Belle vs Ana: Two embodiments of redeeming virtue?

Yes, I was living in Germany when the special edition came out.

“You are exquisite, honest, warm, strong, witty, beguilingly innocent; the list is endless. I’m in awe of you.”
— Christian, Fifty Shades Darker, p36

The need for outside help

In a redemption narrative, the person who is redeemed cannot redeem themselves on their own. They need a redeemer.

That isn’t to say that the person being redeemed doesn’t do anything to aid their redemption – quite the opposite. But what it does mean is that if it weren’t for the help of someone else stepping into their darkness and bringing them out of it, they would not have been saved.

In this post I want to compare Christian’s need for Ana with Beast’s need for Belle.

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 you can find the introduction to this series here.

Both Beast and Christian are helpless to break the curse on their own

At the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, we’re told that he must learn to love another person and earn her love (note: her love) in return by his 21st birthday. Otherwise, he will be doomed to remain a beast forever. The spell is pretty clear cut and binding upon Beast.

In my previous post I talked about how Christian’s ‘curse’ was his motivation for his sadism, along with symptoms of nightmares, bouts of anger and feeling a need for control. I will give Christian the benefit of the doubt. I will entertain the idea that despite being a supremely resourceful and able person, he is actually unable to shake his PTSD-inspired sadism on his own. He needs help.

But why do both Beast and Christian need to be helped by an aspiring, young, beautiful woman? If Beast needs to learn self-sacrifice and not to judge by appearances, why can’t he learn from a poor woodcutter or a wandering sage? And if Christian needs to learn to ditch his PTSD-inspired sadism (which is what the plot of Fifty Shades says he needs to learn), then why can’t he build a friendship circle and get therapy? (By which I mean: “Why can’t he be a little less rich, a little more dependent on other people, and get a therapist who understands ethical boundaries and speaks sense instead of spouting plot apologetics?”)

Answer: both stories are trying to portray the idea of redemption through beauty. Ana and Belle aren’t just characters. They are the embodiment of virtue.

And I use the word “embodiment” deliberately. Their physical characteristics – namely Belle’s beauty and Ana’s virginity – are symbolic of what they represent.

In other words: Christian and Beast need Ana and Belle because they need embodied virtue in order to be rescued from their embodied depravity.


Fifty Shades fails because Ana doesn’t embody any virtue whatsoever

It’s hardly a new idea to suggest that a woman’s virtue is her virginity. However, before I jump on the anti-purity-culture bandwagon, I’ll acknowledge here that EL James might genuinely be trying to do something new in her trilogy. We need to remember that Fifty Shades was originally based on The Twilight Saga, in which young Bella abstains from sex until she is married to the handsome vampire Edward. The sexual ethics of Twilight are conservative and, unless I am very much mistaken, informed by the Mormon beliefs of its author.

Fifty Shades might be trying to subvert that. It might be trying to portray a female character, whose virtue is her sexual inexperience, and yet whose virtue is not corrupted by sex.

Problem is, it doesn’t work.

1) Ana’s sexual virtue doesn’t illustrate the plot – it is the plot

Ana’s virtue is to enjoy sexual pleasure – and endure Christian’s (non-consensual) abusive sadism. Belle’s beauty on the other hand is an illustration for her character and wholly irrelevant to her relationship with Beast.

2) Neither having sex nor abstaining from sex is a virtue

And yet, Ana’s inexperience – followed by her experience – is how Ana saves Christian in the narrative of Fifty Shades. Compare with Beauty and the Beast which most certainly does not say that beauty is a virtue.

3) Ana’s character has no virtue

Ana is downright horrid. Despite being an icon for female sexual liberation, she is narcissistically insecure, envious of others, and unable to celebrate others’ enjoyment of sex.[1] Unlike Belle, she’s a terrible judge of character and utterly absorbed with appearances.

