Beast and Christian Grey: monsters or lovers? (Part 1: Coercion)

How does Christian Grey compare with Dan Stevens’ Beast?

I’ve already blogged at length about Beast in the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast, but now we have a live-action version, it’s worth asking the question again.

I won’t drag this out into an 18 part series like I did last time, but I want to look at the characters of Beast and Christian, from five different angles. In particular, I want to look at how Fifty Shades and both versions of Beauty and the Beast frame the following:

  • Coercion and manipulation
  • Control and faithfulness
  • Questions of guilt and shame
  • Change and transformation
  • Hope and love.

CONTENT NOTE: Consider this your spoiler warning. I will be talking about plot details of the live action Beauty and the Beast. I also include a few of the creepier quotes from Fifty Shades.

When Fifty Shades Darker came out, I made a few memes in protest. A few are relevant to the themes of this post so I’ve included them here:

Beast and Belle with quote from by Christian Grey FSOG chapter 5 about consent and hard limits.
Christian Grey said: “I know you want me. You wouldn’t be sitting calmly discussion punishment and hard limits if you didn’t.” But Beast never said that he was what Belle wanted.

 

Beast with quote from Christian Grey from FSOG chapter 13 about consent
Christian Grey said: “If you were my sub, you wouldn’t have to think about this. It would be easy.” But Beast never lied.

 

Beast and Belle on balcony with quote from Christian Grey about debasement from FSOG chapter 17
Christian Grey said: “So you felt demeaned, debased, abused and assaulted–how very Test Durbeyfield of you. … Do you think you could just try and embrace these feelings, deal with them, for me? That’s what a submissive would do.” But Beast never blamed Belle for her feelings

 

Coercion and manipulation should not be sold as sexy

Coercion and manipulation are ways that predators ensnare their victims. They’re also reasons why it’s common for victims to stay in abusive relationships – because the abuse is being disguised, they don’t recognise what’s happening to them.

Because this is the reality of abuse, I think it’s important that people are encouraged to think carefully and critically about other people’s behaviours and how they present choices to people. Very often, how people do this is down to an author’s or a director’s craft.

In many ways, Beast is a far more upstanding character than Christian Grey. For one thing, he treats Belle’s privacy and body with far more respect than Christian does Ana’s. However, to compare Beast’s ethics with Christian’s is to miss the point of this post. It’s not that one of them is more worthy than the other. Rather, both are unworthy, it’s just that one is portrayed as mysterious and sexy, and the other as hot-tempered and, well, a bit of a buffoon actually.

What happens in 50 Shades?

Essentially, Christian Grey grooms Ana (read a fuller analysis on this here). But it’s not just that he grooms her, his actions are portrayed in the narrative as if they are all part of the sexy romance.

The prime example of this is when Christian invites Ana back to his flat and is about to show her his Red Room. He says to her that she can leave any time and that he’ll fly her home in his helicopter if she but asks. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Except that no one else is there who would enforce this offer if Ana called him to honour it. Plus he’s just got her to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Plus he has buckets of money and armies of lawyers to hand if she ever tried to do anything he didn’t want. This offer he makes sounds nice, but when viewed in the wider context, it’s empty. What’s more, because it appears to be a kind gesture, it makes Ana feel like she’s making her own choices. Truth is, she’s not making choices, she’s sliding into Christian’s choices. Christian wants Ana to see the Red Room; Christian wants to get Ana to do BDSM with him them. But because Ana doesn’t take him up on his helicopter ride, going into the Red Room becomes her choice – and her fault when things turn bad later.

This is abuse.

But the narrative of Fifty Shades never calls it out as abuse. Even when Christian does “the worst” to Ana (read more on that here), he gets every manner of defence made for him. Plus, EL James is adamant that there’s “no rape” in the trilogy.

Hmmm.

What happens in Beauty and the Beast?

In the 1991 version, Beast forces Belle to choose between her Father’s life and her freedom. It’s not kind – but the narrative doesn’t pretend that he’s being romantic. Instead, his callous disregard for Maurice, how he comes into the light and horrifies Belle – these clearly show that he is not being nice. And it’s so clearly done, children understand it.

In the 2017 version, things happen a little differently. Belle locks herself into her father’s cell; Beast never suggests she stay, though he does accept her as his prisoner in her father’s place. Again, the direction is not trying to persuade the audience to believe his behaviour is OK.

Instead, we still have Beast’s disregard for Maurice, and this time we even have Belle whispering to her father that she will find a way to escape. From the heroine’s own mouth we have it loud and clear (OK, soft and clear) that it is not OK for Beast to keep her captive. Not only that, we then have Lumiere mockingly impersonate Beast as he let’s Belle out of the cell.

To be honest, I found Dan Stevens’ Beast deeply unlikeable. In a change from the 1991 version, he doesn’t bother to offer Belle a room where she can be comfortable; he doesn’t even want her to eat with him. But then… you’re not being led to think that his behaviour is pleasant.

What I did find surprising about the 2017 version is something that is left almost unsaid in the 1991 version: the servants have a vested interest in Belle staying. I’ve blogged previously that “Be Our Guest” comes from mixed motives – they want to lift Belle’s spirits and they know she’s had a rough ride, but they also want to be human again. In the live-action version, this is brought to the fore. When Belle tries to run away, the servants don’t just appeal for her to stay, they actually try and trap her in the castle. Not nice.

Oh, and of course, all this is to forget Gaston. Wow. His actions are loaded with manipulation and coercion. But they are shown as such. And the 2017 version trumps the 1991 one with the “he said but she said but he said” in the tavern. I loved it.

Conclusion

When it comes to manipulation being sold as romance, the question is not so much about how moral the characters are. Rather, it’s all about how their actions are framed. In this, both the 1991 and the 2017 versions of Beauty and the Beast win over Fifty Shades, hands down. When they show coercion and manipulation, they call it abuse.

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