Saturday, April 15, 2017

Beauties and Beasts

Two cute little girls, 8 or 9 years old, sat unsupervised across the aisle from us in the cinema for Beauty and the Beast last weekend, eating noisily and dashing off to the back of the cinema whenever 'the Beast' appeared, which was quite regularly. I guess their mothers were beyond Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps they were working.

This is a story traditionally made and marketed for little girls, and perhaps they took some pleasure in this dashing off, but they seemed genuinely scared and the Beast was definitely made to scare (probably for the fathers of the little girls or their brothers who were forced to watch it) and it is not fun to be genuinely scared, not if you're a girl, at least. My grown sons assure me that it is fun to be scared, if you're a boy, though as I recall when they were that age they didn't like it quite so much.

Although I normally hate noisy eaters in cinemas and found 'the Beast' and the rest of the film far from frightening, being a not so little girl anymore, these noisy little girls and their terrified dashings-off for the illusion of safety of the back wall of the cinema, I found increasingly charming and by the end of the film, was enjoying them more than the film.

The film is, as most films and stories targeted to females have always been, about one beautiful female character and a whole bunch of varied male characters. Male-targeted films and stories, like Lord of the Rings, do not apply the gender reverse of this formula, needless to say (in a man's world), they just add even more males and usually a less significant role for the one beautiful female, if any role at all. It's a problem, still.

And yet I found myself defending the film to my daughter the other day who rubbished it on feminist grounds (though she hasn't seen it), because I kind of think that, apart from the obvious gender imbalances, and the only-beautiful-women-count tiresome trope, this story does at least feature a fully-fledged female character in the lead role.

The story is also a little more gender evolved than it might seem. In suggesting that true love is the only way to tame the selfish beast in men, though slightly oversimplified and romanticised no doubt, I think it gets to the essential truth of heterosexual relationships, a truth that is not seen nearly often enough on our screens. Rather we are told over and over that men are the heroes who rescue women from danger, loneliness and insignificance. In reality this rarely happens and, indeed, the greatest threat women face is from the men they live with who have not been tamed and who continue - with society's sanctioning - to put their selfish, boyish needs ahead of those of the family, while wanting to control and dominate their women instead of loving and supporting them. In relationships that do work, more often than not it is the women who rescue the men from themselves, or there is a mutual 'rescuing' and respect.

So although I wouldn't describe Beauty and the Beast as a feminist film exactly, and I'm not sure those two little girls would have learnt anything progressive from watching it -- those parts of it that they did watch -- I think we could do worse on a gender front than this fairly light and entertaining family film. We could do better, no doubt, but we have done a lot worse too, and I'm mildly encouraged that with this film we are inching closer to an on-screen representation of what a healthy relationship between a woman and a man looks like - if with a little too much fur, fang and frill.


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