I WAS going to take a break from politics, and write about the film “Beauty and the Beast.”
But I could not help going back to the fact that the reason why I liked this Disney tale, compared to “The Little Mermaid,” is that its narrative is a compelling representation of emancipatory politics.
Belle, the protagonist in the “Beauty and the Beast,” is an assertive, intelligent woman who is not afraid to go against the conventions of her time. She reads books while the girls in her village devote their time to looking pretty. She teaches children to read to the chagrin of those who believe women’s destiny is to take care of their husbands and children.
The film places physical beauty as secondary to the inner ability to express love. Belle sees through the ugliness of the Beast to celebrate true love. She is an indictment of those who are mesmerized by the skin-deep and superficial.
I contrast this with the politics of Ariel in “The Little Mermaid.” Born a half-fish, Ariel wanted to become human to pursue her prince. She was so fixated on her ambition to be a part of his human world, to marry him, that she ended up selling her voice to Ursula. Ariel personified social climbing and blind ambition even if it meant making a pact with the devil.
On a different plane, Ariel is a vivid representation of the mentality of the colonized where an idolized “other,” which to Ariel is the prince but for the colonized are their white colonizers, become the templates for obsession and ambition. Ariel wanted to be human and live in the world of humans, in the same manner that many Filipinos dream of living in the US and becoming Americans.
Belle in the “Beauty and the Beast” also articulated her discomfort about what she considered as the “provincial life” of her village. But this was seen less as desiring an idealized outside world, but more as emanating from her criticism of the social structures within which she is confined. She was incredulous at the structured hierarchies, of how women were treated, and of how creative individuality, such as that of hers and her father’s, was considered to be strange.
Belle rebelled against her own society that confined her identity. Ariel was already a princess, the daughter of the sea king, yet she wanted to leave her privileged life to pursue her obsession.
Contrasting the politics of Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” and Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” may appear too academic. However, ideas and images of what is normal in society are embedded even in these animated fantasies. Without any critical interrogation, they remain pieces of entertainment that mesmerize their audience, particularly children. Articulated in the narrative as received by those who partake of the fantasy are the usual and convenient messages of living happily ever after, of Belle finding her prince, of the Beast turning into Prince Adam, and of Ariel finally becoming human to marry her prince.
What is hidden are the subliminal messages that should be unmasked and deconstructed to turn the fairy tale into a narrative to awaken and engage an audience lost in the spectacle of the fantasy. Focusing on Belle’s feminist politics and Ariel’s colonized mentality turns the experience of watching Disney movies into opportunities to engage dominant power in society.
What further enhances the political element of this installment of “Beauty and the Beast” are the insertion of the gay angle in the narrative, and the re-presentation of the role of the enchantress in what would have been otherwise a usual fairy tale ending.
The gay angle may be problematic, particularly when one notices the usual manner by which gay characters are turned into mere comic relief. So, the debate will rage as to whether the space for a gay narrative has undermined or promoted the interest of gay advocacy. The jury is still out. If there is any cold comfort, there is evidence that the gay angle has disturbed and challenged established power. Malaysian authorities responded by censoring the movie.
The re-imaging of the character of the enchantress, who in the animated version simply cast the spell that turned the prince into a monster, but in this version returned to intervene to negate the effect of her spell, is a subtle yet powerful representation of transforming narratives to reveal the complexity of power and redemption.
A similar re-imaging happened in the movie “Maleficent” when the fairy tale was revised to make it appear that contrary to what has been accepted, it is the kiss of the witch and not of the prince that awakened the sleeping Aurora.
These kinds of re-imaging of fairy tales become more relevant in times when we begin to realize that political brands and mythologies are simply appearances that hide lies and inflate virtues, where heroes are actually flawed characters, and where villains can in fact have redeeming qualities.