I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair—it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal.
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p3
Redeemer’s privilege comes in two halves
So… redemption stories involve a person who saves – a redeemer. A redeemer needs to be good (I talked about that in my last post) and they need to have privilege.
A person having privilege is often framed as them having some characteristic that means their status is advantaged (or not disadvantaged) compared to others. Redeemer’s privilege is similar, but broader, and it comes in two parts – I’ll call them “position privilege” and “identity privilege.”
Position privilege means the redeemer has power; they are not subject to constraining forces – at least so far as the redemption arc is concerned. Identity privilege is about having a secure and fulfilled sense of identity. The redeemer may experience distress at being insulted and injured, or indeed at witnessing suffering in others. But that doesn’t take away from their identity.
Because a redeemer has both position and identity privilege, this means that if they intervene for someone else, they do so because they want to. Not because they have to and not because they feel they need to.
In this post I’m going to compare Belle’s position and identity privilege with Ana’s.
If you’re unfamiliar with Fifty Shades, and need a brief introduction, try my bare basics page. If you’re new to this blog I’ve written separately on why I write about Fifty Shades and the introduction to this series explains why I think Redemption is beautiful love, not beastly suffering.
Belle’s seen and unseen position privilege
When Ana pleads with Beast to free her father, you could say she doesn’t have position privilege. Beast is far bigger and stronger than she is and thus perfectly capable of imprisoning her, with or without her consent.
However, if we accept this, it can also be argued that Beast confers position privilege on her; their whole conversation presumes that – unlike Maurice – she is not about to be imprisoned for trespassing.
But there’s another quite different way of understanding this scene. After all, Beast’s physicality is not the plot – it’s an illustration of the plot. And the plot is that Beast is under a curse and he can’t break it without Belle. Looking at the scene through this lens, Belle has immense position privilege. She has the power to break Beast’s curse and no amount of his strength can force her to love him. Yes, Beast only realises this half-way through the conversation – but that’s a constraint of plot and setting; it was more important for the writers to demonstrate completely Belle’s freedom of choice. More on that in the next post.
Ana’s illusion of position privilege
In one sense, Ana has position privilege because she is in no way legally required to be sexually involved with Christian. What’s interesting here though is that Christian diminishes Ana’s position privilege by getting her to sign a non-disclosure agreement. He also tries to diminish it further with the BDSM contract – which Ana eventually forces him to admit isn’t legally binding.
But in many ways, Ana lacks position privilege. Supposing Christian did want to sexually assault her and get away with it (both of which he does, by the way), he has the position privileges of:
- choosing his context so that Ana is isolated;
- being more likely to be believed on account of being famous, popular and male;
- an endless supply of money to fund a high-powered legal team.
What’s especially creepy about this is that Christian says things that sound like he is affirming Ana’s position privilege. When he takes her back to his apartment he says she can leave at any time; he’ll have her taken home in his helicopter if she asks. No; this kind of lip service to free choice does not confer position privilege.
Appearances do not privilege either Ana or Belle
When I watched Beauty and the Beast as a child I thought Beast was willing to imprison Maurice but reluctant to imprison Belle because Belle was female and pretty.
If Belle had privilege on account of being a beautiful woman, there is no way that Lumiere would have risked (and incurred) Beast’s wrath by suggesting he doesn’t keep her in the tower. And there is no way Belle would have expressed surprise when Beast says he’ll show her to her room.
Belle’s beauty is neither her identity privilege nor her position privilege. As I said in my previous post, it’s a symbol of her virtue.
However, Belle clearly takes care of her appearance. Thing is, Belle does this primarily as a matter of dignity and self-care. She doesn’t fuss over it and she doesn’t admire herself in mirrors. (Unlike Gaston.)
Belle doesn’t care about her appearance. Instead she cares for her appearance as part of caring for herself.
As for Ana, her appearance is also neither about position privilege nor identity privilege. She is meant to be ordinary because she’s meant to be as unremarkable as Twilight’s Bella Swann, who doesn’t do fashion and makeup. However:
Unlike Belle, Ana obsesses over her appearance, almost as much as her inability to care for it.
She frequently notices the hair styles, hair colours and fashion tastes of the people around her – and almost always speaks disparagingly of her own.
This is telling.
Appearances illustrate both Ana and Belle’s identity
We don’t get to see much of how Ana is in Fifty Shades before she meets Christian. However, from the little we do see, her lack of boundaries is clear. She gives up precious time when she should be studying for her finals. Plus she doesn’t want to go. But she agrees anyway, because she finds it easier to be envious and resentful towards her flatmate than to be truthful and safeguard her future career (and herself from future regret).
There’s a difference between making someone ordinary and making them insecure.
Belle, on the other hand, knows how to take care of herself. She even has the wit to employ different tactics in different circumstances. She acts flattered to buy time while muscular Gaston advances on her. She politely informs the friendly wardrobe that she won’t be joining Beast for dinner. And she firmly refuses Beast when he demands that she does.
Yes, both Belle and Ana have times when their circumstances become more perilous than they had bargained for. That’s because – actually – having something bad happen to you is not entirely preventable. We shouldn’t blame Belle for being hunted by wolves; neither should we blame Ana when her longstanding friend José advances on her when she’s drunk. (And later in the series I’ll compare Beast’s and Christian’s actions.)
These scenes happen, but they don’t contradict what the other scenes show us.
Belle fearlessly pursues her wellbeing, whilst Ana miserably abandons her wellbeing.
Conclusion: Belle has identity privilege, but Ana doesn’t.
And this is of huge importance. Because Belle has privilege, it means that when she offers to take Maurice’s place, she doesn’t do so because she can’t live without him. She doesn’t do so because she’s afraid of Beast.
She does it, because she loves Maurice. Compassionately, fearlessly and sacrificially.
BEAST: You! You would take his place?
MAURICE: Belle! No! You don’t know what you’re doing!
BELLE: If I did, would you let him go?
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)
 Amber Heard. Nigella Lawson. Others have written about this in depth.
 Abuse can happen to anyone. If it does happen to a person, that doesn’t mean they were irresponsible. And if it doesn’t, that mean they were responsible.
This is the fifth post in a series on redemption, comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades. You can find an index of all the posts here.