An Analysis of Stereotypes in Disney's Beauty and the Beast
In a true departure from the original folktale, Disney’s animated version of Beauty and the Beast weaves a story that, while still rich with its own stereotypes, contains characters which push through and transcend those stereotypes, creating a mixture of messages, both bad and good, for children of both sexes.
While the primary character, Belle (whose name translates to “Beauty”) is stereotypical of Hollywood movie heroines in that she is small and beautiful with long hair and large eyes, a kind demeanor and a seeming need to take care of and nurse the men she sees as important in her life (Beast and her father) there is more about her as a character that goes against the stereotype than there is that reinforces it. As a character, Belle is both intelligent and strong, (she reads constantly and she saves more lives than any other character in the movie, even going so far as to fight off wolves by actively clubbing them with a stick) and though the townspeople describe her as “strange” and “funny” because of her strengths (therefore seemingly reinforcing the stereotype) it is ultimately this strange and funny girl that ends up with the prince. Overall, I think the fact that the film uses the narrow-minded townsfolk (who later become a sort of misguided force for evil under the leadership of Gaston,) to define Belle’s intelligence and strength as strange while making her at the same time a heroic character who “wins” creates an overall positive message for children of both sexes, even if the happy ending is a saccharine ideal of “and they lived happily ever after in a castle, etc.” It teaches male children to value strength over demurity in the opposite sex and it teaches female children to buck the normal standards when the normal standards are limiting, discriminatory and wrong. Belle’s rejection of Gaston alone, when he tells her he’s looking to make her his “little wife” is a huge slap in the face to the standard stereotype, and it creates the message that women are ultimately in charge of their fate and they do not have to submit to an overbearing male bent on “owning” them.
Keeping with the notion of creating stereotypes in order to destroy them, Beauty and the Beast offers Gaston as a “specimen” of manliness. While the creation of a blue-eyed, (incidentally, the Beast is the only other male character with colored eyes, also blue– all other males simply have dark points, making them less visible and therefore less important, which could be seen as sending the message to children that servile and commonfolk personalities or non-prince types of people just aren’t as important, a damaging message without doubt) “tall, dark, strong and handsome” main character could be seen as creating an ideal for male children that could be damaging to their self esteem if they don’t match Gaston’s parameters and an ideal for female children which could be hindering in their later romantic life, the fact that Disney creates this “charming” character as a “bad guy” and casts a “horrible ugly beast” as the “good guy” (who Belle even states is “no prince charming”) utterly goes against the stereotype, replacing it instead with the message that its not what a person has on the outside that matters, but what’s on the inside– a positive message that urges us to look beyond appearances, whether they be skin color, ethnicity or gender. While both Gaston and Beast are portrayed as huge, angry, muscular men, the beast is much more sensitive (Belle rescues him on his botched attempt to rescue her, and Gaston describes him as “too kind and gentle to fight back”) it is ultimately Gaston’s massive “manly” destructiveness and tenacity that costs him his life. Beast has nothing to do with his death, which defines him against the stereotype even though the fight between massive men for the lone girl fits with stereotypes and sends the message to both sexes that men are meant to fight over women and not vice versa.
The racial stereotypes are more subdued, but present nonetheless. Although the film presents people as relatively “Hollywood normal” and beautiful people, we see the depiction of specific racial (or rather nation-specific) stereotypes appearing in the characters Lumineer and Cogsworth (French and British, respectively.) Lumineer, complete with a decidedly French accent and pompadour, is presented as a fiery and passionate candle holder with a flair for romance who later states that, once he becomes human again, will once again engage in cooking and courting, all of which is in keeping with a stereotypical view of the French (even if it only highlights the positive stereotypes.) Cogsworth on the other hand, is painted as stuffy and strictly observant of rules and order, aspects stereotypical of his “Britishness”, and he even states that, upon becoming human again, he plans to “sip tea”. While neither of these stereotypes could leave any truly negative impressions with children as to the French or the British in my opinion, they do set up preconceptions about the French being all about love, passion, romance and food while the British are more formal and rigid and not as interesting as the French.
There are other instances where Disney carefully avoids the most prominent stereotypes by reaching past them (such in the creation of minor male characters dressed in pink and involved with make-up application who are not cast as gay) giving children enough variety in presented people types to create a sense of there really being quite a few different types of people in the world and putting forth a message of not judging by appearances. There was however, a single instance in which a male villager was suddenly expelled from a closet dressed up in flamboyant female clothing during the botched attack on the Beast’s castle. As soon as he saw his reflection, he ran screaming in terror, ripping at the clothing, and although it was doubtless intended to be humorous, it, like the large, protective, muscular men who dominate the screen, plays directly into the stereotype of what a “boy” is supposed to be, and that can be damaging to boys who do not subscribe to the “boy code.”