April 8, 2011

Thinking Film

Posted in Intimate Partner Violence, movies, Popular Culture, privilege and oppression, Rape Culture at 10:00 pm by sacetalks

I remember growing up watching Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I can’t remember what I thought about it then, a 5 or 10 or 13 year old child, with different and developing impressions about myself and the world around me. In all likelihood, I was probably fascinated with Gaston’s muscles and how many uncooked eggs he could swallow in one go. I also probably thought he was a jerk and it was wonderful that Belle ended up with the Beast/Prince in the end. It is unlikely that I would sit there in my youth analyzing my gendered relationship to Gaston, noting and reflecting on the perplexing discovery that I wanted his muscles for my female gendered body rather than wanting a muscleman wrapped around my body. And also, I probably never thought about why Belle and everyone else was white and what it meant for a young Belle to be forced to hide away in a Palace with a complete stranger in order to protect her father, eventually falling in love with her captor.

Like all Disney movies, people can view them and critique their depictions of sexual orientation, power, gender, body, race, desirability, etc., deconstructing how they create and sustain the dominant and normal roles for Western society. However, little children viewing them likely don’t have such a privilege to question and often, people don’t exercise that privilege even if they have it.

I’m a grown-up now with a grown-up education and grown-up privilege, so I get to question, criticize and make fun of the movies I watch. I did exactly that while watching a modern depiction of Beauty and the Beast, called Beastly. While it probably won’t gross $400 million in box office revenues like the Disney movie (it lack’s Disney’s musical flair), it too will make a profit by selling a story of love and captivity to young children and teens.

In Beastly, a powerful Witch changes a handsome young man’s body, a young man with the short-sighted impression that only beautiful people matter in the world, into a disfigured body with scars, metal, boils and cool tattoos (he gets to keep his muscles) to teach him the lesson that what really, truly matters is the beauty that we all have inside (and muscles). Kyle, the disfigured character, supposedly will learn that lesson by getting someone to say to him I love you.

An important aspect of the story is how Kyle’s rich, white dad abandons him and pays for a Jamaican woman and a blind man to take care of him. While under their care, Kyle develops a sense of empathy, relating to their misfortunes through his misfortune. That’s what we’re supposed to think anyway, only he never thanks them for putting up with his rotten attitude and providing for his basic needs, never recognizes the strength and resiliency of an immigrant woman trying to bring her children to the United States or sees his role in creating a barrier for her. Nor does he acknowledge how the blind man is quite happy and lively being blind, never once suggesting in the movie that it is something he loathes or wants “fixed.” No, Kyle, along with the audience, are supposed to presume that blindness is always something one would rather not have. Kyle “saves” them from their problems by making a magical deal with the Witch to give the man sight and give the woman her children once he achieves his good looks. That’s right; they are saved only if he gets his too.

 Our part as audience is simply to think that he’s learned a lesson about beauty. (The only lesson I would learn is people are beautiful only if they’re loved. Sorry singles). We are not supposed to notice how he spent an entire year of his life taking for granted the services others provided for him, using their positions of marginalization for his own gain. We’re not supposed to notice that he only does something for them when he is able to maintain his own privilege. And anyway, this plot line supposed to remain marginal in our thoughts compared to the main focus of the movie – his acquisition of the love of a beautiful girl (who by the way he also saves, what a good white hero).

The love story goes as follows: After he has sulked around in his home for the first few months of his “ugly” life, he decides to risk going outside. At a party, he speaks with a girl named Liddy who he thinks could fall for him. She is depicted as a female who gives back to the community, gives food to the homeless on the street and was able to see the good “inside” Kyle while he was still a handsome misogynist before becoming ugly. In the movie, sexism is sexy and so is criminal harassment.

He begins to stalk her. One night, he sees her attempt to protect her father from a drug dealer with a gun. Kyle runs to her rescue, causing her to fall and be knocked unconscious. He hides her away temporarily in her room and goes back to her father who’s just shot the drug dealer. Kyle blackmails Liddy’s father by taking pictures of the crime and threatening to show them to the police if the father does not give Liddy to Kyle because he wants her for himself. Wait, I’m sorry, it’s rather because he wants to “protect” her from the dead drug dealer’s brother. I know. It’s complicated.

She reluctantly arrives at Kyle’s home, not knowing about the blackmail. Kyle lies to her about who he is and why she is there. He begins to buy her things, builds her a greenhouse, and takes her to a mansion cabin in order to make her like him.

Eventually, she finds out Kyle loves her and whispers she loves him too. In the end, she isn’t really bothered that the ugly man she fell in love with turns into the handsome, rich Kyle who can take her on all sorts of trips all over the world.

Is it just me, or does Kyle use a lot of coercion to get Liddy to say she loves him? Is it just me, or does it seem like this would be a much different story if the Witch made Kyle both poor and ugly?

As my friend kept telling me, just don’t think about it.

That’s what I’m supposed to do right? When I see love depicted as a man using coercion to acquire a woman’s love – just don’t think about it. When I see how he still maintains his positions of white, class and gender privilege despite being made “ugly” – just don’t think about it. When I see a woman depicted as being both a 21st century independent lady and one who is defined by her role to take care of and love beastly men – just don’t think about it. She’s simply the care-giver ideal of femininity.

I shudder at the thought of a 12 year old boy not thinking about it, watching Beastly and forming his ideas about what it means to be a man; or a 12 year old girl learning to define her romantic attractions towards men she loves in sight of their beastly behaviors and attitudes.

I sit here saying that I will not not think about it, dang nab it!  I will not allow coercion to hide away in an image of heterosexual romance nor will I sit in my movie theatre seat not knowing that I just paid $12.50 to watch this crap.

Because I can.

Because I can think. We all can think about how love, sex, gender, power, race, privilege, disability, class, etc are depicted in film even as we pay to see those films. Except, of course, those who do not have the privilege to develop the skills of criticism, or the money to pay.

by Meagan Simon


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