Once this five part series is done, I’m planning on taking a long break from blogging about Fifty Shades and Beauty and the Beast. I’ve got to the point where I feel like I’m either stating the obvious or repeating myself. But hey, this five-part series might be more accessible for some people than the 18-part, and it does have some new thoughts, so – what the heck, I’ll see it through.
Being and doing
Who we are affects what we do. What we do affects who we are. In a sense, who we are is what we do.
But it’s so, so easy to say you are one thing and have your actions do something else. For this reason there are some stories that emphasise it’s not who you are, but what you do that matters.
Take Batman Begins for example. Billionaire Bruce Wayne is told by love interest Rachel Dawes that he can’t claim to be some nice noble guy underneath his wealth and extravagance; she says it’s what he does that really matters. Little does she know he is the caped crime-fighting vigilante, though she finds out later when he repeats her words back to her.
But in fairness, the distinction between who we are and what we do, is a false one. Rachel Dawes draws a distinction because she wants to highlight the apparent shallowness of Bruce’s claim of being a nice guy really. Once she gets to know Bruce better, she realises that who he claims to be really is reflected in his actions.
This whole discussion about who we are and what we do is a really important one, because there are two big and weighty words out there that relate to our doing and our being: guilt and shame.
Welcome to part 3 of comparing Fifty Shades with both the animated and live action versions of Beauty and the Beast. CONTENT NOTE: I mention Christian’s sadism and his traumatic upbringing and quote one of the uglier lines from 50 Shades. Consider this your SPOILERS warning too; I will be talking about plot details of the live action Beauty and the Beast as well as some from Harry Potter.
Guilt and Shame
Guilt is knowledge about your actions – knowledge that says they were wrong, or unworthy in some way.
Shame is knowledge about yourself – that you are unworthy.
Guilt and shame feed into each other: you are unworthy because your actions were unworthy. Similarly: your actions are unworthy because you are unworthy. It’s a vicious circle in both directions.
So, let’s have a look at Fifty Shades and Christian’s shame.
What happens in 50 Shades?
In a nutshell? Christian spends his early years with his mother, who worked as a prostitute and was abused by her pimp. He goes into foster care, gets adopted, but can’t get a grip on his life. He has an overwhelming desire for control and finds an outlet for his desires in sadism.
When Christian admits his past to Ana, he sets her up as the One Who Can Save Him and she is burdened with helping him for the rest of the trilogy. His therapist violates ethical boundaries tells Ana she’s helping Christian and encourages her to carry on doing so.
Eventually Christian “heals” of his BDSM and accepts the idea that maybe he loves his mum anyway, even if she couldn’t protect him.
In other words, as I’ve written elsewhere:
Although Christian Grey carries a sense of shame within himself, he ties this mainly to his childhood trauma. On its own, I could understand that as a legitimate plot point. The problem comes because there is no shame attached to his coercive and controlling behaviour. What this means is that Christian’s redemption arc is not about him changing. Rather, it’s about him realising his sense of shame from his childhood is unfounded. And that would have been fine as plots go, were it not for the fact that Christian is such an unpleasant person in his own right.
Christian actually does need to be redeemed. He does need to change. Instead he gets told that nothing is his fault and he’s a good person really.
Oh, that Ana was as wise as Rachel Dawes!
What happens in Beauty and the Beast?
The spoiled prince shows who he is by what he does. He refuses to allow an old woman shelter from the storm.
His attitude of entitlement is very similar to Christian’s in Fifty Shades, though it’s worth noting that in the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast, he is an eleven year-old boy. In the 2017 version, he’s an indulgent adult who surrounds himself with pretty young women he can objectify and imposes heavy taxes on the poor. And he gets annoyed when an old woman busts up his party.
The whole point of the story is that, by turning him into a Beast, the enchantress is showing outwardly who he is inwardly. He then has to live with the guilt of what he’s done and the shame of who he is.
Oh, but suddenly it’s not so simple any more.
Beast’s mother and father
The 1991 version completely ignored the question of parentage – as a highly visual fairy-tale, it didn’t need to go into that kind of detail. Its truth is not in the logical consistency of its backdrop.
The 2017 version, however, is not so much a fairy-tale but a high-fantasy romance. Thanks to series like Game of Thrones, complicated back stories are the new flavour of the genre. And so, we learn about how the young prince had a lovely mother, who died, and a controlling, selfish father – who turned the heart of the young prince to selfishness.
