“Anastasia, are you okay? You sound strange.”
“I’m not the strange one, you are.” There—that told him, my courage fuelled by alcohol.
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p57
It’s one of those awkward conundrums: You try to establish a personal boundary between yourself and someone else. They ignore it. However, as a result, they’re in a position to help you overcome a much bigger problem that you wouldn’t have been able to overcome had they not been there.
Question: were they right to ignore your personal boundary?
It’s easy to judge the action by its outcome. It’s much harder to say that the other person was doing the wrong thing, even if something good came out of it. And sometimes there are mixed motives.
Near the beginning of Fifty Shades of Grey, Ana goes to a bar, rings Christian whilst being under the influence of alcohol, and tells him to stay away from her. Christian is incensed by the fact she is drunk, traces her mobile and turns up at the bar just in time to pull her consent-violating friend José off her.
Fans of the book have said this scene filled them with a sense of safety. They liked the idea that Christian would be looking out for her even while she was pushing him away. Critics say that Christian was disregarding Ana’s autonomy and should have left her alone.
I’m with the critics: if Christian hadn’t rocked up, no one would have blamed him for José’s actions.
There’s a similar scene in Beauty and the Beast. Belle says “promise or not promise” she can’t stay a “minute longer” and runs away into the woods. There, she’s hunted by wolves until Beast rescues her.
Beast’s and Christian’s actions
By the time we get to chapter 5 of Fifty Shades of Grey Christian has been playing yo-yo with Ana’s feelings: he’s enticing over coffee and he saves her from stepping in the path of a cyclist (a moment stolen from Twilight); then broodily, he tells her he’s no good for her, only to then send her first edition prints of Thomas Hardy books. Already Ana has been in tears and she rings Christian and calls him out on his weirdness.
I’ll admit, Ana wasn’t trying to tell Christian to stay away, but she was deliberately not telling him where she was – which is pretty much the same thing in this context. She was drawing a boundary. If Christian wanted to challenge her boundary, the place and time was not in the moment, and not while she was drunk.
Now, in terms of the important of personal boundaries, the one being set by Ana is not nearly as important as the one being set by Belle. Beast had terrified Belle, throwing objects around the West Wing of his castle and shouting at her, even in spite of her pleas for him to stop. Let’s be clear: this meets the UK’s legal definition of assault. And when this happens between two people who are related or in an intimate relationship, it gets called domestic violence.
So why don’t I think it Beast was being violent towards Belle, or stalking her, when he chases after her? (Because I usually would.)
Beast was culpable for putting Belle in serious danger: if he hadn’t frightened her, she wouldn’t have run away. In chasing after Belle, he is trying to take some responsibility and prevent things from getting worse. In contrast, Christian had no responsibility for Ana being in a bar with her fellow graduates and getting drunk. He is not taking responsibility, he is taking on responsibility.
No one else
Belle ran away into the dark, lonely wood in the middle of a Winter’s night. No one except Beast would have been able to help her and he knew it. Ana however, was in a bar with her friends; if she needed looking after, then the primary responsibility for doing so lay with them, not Christian. Christian’s problem is his egotistic belief that Only He Can Save Ana. And we see this repeatedly throughout the trilogy.
Certainty of risk
Beast had good reason to believe Belle was in life-threatening danger. Christian’s grounds for believing Ana was in danger were based on his mistrust of her ability to look after herself. I don’t care if he was right (and let’s face it, Ana can’t take care of herself), he doesn’t know her well. He should presume that she – with her friends – can take care of herself. But he doesn’t; instead he infantilises her (and we see this repeatedly throughout the trilogy).
Not about manhood
Christian didn’t have any indication whilst he was on the phone to Ana that José would get creepy. The fact that Christian arrived just in time to pull José off her was a plot contrivance to allow Christian to show off his macho-strength. In other words, the rescue in Fifty Shades is about elevating an ideal of masculinity. In Beauty and the Beast, Beast certainly does display his strength, but he actually needs to and he doesn’t always do it with finesse. Moreover, one of the key messages of the scene is that Beast is not invulnerable. That’s why he falls unconscious after the wolves have left. In all this, he comes over as an actual person (which is more than can be said for Christian).
Beast chased after Belle because he had done wrong and he knew he had done wrong. You see it in the look on his face after Belle flees the West Wing. Christian however, doesn’t see that he’s done any wrong to Ana in his yo-yo mind games and he thinks himself righteous and entitled. He is not her friend; he has no right to try to police her socialising habits and alcohol consumption.
Belle’s and Ana’s actions
Then of course there’s the other angle of the story.
In Fifty Shades Ana falls unconscious and Christian takes her back to his apartment, undresses her and sleeps in the same bed as her. (For the record, doing this with a half-stranger, without their consent, when there are plenty of other comfy and safe places they could be, is not OK!) In Beauty and the Beast, Beast falls unconscious, Belle has pity on him and takes him back to the castle.
I have no doubt that EL James wrote Christian’s actions with the intention of portraying him as a chivalrous hero. So again, Fifty Shades has a muddled presentation of one of the biggest elements of a redemption story: the redeemer is supposed to be the good one, not the person needing redemption.
But Ana interprets all of Christian’s actions as if he is inherently good and she does this partly because she’s smitten with him. Nothing of the sort can be said of Belle.
Belle helps Beast because she pities him, not because she thinks he deserves it and not because she thinks she owes him.
I often get the feeling that we don’t understand the true nature of pity and mercy. And until we do, the world is going to be full of abuse survivors who are charmed into taking their abusers back, only to be abused again. I’m not yet up for the challenge of articulating what these words really mean and what they look like in practice, but I do know this: pity and mercy do not presume goodness or deservedness on the part of the recipient.
There is nothing that Beast could possibly have said to Belle to justify her going back with him to the castle. The only thing Beast could have done was to plead for her mercy (not forgiveness, mercy), but the scriptwriters of Beauty and the Beast exercised good enough sense not to shoehorn this into a highly visual story that aims to be accessible to children. In contrast, EL James has written many such speeches from Christian in the course of her books (not least of which is his ‘confession of love’ in Fifty Shades Darker, p36; you can read more on that here) and they all end with a sense that Christian now deserves another chance.
No, he doesn’t.
The writers of Beauty and the Beast understood this. However, instead of stooping to bad scriptwriting and trying to cram too much into one scene, they make the point clear later in the castle when Belle rebukes Beast. No one suggests it was right for Belle to trespass into his private sanctum (and come perilously close to dooming him forever) but her actions are never used as justification for his failure to control his temper. Christian, on the other hand, is frequently blaming his actions on Ana, regardless of how right or wrong her actions are.
I’ll admit, when I watched Beauty and the Beast for the first time after reading Fifty Shades, I asked myself how Belle could have known that Beast wasn’t being stalking or controlling. The simple answer is she couldn’t have known – certainly not for sure. The proof comes later.
It’s in Beast’s reaction when Belle thanks him for saving her life. If he was that kind of creep who saw himself as the saviour Belle didn’t deserve, he’d have reacted with self-righteousness. Like how Christian does with Ana when he says she deserves to be punished (in an undeniably bad way). But Beast doesn’t give a grumpy, “Don’t do it again.” He doesn’t say he can’t trust her and he doesn’t make threats of locking her in her room or in the tower.
Instead, he expresses his gladness that she’s alive and well, and makes it clear that he won’t hold his injuries against her. He puts it more simply than that, but the fullness of his meaning is in his voice.
BEAST: You’re welcome.
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)
This is the twelfth post in a series on redemption, comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades. You can find an index of all the posts here.