Beauty and the Beast

Yesterday on Twitter Russell Newquist and I had an interesting conversation about Beauty and the Beast (which branched off an interesting conversation with the publisher of Cirsova Magazine—if you’re on twitter, you can see the start here). Russell and I disagreed on some specifics, but we did agree that the Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast was set in a historical context but written to modern sensibilities. Twitter doesn’t make nuanced argument easy, so I’m going to present my take as a coherent idea here and invite Russell to give his more-than-140-characters-at-a-time take in response. (Though if you’re looking forward to that as much as I am steel yourself for possible disappointment—he seems to think that being the father of four young children and working a full time job and running two businesses is some sort of excuse for not blogging about everything I’d like to read.)

It is my contention that in the animated movie Gaston is a proud man. Now, I mean that in the sense of the vice of pride, i.e. of having a wrong opinion of the importance of the self. Pride is often confused with vanity and arrogance, as well as—most frustratingly—with a proper opinion of the self in defiance of excessive modesty. That last one is actually properly described as humility, and if it is counter-intuitive that it can require humility to be immodest, none the less it is true. Vanity is an excessive care for what others think of oneself, and obvious Gaston is a vain man, but that’s not relevant to the moment. Vanity can be highly functional in social circumstances, so it’s very hard to disentangle from a reasonable concern for the implications of the perceptions of others. Let’s just set that aside. Arrogance is acting as if one is superior, but it is only a social sin if one really is superior. Beauty and the Beast makes it fairly clear that Gaston really is superior in the ways in which he acts like he’s superior—it is reasonably established that in a wrestling match no one can bite like Gaston, etc. But the proud aspect is that Gaston acts like he’s royalty, when he’s as much a peasant as anyone else in the village. This is somewhat difficult to pin down, exactly, since Beauty and the Beast seems to be set in an early 19th century village in the late medieval period. (By which I mean: it’s anachronistic.) Still, there is the strong suggestion of feudalism and no hint of upward social mobility, which makes Gaston’s thinking of himself like royalty as highly misplaced. Even remarkable peasants are still peasants.

This is a complicated matter, but relates to the way in which european aristocracies were never thought, within Christendom, to be moral aristocracies. As such, a man who was specially brave or strong or what-have-you was not out of place by being a commoner, and this did not entitle him to higher rank. That the members of his village don’t resent him thinking himself so far above them is an aspect of our modern sensibilities. We’re used to the idea of a meritocracy along the lines of economic output, while the peasants of Gaston’s time should have been more resentful at him thinking himself so high above people he was born equal to. (Not that there was no social mobility, but it was very uncommon and was won on the battlefield in extremis.) That said, the people of the village don’t seem to mind.

As such, by any worldly estimation, Gaston is quite a catch for a young woman. He would clearly be a good provider as well as raise his wife’s social status. He was good looking and confident, so he would be attractive. And yet Belle wasn’t interested in him. Why?

There are two possible explanations, the likely one and the one I prefer. The likely one is that the writers need Belle to not be together with Gaston so they tip their hand and wink at the audience and show that he’s actually unlikable. Gaston is depicted with tell-tale signs that he’s going to end up a fat slob in a soiled white a-shirt reminiscing about how great he was back in highschool. Granted, none of that fits in with the story at all, but it’s clearly the archetype being referenced. I picked “no one bites like Gaston” up above for a reason: this is one of the ways in which the writers tip us off that Gaston is really awful. Why on earth would he cheat in wrestling? That the people singing his praises sing his praises about this too turns them into toadies whose high opinion of Gaston is worthless. Also the gulf between Gaston and LeFou—his closest friend and a bumbling fool who worships the ground Gaston walks on—tells us that Gaston is actually insecure and constantly needs to reassure himself he’s actually worthwhile at all. Those are very recognizable signs; we’ve all seen them in dozens of utterly unrealistic high school football player bullies.

The reason Belle isn’t interesting in Gaston that I like is that she’s a young woman who studied during a time in which much of what there was to read was religious. Specifically: Christian. Being an intelligent young woman of learning, she’d be well aware that pride is the deadliest of the sins, and that the purpose of marriage is to get to heaven while raising saints. Not how most people in her time would have thought of it, but very reasonably how a well educated person of her time would have thought of it. Now if you cast your mind over the story of saints, and especially of female saints, a woman who refused an advantageous marriage because the offered husband was a bad man who loved himself more than God would not be out of place. Saints’ stories are unusual, but Belle was an unusual woman.

And it is in the sense of my preferred interpretation of why Belle is not interested in Gaston that I hold that Beauty and the Beast is written to modern sensibilities: the modern world doesn’t understand pride or even sin in general and nor does it understand trying to avoid sin.

As an addendum, on the subject of whether Gaston would have been attractive to Belle, Gaston’s pride might would come off as confidence in one or a small number of meetings, and as the PUA who lurk in the shadows of the internet like to say: women are attracted to confidence. But PUA spend most of their time in clubs and other venues where everyone is a stranger to everyone else. Gaston would be known to Belle for many years and years of acquaintance tend to erase the confusion of outward similarities. A proud man eventually gives himself away over the course of months, let alone years. Further, given that Gaston does not seem to be a man of strong moral character, it is likely that he would have danced in the hay with the young women of the village who whole-heartedly sang Gaston’s praises, which to a woman of character and Christian principle would have reduced Gaston’s appeal as the years wore on. This would, perhaps, make Belle an exception to the general behavior of fallen humanity, but the whole reason we’re watching a movie about her is that her story is exceptional.

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