And all the castle servants admit to their guilt in allowing him to be thus corrupted.
In other words: Dan Stevens’ Beast doesn’t bear guilt.
This is a huge shift from the 1991 version. In broad terms, it marks a significant departure from the classic redemption narrative where guilt is very firmly established. And whereas Dan Stevens’ Beast does change his behaviour, the closest he gets to a confession of guilt is when he apologises for ever calling Belle’s father a thief. Maybe that’s enough for some viewers. For me, it felt like watered-down story-telling.
The 1991 Beast could never escape his guilt any more than he could escape his shame of being turned into a beast. And OK, he doesn’t say this in so many words, but he doesn’t need to – this is a highly-visual fairy-tale and it’s there in his body language.
The moment when Beast shows who he has become
The moment, the amazing moment in the 1991 version when Beast shows, truly shows, that he has learned to love is when he shows mercy to Gaston. He remembers that he was once selfish, spoiled and unkind, but having been shown mercy whilst he was a monster, he now shows mercy – even to a monster. (I’ve written more on this here.)
This is poetry in motion.
But the 2017 version is very, very different. Here, Beast doesn’t show who he is, he declares who he is. He grabs Gaston and growls defiantly through his teeth, “I am not a beast!” Thing is, this is not the action of someone who has repented of who they were and what they used to do. No, it’s the action of someone declaring their freedom from a false oppressor. It’s what you do when you reject false shame, when you finally understand that you never deserved to be called lesser, and you refuse to live in captivity any more.
One of my favourite moments where you see such a declaration – and it really works – is in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1):
Problem is, it doesn’t work for Beast to declare himself free in this way. For one thing, he was the oppressor, not the oppressed. Secondly, even though Gaston is trying kill him and lord his manly looks over Beast, this is hardly a long-standing abusive relationship from which Beast has finally wrestled free.
Also, the climactic declaration of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast comes after Beast has transformed; his declaration is simple: “Belle, it’s me” but these words say everything you need to about how he has been restored from a monster to a prince worthy of the title.
So, for me, Dan Stevens’ moment of supposed triumph fell flat. It felt like him telling the plot instead of showing it – and that wasn’t what I was after.
The burden of his fate
In the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, Belle is never told why the castle is enchanted or how the spell might be broken. This is hugely important because, if she had been told, then she wouldn’t have had the emotional freedom to turn Beast down.
The 2017 version doesn’t quite spill the beans to Belle, but the servants do tell her the story of how the enchantment came about (along with how Beast’s father was horrible and all that). I didn’t like them doing this; it felt emotionally manipulative. And it’s very soon after Belle learns of this that her attitude towards him changes.
However, it is no way near as bad as what happens in Fifty Shades. There, Ana’s interactions with Christian are completely overshadowed by his ‘needs’. It means all of Ana’s aspirations and freedoms are unnecessarily sacrificed on the altar of Christian’s journey towards healing. This is not healthy.
To sum up then:
In terms of emotional manipulation of Ana and Belle, Beauty and the Beast is much less problematic than Fifty Shades.
In terms of stories of transformation and redemption – I’d still say that the 2017 Beauty and the Beast is a lot more like Fifty Shades than it is like the 1991 version. The complications of who’s really to blame for Beast’s and Christian’s behaviour kick in with stories of their sad childhoods and unpleasant father figures.
And maybe that’s what people want in a redemption story these days. Maybe they’re tired of being told they’ve been naughty and must repent of their ways. Maybe they just want to be told that what they did wasn’t their fault, that they don’t need to live in shame and that they’re not bad people really. And make no mistake, when you’ve been living under an abusive relationship, that’s what you really, really need to hear.
I suppose then, if I’d been the one to remake Beauty and the Beast, I wouldn’t have come up with what Disney has released; I find its narrative muddled and noisy. That said, I can see how some people might find it helpful and it’s definitely not as problematic as Fifty Shades.
More fundamentally though, for me this raises questions about popular culture – about how we view ourselves and our actions and, in particular, how we frame our hope.
I expect I’ll end up blogging on this again sometime. I have a nagging feeling this is profoundly relevant to how my religion presents itself and is understood.
This is part of a five part series looking at how Fifty Shades and both versions of Beauty and the Beast frame the following:
- 1) Coercion and manipulation
- 2) Control and faithfulness
- 3) Questions of guilt and shame
- 4) Change and transformation
- 5) Hope and love.
You can find an index for all posts here.