Gender Stereotypes (or not?) in Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast is one of the most well-known fairy tales around. There are many versions of the story, one of which is by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, and produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios in 1991. In this page, I will be doing an analysis of the main characters in the Disney animated film. Although there are many good moral values conveyed in the Disney adaptation, one cannot discount the fact that gender stereotypes are ever so present in the film. Yet I believe it also depends on the way people choose to interpret the various characters illustrated in the film.

The story is about a French girl named Belle (French for "beautiful") who lives in a village with her inventor father, Maurice. Belle is seen as an odd girl simply because she is someone who enjoys the achievement of knowledge through reading. Maurice, after finishing his new invention, travels to the invention fair to demonstrate his wood chopping machine. On the way, he gets lost and ends up at the Beast’s castle where he becomes the Beast’s prisoner. Belle goes looking for her father, and finding him in a bad state of health, offers to take his place as the Beast’s prisoner. The Beast is a French prince who has been spelled by an enchantress as punishment for his cold-heartedness. To break the spell, the Beast must not only love someone, but be loved in return.

Belle is pursued by Gaston, a vain strapping young man who is highly sought after by all the single females and is considered “godlike in perfection” by the male population of the town. Gaston is the stereotypical macho male who expects Belle to be his “little wife”, bearing him “six or seven” sons, massaging his feet, and doing all the household chores – duties that are typical of the stereotyped female as a domesticated housewife. However, Gaston’s depiction here seems more satirized than idealized; he considers intelligence in women to be ridiculous as he says that women should not read, yet his lack of knowledge is obvious when he takes Belle’s insult as a compliment.

Belle is depicted as a strong independent young woman who is not content with being Gaston’s "little wife". Contrary to the stereotyped female, she is not shown doing household chores but is instead an avid reader who frequents the bookstore often. As a result, she is thought of as “odd” and “peculiar” by the villagers as her actions do not fit in with them. Nevertheless, she pays no heed to the differences. This could be reflective of the changing perspectives in contemporary society, where women are gradually ‘breaking out of the mold’ and not as restricted by social and cultural rules as before.

The Beast (Prince Adam) is also portrayed in a traditional male role but with greater complexity. He struggles with the primal nature of his personality and his hot temper but also interacts with and respects Belle as an equal. Because he “understands” her, the Beast eventually wins her love and breaks the spell. The Beast’s respect of Belle and fair interaction with her is a possible reference to the gender equality often championed by many organizations in contemporary society.

Beauty and the Beast (1991 film)

The story also involves other characters like Gaston’s sidekick LeFou, Lumière, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and her son Chip, all of whom display various personality traits based on the labels they represent. LeFou, for example, is portrayed as a cunning stout man who is physically unappealing – it seems as if most sidekicks do not have looks that rival those of the ‘leader’. In addition, it feels as if without a plump appearance, Mrs Potts would not be known to have a motherly character. Nonetheless, these character portrayals can also be seen as a tongue-in-cheek response to the gender stereotypes present in society.

This story gives a new outlook to the different values and beliefs of what people experience throughout everyday life. In a way, it makes people question how they will react when they encounter something different from what they are used to. One particular moral value that resonates with me is that of beauty being only skin deep. Due to the bias towards beauty that is commonplace in society, this ‘appearance first’ thinking has led to the way we judge people, based on first impressions and the beauty that we see. While most of us know that inner beauty matters, sometimes that knowledge does not seem to help in reserving our judgment before knowing someone better.

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