Jack’s eyes flash the darkest blue, and he sneers as he casts a leering look down my body.
Fear chokes me. What is this? What does he want?
— Fifty Shades Darker, p367
Let’s talk about villains.
Handsome, popular, and successful at everything he does (except proposing to Belle), Gaston is also rude, vain and conceited. He wants only the best and thinks he deserves it. “Best” is defined by outward appearance so Gaston directs his possessiveness towards Belle. He has mood swings when he doesn’t get his own way. When Belle refuses Gaston a second time, Gaston imprisons her and sets out to kill Beast.
Editor at a publishing company and the one who hires Ana to work there. Hyde is not as successful as Christian Grey is, but feels he’s entitled to be because they were both in foster care together as boys. Hyde controls and sexually harasses all the women he works with and is possessive towards Ana. He’s secretly filmed himself having rough sex with his secretaries and uses the footage as leverage over them. He has mood swings when he doesn’t get his own way. When Christian takes over his company and he is fired, he sabotages Christian’s helicopter in an attempt to kill him. He kidnaps Christian’s sister for a $5m ransom.
Both Gaston and Jack Hyde have striking similarities with the pre-redeemed versions of Beast and Christian Grey. Beast was conceited and judged by appearances; Christian had rough sex with his former sexual partners and held photos of them as leverage. These similarities between the heroes and the villains are deliberate and important because they show how Beast and Christian could have ended up. (Jack is jailed; Gaston falls to his death.)
That the villains have such different fates is, of course, down to the respective plots holding that Beast and Christian have set themselves on the path to redemption. After all, Christian doesn’t take photos of Ana as leverage. He is even appalled for a short time when Ana gifts him a camera, because he associates it with how he treated his previous sexual partners. Similarly, Beast doesn’t seek to control Belle. Instead, he has learned humility, selflessness and sacrifice.
In contrast, both Gaston and Hyde set out to murder their rivals.
Importantly, as Beast and Christian near the fullness of their redemption, both of them see their former selves in their adversary.
Now, I admit, this is only implicit with Beast. But in the moment when Beast holds Gaston over the precipice, we hear the haunting music associated with his enchantment. I’ve always felt it was a moment of remembrance. As for Christian, he is explicit in his association with Hyde, saying they were both “cut from the same cloth” (FSF, p491).
But after that the redemption arcs diverge.
Learning to love a monster?
I have three initial problems with how Fifty Shades contrasts the ‘redeemed’ Christian with Jack Hyde.
First, Ana insists that Christian is nothing like Jack Hyde. She says they both might have been born in Detroit and been in foster care together, but that’s it. In other words, Christian is redeemed because he was always a good person anyway.
Second, Christian in his redeemed state is now able to (a) admit that he cares about his birth mother (FSF, p511) and (b) accept Ana’s insistence that she really does love him (FSF p505, p507). In other words, Christian has learned that the meaning of true love is to love those who love him.
Third, Christian is scared that he’ll be a s***ty father to his unborn child. That’s understandable. But having admitted this, he is reassured because Ana will be with him and is such a good, strong woman, she won’t let him be a bad father. In other words, Christian can discern right from wrong because he has Ana to stand in as his moral compass.
In contrast, Beauty and the Beast shows that redemption is about reaching out to those who don’t deserve it and transforming them. Though Beast was always a prince, he wasn’t always good. The transformation within him occurs gradually in the film, but is exemplified visually in the point when the spell is broken.
And here’s the thing: when Beast learned to love, he didn’t just learn how to treat good people like they’re human beings, he also learned how to show mercy to monsters.
Retribution and reconciliation
When it comes to people who have inflicted abuse, the issue of reconciliation is a particularly complex one. I’m not going to dive into details, but it’s easy for the idea of forgiveness to be used to (a) silence those who’ve been wronged and (b) allow the abuse to continue.
This is wrong.
Even so, the issue of vengeance is a very, very complex one.
