By Cass Clemmer
Disney is a magical world where wishes on stars always come true and love ends happily ever after…or maybe not. Have you ever considered that there may be something more sinister just beneath the surface of all the songs and the magic? Something more subtle than poison apples and sleeping spells; something more frightening than witches and wild-haired dognappers… If you just look past the whimsical tunes and animated characters, a pervasive culture of violence and abuse comes to life alongside dancing candlesticks and teacups.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the relationship between Belle and the Beast in one of my favorite Disney classics. Belle, a strong and independent woman, attempts to rescue her father who wandered into the woods and was imprisoned by a village outcast, the Beast. She offers herself to this creature to save her father, and promises to stay in his castle forever. In response, the Beast keeps her locked up, tracks her every movement, and dictates her actions – often resorting to violent gestures and shouting to get his way. Eventually, isolated from her family and everyone she knows, Belle begins to fall in love with her captor, believing she can change him from the Beast that he is into a more docile, less abusive creature.
If the plot itself doesn’t put you on edge, then specific scenes of disturbing violence might. At one point in this children’s film, the Beast is so enraged that Belle will not join him for a meal; he threatens to starve her for not obeying him.
Beast: “I thought I told you to come down for dinner!”
Belle: “I’m not hungry.”
Beast: “You come out or I’ll break down the door! […] You can’t stay in there forever!”
Belle: “Yes I can”
Beast: “Fine. Then go ahead and starve. If she doesn’t eat with me, she doesn’t eat at all.”
But regardless of the violence Belle experiences at the hands of the Beast, she tries to change him, even when the villagers come to rescue her from her violent captor. Belle believes if only she loves him enough, if only she is gentle enough, she can transform him from the Beast that he is.
Children watching these events unfold on the screen in front of them learn that violence is an acceptable form of interaction that could lead to true love and a highly-regarded happily ever after. They learn that the best course of action to take when being yelled at and manipulated is to stay with your abuser, no matter what, and maybe he’ll turn into a handsome prince. A scenario that could lead to tragic real-life consequences… The Disney audience consists of some of the most impressionable minds in the nation – what does it say about our society if we’re not only willing to place these scenes in front of children, but we encourage it?
Our culture has normalized violence and abuse to the point that they can be presented as appropriate aspects of plot development in a children’s film.
Now, do I believe that we should boycott Disney and refuse to show our children any animated films unless they have been thoroughly screened for unacceptable messages? Not quite, but we should be aware of the kinds of cartoons our society is producing, and realize the potential impact these messages could have on younger generations.
Rather than skip these Disney films in favor of other movies which could have the same subtle messages, you can take the opportunity to have a talk with your child(ren) about respect, violence, and how to treat one another.
In fact, next time you watch Beauty & the Beast, try asking your kids what they would tell Belle to do if they were her friend: would they advise her to stay with the Beast or would they tell her to get help?
Stay tuned for more cartoon revelations in future posts; and as always, let us know what you think in the comments below!