4) Ana is little more than that which she embodies

One of the hazards of ‘redemption by beauty’ stories is that they can pedestal women. Pedestaling might look like it’s honouring women, but it’s actually honouring images and ideas of womanhood. And usually pretty narrow ones at that. It then works two ways to dehumanise women: firstly, it depersonalises those who conform to the image, and secondly it scandalises those who don’t.[2]

Beauty and the Beast narrowly avoids this trap because Belle actually has a personality. She has people she genuinely cares about, interests, tastes, aspirations and a sense of humour. She is therefore both a person and a symbol of virtue. Fifty Shades on the other hand, fails because (despite several attempts to the contrary) Ana is a two-dimensional Mary Sue of romance tropes. There are, I’ll admit, brief moments when she shows initiative and fun – but that’s about it.

5) And then there’s the question of the setting.

This needs its own section.

Imagine a story where a little lonely boy, climbs a giant pumpkin tree, jumps in the air, magically transforms into a butterfly and lives happily ever after with the bees. It would be a pretty nonsensical story, but it would just be a story. Now imagine a story where a little lonely boy, climbs out of a high-story window, lands safely on the ground, happens to be seen by all the other children in the neighbourhood, who are very impressed, and he becomes the most popular boy at school. That would also be a nonsensical story – but it would be a lot more dangerous because any naïve lonely child who tried to live it out in practice could get very seriously hurt.

Fifty Shades isn’t problematic because it’s badly written. It’s problematic because it does resemble real-life abusive relationship dynamics and yet holds these up as redemptive love in action.

Ana believes that having sex with Christian – even sex she doesn’t want to have – will help him break out of his cursed state. But actually Christian’s ‘curse’ can be dealt with in a number of different ways.

Some of these ways may even be like redemption; in good counselling, there is a sense in which the practitioner will ‘enter’ into the world of the patient. But whichever way you look at it, Christian doesn’t need Ana’s romantic love to be redeemed. And he certainly doesn’t need to have a relationship with Ana that involves heighted emotional and physical risk.

No, Christian doesn’t need Ana. He wants her.

Where Beauty and the Beast uses a magical setting to safeguard against misapplication in the real world, Fifty Shades tries to be real.

And it is real.

In all the wrong ways.

When Ana leaves him he can’t let her go. Like many abusers who’ve gone before him, he says he’s unworthy of her. He says he esteems her so highly. He says he’ll put her before his sadistic needs. He says he needs her. He says he’s sorry she didn’t like it when he hit her. He says she’s so pure and virtuous. He says:

“I’ve wanted you since you fell into my office. You are exquisite, honest, warm, strong, witty, beguilingly innocent; the list is endless. I’m in awe of you. I want you, and the thought of anyone else having you is like a knife twisting in my dark soul.”
My mouth goes dry. Holy s***. If that isn’t a declaration of love, I don’t know what is.
Fifty Shades Darker, p36

Beast never stoops so low.

Sure, he starts off by seeing Belle solely as a means of escape from his state, but he never manipulates her by saying he needs her to break the spell – even though such a statement would be true.

More importantly, as he grows to love Belle, he realises he can’t use her to break the spell.

Instead he puts her needs before his own.

BELLE:       Papa. Oh, no. He’s sick, he may be dying. And he’s all alone.
BEAST:       Then… then you must go to him.
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)

[1] Ana’s sex-negative trend towards her flatmate Kate is highlighted nicely in Jenny Trout’s recap of chapter 14 of Fifty Shades Freed: “Notice how when Ana is embarrassed about sex stuff, she flushes or blushes, but if Kate is embarrassed, she turns puce, a red-brown color named after, I s*** you not, flea droppings. Because Ana can be the only pretty girl in the room.” (Content note: Jenny’s posts have strong language.)

[2] This is an observation I owe to Bailey Steger in her blog post Why Honoring Woman Might be Keeping Women Down

This is the fourth post in a series on redemption, comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades. You can find an index of all the posts here.

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