather LITE cinema we are provided).

take care

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Image of gabe
on April 01, 2017 at 23:26:45 pm

I can't speak to the new version of "Beauty and the Beast" since I haven't seen it but what about other Disney films? Sleeping Beauty would seem to meet several items on your list as far as feminism and religion is concerned. Cinderella, too.

I am not keen on reading too much into movie themes. If I do, then I might have to revisit all those stories we were made to read as a kid --- starting with The Three Little Pigs.

Not once did I ever consider jumping off a roof after reading a Superman comic book. I think we sometimes underestimate the intelligence of children. True, there may be some that go a little too far with it but most do not. They, like most adults, like a good story no matter how fanciful it is.

Which is perhaps the definition of escapism. Is it good or bad for the human being, regardless of age? I think that is the real question circling overhead of your treatise.

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Image of Arnold
on April 02, 2017 at 12:52:15 pm

"To enjoy reading about fairies—much more about giants and dragons—it is not necessary to believe in them…. Belief is at best irrelevant; it may be a positive disadvantage."

C.S. Lewis

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Image of nobody.really
on April 02, 2017 at 19:23:47 pm

You mean to tell me that I have endured over six decades of grief and loss over the death of King Kong and he NEVER existed????

Oh, My, My!

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Image of gabe

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.