what on earth is underpinning this provincial life

I saw the live-action version of Beauty & the Beast yesterday (my review: it’s lovely) and I…have some questions about its political economy.

The enchantress took away any memory from the people of the castle’s inhabitants, both the prince and his ambiguous servant-aristocrats, “whom they loved.” As a result, this village (which the movie names Villeneuve, in a lovely reference to the fairy tale’s original author) is the sole ungoverned municipality in all of France. And clearly, being free of having to contribute to the excesses of their aristocracy has resulted in a thriving local economy. The expositional romp through the village market is positively lavish for a mid-1700s town. Besides which, this one village clearly produced enough to construct and sustain an enormous castle in the first place.

It’s not quite clear where all of that wealth comes from. This Belle is a self-declared “farm girl,” so though she was born to an artist and his wife in Paris, and is now an inventor’s apprentice in Villeneuve, it is implied she grew up in a more rural setting. The only lower-class person we meet is Agatha, a “hag” who lives in her own shack in the forest off her own foraging and labor, but who participates enough in village life to be a common figure at the tavern. Her role is not so much “peasant” as “outcast,” which makes sense, given the story’s focus on isolation and stereotyping.

My assumption based on the animated version was always that the people who become the objects in the house were the servants/lower class. It doesn’t really explain where the non-domestic labor is, but it gives a slightly fuller picture of how the castle runs. But the live-action version makes clearer that the people who become the objects in the house fully participate in the aristocracy. They have glorious ballgowns and powdered wigs like the rest of them. It’s almost a really compelling idea: the aristocrats, in indulging the prince’s excesses and not intervening in his downward spiral, are just as responsible as the prince for the moral vacuum in that castle and therefore were cursed alongside him. In being forced to serve him, then, they are made to see just how much work and tireless attention to others underlies what they may have seen as a harmless frivolity. But that’s not really what happens. Instead, they are considered to have been “members of the household” who both worked and frolicked, collapsing servant and aristocrat into a sort of quasi-family member. They explain their inclusion in the curse by saying they “did nothing” when the queen died and the king “twisted” his son into becoming as cruel as he is. That turns this entire curse into a punishment of an abuse victim and his employees, which is just bizarre.

At the end, when the prince and his household are people once again, they promptly host a celebratory ball (which I think is supposed to be Belle’s marriage to the prince). In contrast with the first ball, during which the prince was cursed, the prince is not on his solitary throne observing, nor rollicking madly through the crowd in a hungry search for the prettiest attendees, but dancing glamorously and pleasantly with Belle. This is a solid transformation. It’s the rest that is incredibly confusing. The villagers, who apparently have their memories back, rush over to the castle, change into beautiful (but just-pedestrian-enough to be distinguishable from the aristocrats) ballgowns, and join the dance. Again, this is almost a great idea: having learned their lesson about selfishness, the castle-dwellers invite the rest of the village to the wedding so they can join in the celebration instead of excluding them like before. But that’s not really what happens. There’s no surprise whatsoever that the villagers are included, and they seem to have always been totally equal participants. Some of them are clearly former lovers or friends of the servant-aristocrats, so they all seem to be on a very even playing field here. 

Look, it’s fine for there to be inexplicable wealth in fairy tales. They’re not about impeccable internal logic, but about deviating only slightly from historical time and place to make a point. But I think this inexplicable wealth actually matters to the story’s moral. I’m not annoyed because it’s faulty world-building, I’m annoyed because it’s faulty storytelling.

Case study: Where does all this food come from?

Given that this is such a thriving agrarian economy (not that we understand how), perpetual winter just around the castle’s small radius is a devastating curse. Since the villagers have forgotten them and no longer have access to the castle anyway, the castle is effectively starved. The beast would have to hunt for his food like an animal, while everyone else in the castle is an object and cannot eat at all and must be tormented by not being just a plate but a useless plate. The curse would then accomplish its dehumanizing effect not by the sort of magical “half-life” it is given, but rather the very nature of the cursed people’s circumstances.

But no. There’s a ton of food, and they have a grand old time preparing it. “Be Our Guest” came off as substantially less exciting in the live-action version because we had already seen the living castle prepare meals for the beast and for Maurice beforehand, so we knew they were in the habit of constant lavish production. It’s weird. If the enchantress is trying to discourage selfishness, why construct a world in which the prince continues to be served in exactly the same way? And if she knows that selfishness comes from isolation, why reconstruct it at such an agonizing scope? This is just not a good story.

And yes, okay, a significant amount of this is me being a sucker for musicals in which French townies sing the exposition, villains revel in taverns, and red-jacketed alpha males lead misguided, ill-fated rebellions; but here’s the thing, Beauty & the Beast conflates Enjolras and the Thénardiers in the figure of Gaston, and that tells me a lot about its values. The climax of this story consists in the trappings of monarchy assaulting scared peasants (for this is the one time the villagers are portrayed in rags, carrying pitchforks and torches as those easily manipulated folksy types should). That’s just too literal to be ignored.

I’ve got a lot of problems with this story. (Do we really need a canonical myth about making it a woman’s job to put up with and eventually transform an abusive man? How much damage is it going to do to have the first official queer representation in Disney canon be a snivelling villain’s henchman? Do the villagers not resent it at all when their anarchic utopia is made to serve an excessive monarchy again? What happens when the actual historical French Revolution happens about 20 years later? Does Belle’s status as a commoner save her from the guillotine? Why don’t the people-objects age? Even if they’re frozen in time physically, shouldn’t they mentally develop? When all is said and done, does it mess with Chip to be an 18 year old in an 8 year old’s body? Why on earth did they decide the last line of the movie should be Belle joking about how she thought the Beast was hotter when he was an animal? I mean, how else are we supposed to take that beard line? I got questions.) But here’s the thing: I really love Beauty & the Beast.

There’s so much about it that’s great. It tells us towns can be just as isolating as castles if you’re a little bit different than what society expects. It’s not all in your head, people really can be awful when they want to see themselves as better than you. It tells us that selfishness makes for beasts, and sometimes those beasts don’t look like beasts. Sometimes they look like war heroes and entitled men, and you gotta watch out for those. It tells us that love can be transformative. Literally, here, but kids aren’t dumb, they know what metaphors are.

It’s a beautiful movie with wonderful music and even better childhood memories. I didn’t walk into it looking to be a buzzkill. In fact, the more I love something, the more likely I am to pick it apart. I study myths and fairy tales because I love them, and I think what we tell ourselves, as adults or as children, is important. If values aren’t encoded in these stories, they are pointless. After all, they are fables.

I will say, I loved the live-action fairy tale. It removes the subconscious distance between the story and our reality, and the lessons and distinctions we might draw between them. I hope they make more of them, and not just remakes. And I hope we keep trying to get better at fairy tales. (Please go watch Moana.)

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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