He strolls towards me until he’s standing in front of me. “What did you buy?” he whispers, and I know it’s to change the topic of conversation.
“A dress, some shoes, a necklace. I spent a great deal of your money.” I glance up at him guiltily.
He’s amused. “Good,” he murmurs and tucks a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “And for the billionth time, our money.”
— Fifty Shades Freed, p290
I remember shifting uncomfortably in my seat as I was watching Beauty and the Beast. Belle was standing at the top of the stairs dressed in her yellow ball gown. The problem was, I couldn’t be sure that this whole scene wasn’t Beast’s way of ignoring or – worse – glamorising Belle’s captivity. And what was I to make of the strong and determined heroine? Had the prospect of a pretty dress and a candlelit dinner made her forget her dreams of adventure?
How did this iconic ballroom scene reconcile with the rest of the plot?
I had a similar puzzle reading Fifty Shades.
For all the many ways in which Christian controls Ana, there are two areas where he puts power very firmly into her hands. The first is money. He refuses to sign a pre-nuptial agreement, he repeatedly reminds Ana that his money is their money, and she has her own account with $54,000 in it. The second area is her career. He not only pulls the strings to get her promoted to editor of the publishing company where she found a job, he also paves the way for her to run the business as her own.
How do these acts of apparent generosity reconcile with the rest of the plot? Because, as I’ve already explained at length in the rest of this series, the backdrop is one of manipulation, coercion and control.
BELLE: Oh, I couldn’t possibly go to bed now. It’s my first time in an enchanted castle.
COGSWORTH: Enchanted? Who said anything about the castle being enchanted?
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Belle wanted adventure. When she sacrificed her freedom she thought she had lost all chance of chasing her dreams. And yet, strangely, she finds herself within an adventure. She’s intrigued by the mystery of the enchantment, delighted by the affirmation of her love of literature, and surprised by the discovery that there is something in Beast that she hadn’t seen before. (Because, we can presume, it wasn’t there.)
By the time we get to the ballroom scene Belle and Beast have kindled a friendship. It’s one where her confidence is not belittled, her beauty is not envied and her wisdom not questioned. It is, in many ways, the fulfilment of much of what she has longed for during her village life.
And now Beast asks her to dine and dance with him. No wonder she agrees.
As for Ana, Christian smothers her with his dreams. She wants to be an editor; he wants her to be the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). She wants to work professionally under her maiden name; he wants her to use their married name. She never wants to lose touch with who she was when she didn’t have much money; he wants to insist his wealth is their wealth. And when she expresses awkwardness and discomfort at her new lifestyle, he tells her she’ll get used to it. No offer of help. No sitting with her to understand her concerns. Just the presumption that his way is the way and it’s for Ana to adapt.
Beast, on the other hand, doesn’t presume anything. He offers Belle the very best of all he has, including the best of himself, and then asks her if she’s happy. An open question with no strings attached. And he doesn’t take any offence at her hesitant “yes”, but probes further to understand her concerns.
In other words, where Beast takes Belle’s reticence seriously, Christian distracts Ana with orgasms.
COGSWORTH: Well, your highness. I must say everything is going just peachy. I knew you had it in you.
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)
It’s easy to think that Belle turns Beast into a prince, but the truth is he always was a prince. Redemption is about restoration. Note, the line above comes after the ballroom scene and is the only one in the whole film where Beast is addressed as “highness”. That’s because this scene is one that anticipates what Beast can become: he is eating with dignity, dressing like royalty and dancing in courtship. In other words, the ballroom scene is a testament to both how Beast has changed and how he is becoming who he should be.
Nothing remotely similar can be said of Christian. The closest he gets to foreshadowing his future self, is when he decks a guy in a night club for groping Ana – but isn’t angry with Ana. But that’s not anticipating his future glory, it’s learning basic decency. (I’ll talk more about his supposed character transformation in the next post.)
Meanwhile, all the lavish wining and dining Christian does with Ana is a means to glorify himself because, to be frank, he sees Ana as an extension of himself and his own ego. He is explicit that what she does reflects on him and repeatedly emphasises that she is exclusively his. Yes, he’s happy to share Ana with unplanned Baby Blip, but that’s because the baby is also an extension of him and his ego. What all this means (aside from his absurdly angry jealousy towards anyone who looks in Ana’s direction) is that he wants Ana to be successful in the ways he is successful.
Now, you might ask what’s wrong with Ana being a successful CEO of a company (assuming of course, that she’s an ethical one). The answer is nothing so long as it is also an authentic form of self-expression on her part. Because not everyone can be themselves and find fulfilment in that kind of job.
And this is perhaps one of the most striking differences between Fifty Shades and Beauty and the Beast:
Christian uses his wealth and status to wrest Ana out of the context where she is most at home. Beast, however, offers his riches to provide a context that allows Belle to be truly herself and feel at home. And this is something she’s never had before.
The only sticking point is being separated from her father, Maurice.
I’ve discussed in other posts the importance of Beast being willing to give up Belle. But before I finish this one, I want to iron out an apparent inconsistency in Beauty and the Beast.
After Belle rescues her father from the wood, Gaston has Maurice imprisoned in an asylum in a ploy to get Belle to marry him. Now, we might wonder why Belle would agree to be Beast’s prisoner to save her father, but refuse to be Gaston’s wife. I think this is best explained as follows: when she made her deal with Beast, she wasn’t sure if her dreams existed and could bear the thought of losing them. But, after living with Beast, after tasting her dreams and finding them to be nearly within her grasp, she can’t bear the prospect of going back into captivity.
Certainly not with the man who threw her books in a puddle, laughed at her father, and said he knew what her dreams were.
No wonder she refuses Gaston.
GASTON: Tsk, tsk, tsk. Poor Belle. It’s a shame about your father.
BELLE: You know he’s not crazy, Gaston.
GASTON: I might be able to clear up this little misunderstanding, if…
BELLE: If what?
GASTON: If you marry me.
GASTON: One little word, Belle. That’s all it takes.
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)
This is the sixteenth post in a series on redemption, comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades. You can find an index of all the posts here.