Haha, I mixed up my entries. I was writing these in advance and scheduling them, and I accidentally posted worldviews through film, cont. (again) before this one. Durrr. So, this one was supposed to come between that one and examining a worldview through film. That’s my bad. I left the first entry wondering how films like Beauty & the Beast influenced my feminist values and attitudes on relationships.
Beauty & the Beast
Now, Beauty & the Beast gets a lot of flack these days in Disney Princess critiques as a “classic” tale of Stockholm Syndrome. I disagree. Belle left the Beast. She was like, “Yo, I am not putting up with your abusive B.S. anymore, I am out.” And she left.
I don’t know why absolutely no-one seems to remember this, but Belle chose to stay only because the Beast was injured. Remember? The wolves attacked? Beast fought them off and collapsed in a bloody and injured heap to the ground? Then Belle was like, “Kay, cool, I’m still out –“
And then she’s like, “Damnit, he just saved my life and he’s laying there all bleeding and stuff. I have to help him back.”
So she takes him back to the palace and ministers to him, and then (because it’s late and it’s dangerous and there are wolves outside), she stays the night. Then what happens? The Beast begins to grow and change. It didn’t happen all at once, but the effort he puts forth in altering his negative habits of interaction is clear.
To me, this was always a story about believing in the essentially good nature/ intentions of others. Belle is compassionate, but strong. She has a spine.
She stands up for herself when she’s really scared, but she’s also accepting and curious and willing to explore a new paradigm. She is kind, and she saves both the Beast and herself by being a genuinely good person.
I’m not saying the movie is flawless, but I do think the biggest flaw with Beauty & the Beast is totally different from some armchair psychoanalysis claim of Stockholm Syndrome. Clearly, the biggest problem with Beauty & the Beast is that it perpetuates the myth that the love of a good woman (or person) can change a bad partner.
This message is (somewhat) mitigated by the presence of Gaston — clearly a “bad boy,” but also just as clearly impervious to the influence of Belle’s good nature, despite the fact that he thinks he loves her. And Belle is clear-eyed enough to see past Gaston’s posturing and recognize that his handsome face and apparent interest in her hide a cruel and dangerous personality.
As a mormon woman, I was supposed to want what Gaston was proposing — to be a little wife, massaging his feet while the little ones play by the fire. Maybe not literally, but the idea, the concept was there. I was supposed to want to subsume my needs to the needs of my husband and family, and I knew that. I had gotten the message loud and clear through numerous lessons and activities from the example of the adult women in my life. I knew that my education and any potential career goals were to come second to family.
This wasn’t something that particularly appealed to me, but then, neither did being a primary teacher. I figured god knew best, or something. Plus, it wasn’t like I was thrilled at the prospect balancing a family and a career — even as a kid, I could see that our culture puts much more pressure on women as parents than men. Since I never questioned my desire for a large family until after my first (and only) child was born, clearly it was the “career” aspect of that equation I was going to have to sacrifice. (clarification: This is all teenage-me rationalizations — clearly my stance on all of these issues has changed).
Belle was the first iteration of a sort of third way, a balance between the caricature of man-hating feminism I was internalizing and the fawning subsumation of self I was supposed to seek out. She was someone who exemplified the traits of loyalty, fidelity, and sacrifice that were lauded by the religious teachings permeating my life, but she also exhibited intelligence, resolve, and independence. She followed her morals, even when everyone around her was pressuring her to stop making waves and just fit in. She stood up for herself. She scowled in the face of danger, and I loved her for that.
In later years, the early lessons instilled in me by Beauty & the Beast would be expanded on in Dangerous Beauty, the incredible story of a woman who chooses to become a courtesan and acquire an education rather than marry or enter a nunnery.
The film is based on the true story of Veronica Franco, one of the first published female authors and a groundbreaking feminist. There is a scene in the film where Veronica, who has been accused of witchcraft by the corrupt and biased court of the Inquisition, “confesses” her sins, saying:
“I confess that as a young girl I loved a man who would not marry me for want of a dowry. I confess I had a mother who taught me a different way of life, one I resisted at first but learned to embrace. I confess I became a courtesan, traded yearning for power, welcomed many rather than be owned by one. I confess I embraced a whore’s freedom over a wife’s obedience. I confess I find more ecstacy in passion than in prayer. Such passion is prayer. … if I had lived any other way-a child to her husband’s will, my soul hardened from lack of touch and lack of love… I confess such endless days and nights would be a punishment far greater than you could ever mete out. You, all of you, you who hunger so for what I give yet cannot bear to see that kind of power in a woman. You call God’s greatest gift — ourselves, our yearning, our need to love-you call it filth and sin and heresy… I repent there was no other way open to me. I do not repent my life.”