I do believe reconciliation to be a good thing, however I am not going to say that there is no place for comeuppance or retribution. There are reasons why I love the fates of the villains in films like Cruel Intentions, Paddington, and Ever After. (The villains are all alive at the end.)
However, it does seem to me that glimpses of redemption are most clearly seen in stories of forgiveness.
A real life example can be found in The Railway Man. It’s in these stories, when the torturer and the tortured shake hands in peace, that we see monsters restored to their humanity.
Mercy is Beast’s
Beauty and the Beast doesn’t get distracted. By the time Beast gets the better of Gaston, he has very good reason to hope for his full redemption. So he doesn’t block the way for Gaston to also receive the transformation he needs.
Even so, Gaston is treacherous and stabs Beast anyway. It’s easy to think Beast as naïve or weak because he let Gaston go, and this is complicated by the fact many abusers charm their way back into a relationship so that they can abuse again. But there are two profound points shown here.
The first is that those who have been shown mercy must also show mercy to others. This is not about endangering oneself or allowing others to be endangered, nor is it about deliberate dissociation and denial of what’s happening. But what it does mean, is that if a person is shown mercy then they cannot be the one to, as it were, cast the first stone.
The second point is that when a person rejects the mercy offered to them, they bring about their own doom. Gaston stabs Beast who lurches in the pain, causing Gaston to lose his grip and fall to his death.
Vengeance is Christian’s
None of the above is explored in Fifty Shades.
Instead, a character who has been utterly absent for the entire plot suddenly emerges as the abuser of abusers, and Christian decides it’s his job to mete out justice. No, this isn’t Jack Hyde, it’s Mr Lincoln.
And so we have the quagmire of complexity that is the plot: Christian was sexually abused by Mrs Lincoln as a teenager. Mrs Lincoln was abused by her husband. Mr Lincoln bailed Jack Hyde out of jail, thus enabling him to threaten the lives of Christian and his adoptive family.
But there is no wrestling with these complexities and asking questions about the tragedy it is to become a person who perpetrates abuse. There is no contemplating the mystery of mercy. There is no grappling with the difficulties many people face when they try to live free from their abusers.
There is only Christian Grey – taking control and dealing out payback.
“Linc’s made this personal by going after my family. I’m going to crush him, break up his company right under his nose, and sell the pieces to the highest bidder. I am going to bankrupt him.”
— Christian, Fifty Shades Freed, p522
Reaching for the impossible
If you told me about a person in real life who had been able to thoroughly remove their abusers (and stalkers and attempted murderers) from their lives, I’d probably say it was a good outcome. Because abuse frequently continues after a relationship has ended and often a survivor of abuse does not have the resources to live completely separately from the person who abused them, or indeed the context which facilitated the abuse.
But I don’t like this ending in Fifty Shades. For one thing, its implausibly neat and tidy outcome can lead people to false expectations. But my main problem is its failure to portray redemption.
Redemption is not about erecting safety barriers to keep dangerous people away. It’s about transforming the hearts and minds of people so that they are no longer a danger – both to others and to themselves.
And you know what?
This goes beyond the individual.
Redemption is about transformation of the self and the communities to which one belongs. But because Christian’s curse only affected him, we don’t see anyone else lifted up when he reaches his happy-ever-after. More than that: because Christian is hell-bent on payback, he undermines the very possibility of others sharing in his redemption.
In contrast, when Beast is redeemed, everyone around him reaps the benefit.
If this sounds like an impossible outcome, then good. Because it should. Because redemption is all about something that cannot be achieved in our own strength or means (financial or otherwise), however much we’d like it to be. That’s why it needs something more – something profound and powerful, something mysterious – what you might even call magical.
In this, Beauty and the Beast is masterful in its storytelling. For the power of the enchantress is not so much in the turning of a prince into a beast and back again.
Rather, it is in the raising to life of one who was dead.
PRINCE: Belle! It’s me!
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)
This is the seventeenth post in a series on redemption, comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades. You can find an index of all the posts here.