About BMC 277: Media and Diversity

This course asks students to critically examine the role of the media in facilitating and challenging the social constructions of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation in U.S. culture.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Beauty or a Beast? Textual analysis of stereotypes and discrimination in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Sam Guenther
“It is not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking…”

This statement is spoken by Gaston, the “ultimate” male specimen in Disney’s 1991 film, Beauty and the Beast.

A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Though useful in allowing us to take shortcuts in interpreting vast amounts of information, these mental frameworks cause us to exclude important information in favor of the information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs or ideas. These schemas give rise to stereotypes by making it difficult to retain new information that does not conform to our already established schemas. The schemas most children have of gender stereotypes and discrimination are reinforced continuously by Disney films. The Disney empire, long beloved by parents and children alike, has recently been confronted about the stereotypical messages within their material. With such a powerful influence over the public, especially children, many contend it should be Disney’s responsibility to censure their media outlets and work to eliminate evidence of stereotypes and discrimination within their products. Scholars and parents alike are becoming concerned with the portrayal of women and other questionable behavior in Disney’s films.

In particular, Beauty and the Beast portrays severe gender stereotypes. Using a textual analysis, one can discover the use of these stereotypes in the main characters of Belle and Gaston, and indication of discrimination towards the Beast. The opening song in Beauty and the Beast summarizes the schemas of Belle and Gaston. As the whole town sings about Belle, the main character, they introduce her as beautiful, but “odd”, “peculiar”, and a “funny girl.” Why? Because she reads. The only town seems to be baffled because there is really no need for a girl to read, especially if she has beauty. The text of this film immediately displays Belle as the town spectacle because of this trait. Rather than encouraging Belle’s fancy for reading, the film isolates it as an “odd” and ridiculous trait. Although Disney does allow their female main character to be seen with some brains, she never ends up needing them. Just as the towns people suggested in the beginning. In Belle’s book she reads, she describes her favorite chapter as the one where the girl finds her prince charming. The film suggests that the only purpose a woman like Belle has, is to find a man. However, Belle does sing of her desire to find “more than this provincial life.” Yet, her idea of “more” still revolves around finding a man and no more.

In addition to Belle, other stereotypical females are shown in the film. While Gaston sings of his perfection, three girls swoon around him and sing the chorus. These three girls are either triplets or heavily stereotyped. All blonde, skinny, and with tiny waists, the only difference of them is the color of their revealing dresses. They are portrayed as the town’s “regular” women. In other words, the construction of femininity as portrayed by the three girl/women is normalized within the film’s narrative. They are completely infatuated with Gaston and the idea of marrying. They are sexy and ditzy. Clearly, their most valued commodity is their body.

This leads us into Gaston; he is a typical Disney male. In the film, Gaston sings of how “lucky” Belle is that he picked her as his bride. He continues to say that Belle must be the best there is because Gaston only deserves the best. This reinforces the idea of male domination and that a man comes first and deserves more than a woman, or will attain the best at a woman’s expense. The character of Gaston is illustrated to have a plethora of muscles with “biceps to spare!” This body image along with his uncanny physical abilities, like the female characters, puts emphasis on the body-as-commodity. In another musical number, Gaston’s minion replies that Gaston thinking is “dangerous” after Gaston announces he thought of a plan. The idea of Gaston’s lack of need for intelligence is also reinforced through the identical swooning girls. They only focus on his sculpted face and hairy muscles, as well as his abilities to shoot and drink. This represents the stereotypical “jock” as the main male character. While both male and female characters are valued only for their outer appearance, the difference here is that Gaston has the power to chose; the women in the film do not. Instead, the women are chosen, and chosen based only on how they look.

The other main male protagonist in the film is the Beast, and it is here that we find some potentially destructive ideology. Firstly, the idea of the Beast as an abuser becomes prevalent the instant he comes into contact with the other characters. The Beast is shown as a violent, angry creature, incapable of mercy. When Belle’s father stumbles into the Beast’s castle looking for help, the Beast immediately locks him away in a dungeon. To get her father released, Belle imprisons herself to the Beast, taking her father’s place. As the Beast’s prisoner, Belle is screamed at and threatened. At one point, the Beast’s temper boils over and he screams, “If she doesn’t eat with me, then she doesn’t eat at all!” Yet, after all this emotional abuse, Belle continues to hope that there is something human inside him, which is capable of love. Against the odds, Belle falls in love with him and “tames” the Beast. Belle’s actions tell children that it is okay to be abused by a man, because you can change him and he actually loves you. This is probably the most dangerous message in the film.

In addition to the Beast being seen as an abuser, he also represents the idea of discrimination. Cursed into the form of an ugly monster, the Beast’s life is threatened because of his difference. Discrimination or the unfair treatment of a person or group on the basis of prejudice is illustrated perfectly by the Beast. When the town learns that the Beast is real, they immediately form a prejudice against him based simply on the fact that he is not one of them. They carry this prejudice further through discrimination when they venture to his castle to “kill the Beast.” It is disturbing that prejudice and discrimination are prevalent in a child’s movie and more so, that these actions are never shown as wrong. Rather, the occupants of the house and the Beast’s servants (who happen to be thinking house-hold objects) defeat the town’s people and send them running. The film reinforces ideas of prejudice without reinforcing them as wrong, only defeatable.

It is important that Disney movies be analyzed and questioned by parents. Katherine E. Barnett (10/8/09) states that, “gender is a social construct, meaning that what we think males and females should do or how we think males and females should behave is not based on one’s biological sex” (185). In other words, Barnett is insisting that gender roles are learned and taught by one’s society. In a time of critical learning, a child begins to understand what is considered male and what is considered female. Therefore it is very important what he/she is being exposed to. Children have been, and continue to be, influenced by the overly stereotyped Disney frames of gender.

Works Cited
Barnett, Katherine E. "Destructive and Constructive Characterizations of Women in Disney's Mulan." Race/Gender/Media :Considering Diversity Across Audiences, Content, and Producers. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2004. 184-90. Print.

Beauty and the Beast. Dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Perf. Paige O'Hara and Robby Benson. Walt Disney Pictures, 1991. Videocassette.

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