To give you an idea of how much this movie meant to me, consider that I first saw it when I was still living at home, and it’s rated R. I was raised in the type of observant LDS home that eschewed all R-rated films because a prophet had, at some point, indicated it was better to avoid that sort of thing. So in order to watch and re-watch my latest film obsession, I had to secretly rent it multiple times and watch it late at night, when no-one knew.
My mom did eventually catch me watching it, and I was able to argue my case to continue watching it based on the historical basis for the film — this is the same argument, by the way, that let me watch Braveheart and Last of the Mohicans, despite their R-ratings. I invoked the history and literary aspects, as well as the fact that if the Bible or the Book of Mormon were made into a film, they would definitely be rated R … but I digress.
Veronica Franco is one of the most inspiring characters I’ve ever come across in film, and I think it’s really sad that Dangerous Beauty is seen as soft-core porn by most people. This is really an amazing film with stunning performances. The character of Veronica Franco is like Belle in that she is intelligent, principled, loyal, compassionate, and strong-willed. She loves wholly and completely, but she doesn’t confused sex with love.
It was also important to sexually-active mormon-girl me that she was unashamed of her sexuality. It sent a really positive message about sexual empowerment and safe sex to young and inexperienced me. I still struggled with my sexuality and temptations, but I didn’t view sex as inherently sinful. I viewed the religious restrictions on sex as a test of self-control, not something that determined my character or value.
I was able to further reconcile this view by scriptures stories ranging from Esther’s sensuous dance to save her people to Jesus defending the prostitute from being stoned. Here was the bible showing sexual empowerment as a means to freedom, and condemnation for those who could not forgive sexual transgressions. I believe it is this reading of the scriptures that allowed me, when I finally left religious traditions, to easily shed the emotional and mental hangups related to sexual shaming that is so common in the religious traditions of my experience.
Dangerous Beauty movie was the first piece of media to introduce the idea to me that sexual monogamy and love were not mutually exclusive. This is also the film that introduced the idea to me that sex/ objectification as commodities can go both ways — that a woman who is willing and able to do so can choose to subvert the patriarchal rules of a male-dominant society to her own benefit.
I also admired the way this film laid out the different choices available to Veronica. It balanced both emotion and pragmatism as it outlined the pros and cons of the futures available to her. As a wife, Veronica would be socially respectable, but her education would be left uncompleted and she would be completely beholden to the wishes of her husband. She would not have much, if any, choice in her suitors, and because of Veronica’s station in life, she would likely not attract the attentions of a wealthy young man — she would either be consigned to a well-off but elderly husband, or a poverty-stricken, dissolute, and handsome young man. Love would not factor into the relationship. She and her husband would essentially be strangers on their wedding night, and the decorum of church-sanctioned relations would stifle their intimacies.
As a nun, Veronica would be free of the demands and control of a husband while still benefiting from the privileges of a respected social position, but she would be subjected to the rules and regulations of a nunnery. Vanity, disobedience, individuality, and curiosity would be discouraged.
As a courtesan, Veronica has access to the world of men. She can continue her education, have access to all the books she likes, participate in politics, and even learn to fence. In exchange she will trade her body, her status as a respectable woman, and her safety. Her success hinges on her looks and youth — if a jealous lover mars her face or figure, she will become a common street whore, destitute and bereft. If she can’t parlay her wit and beauty into success while she’s young, then she will die alone and in poverty.
She knows it’s dangerous. She knows she’s trading stability and respectability for the chance to hold onto freedom, and she chooses intellectual and political freedom at the cost of personal safety. I really admire that about her. Plus, Veronica is smart, sarcastic, and quick-witted. She’s the x-rated version of Belle; the Disney princess all grown up — and unlike Disney’s Belle, Veronica Franco actually existed.
More than that, she actually stood up against the Inquisition and held her own. As I write this, I realize that Dangerous Beauty influenced more than just my feminist tendencies. This film was a key factor in shaping my view of religious institutions as prone to being infiltrated by the weak-minded and jealous, not to mention separated from their humanity by rigid and unyielding interpretations of doctrine that get passed down as moral authority.
Discovering that women like her have been challenging the status quo since time immemorial was incredibly important to me. When everyone you’ve ever known is telling you that feminism is a newfangled modern invention that goes against the intended order of man, it casts the whole notion as a sort of childish rebelliousness. But when you realize that feminists have been objecting to patriarchal structures of power from the beginning, it really changes the tone of the discourse. Belle introduced me to feminist ideals, but Veronica gave those ideals form and history.