✨Tale as Old as Time✨ Abduction as Romance in Beauty and the Beast Reinforces ‘No Means Yes’ in Youth Culture

By Kyle Cohen and Kate Glenn

SOURCE: Insider.com

Media studies teaches us that there is a relationship between film and culture. Movies of a particular culture can both reflect and influence their consumers. When we consider the influential nature of movies, it is worth looking at the idea that the portrayal of heterosexual relationships in American movies can be either a positive or negative influence on our culture. One particularly troubling method of depicting male-female relationships in movies is the use of the “abduction as romance” trope. This trope uses the abduction or kidnapping of a female character by a male (usually the lead) character to advance the action in the movie in order to depict the heroic nature of the man, followed by the resulting romance between the characters. Although the intended message in the usage of this trope in movies may not be to advocate that violence against women is acceptable, we cannot ignore the possibility that the use of the abduction as romance trope may be responsible for reinforcing the idea to men in our culture that great romances can begin when a man believes that ‘no means yes’.

Start Them Young

The usage of the abduction as romance trope is insidious because it is introduced even in movies that are designed for very young consumers. The target audience for most Disney animated films is boys and girls between the ages of 4-12. At a time in their lives when we should be trying to teach children that they have the agency to refuse unwanted contact, we instead undermine this notion by using the abduction as romance trope as a central plot point in popular animated films. For example, the animated Disney film, Beauty and the Beast (1991) gives impressionable young children the message that it is somehow acceptable to require a young woman to comply with the demands of her captor, despite her own wishes, because this approach will ultimately lead to a fairy tale romance in a happily ever after.

SOURCE: Rotten Tomatoes

While it may not be the goal of the movie to give young viewers the impression that abusive, kidnapping style relationships are harmless because everything turns out happily in the end, it is worth noting that a closer look at the central theme of the movie indeed gives that message. By using the abduction as romance trope in these films, we reinforce the idea that women can be unwilling victims of male action, as long as the ultimate goal of the male character is achieved. Taking a direct look into Beauty and the Beast, one can see how this message is clearly conveyed.

Plant the Seed

SOURCE: Disney Plus “Beauty and the Beast”

We begin with the young female character, Belle, agreeing to become the Beast’s prisoner in place of her father, who was the one originally captured by the Beast. In the very early stages of the relationship between Belle and the Beast, he asserts his dominance by clarifying that he is in charge. The young viewer is not initially told why the Beast is acting so horribly toward Belle, so the domineering behavior seems inappropriate and frightening. If this was how the story continued, we might not be so concerned about sending the wrong message.

Switch Focus

SOURCE: Disney Plus “Beauty and the Beast”

As the movie progresses, the audience is encouraged to see past the Beast’s initial demeanor. The plot develops in a way that the viewer begins to think that there may be a”reason” for the Beast’s behavior. Instead of focusing on the Beast’s actions, the audience is directed to look into his motives. The viewer begins to root for Belle to look deeper into who the Beast “really is.” Belle is prodded into considering that,“he’s not so bad once you get to know him”. In fact, this line is said almost word for word in the movie, making it significantly off-putting to know that children in the audience are being made to think that the Beast’s initial aggressiveness toward Belle is in no way characteristic of how he is “once you get to know him”, and all it takes is just to “give him a chance”. This is where the use of the trope begins to imbed the idea into the mind of the viewer that the thoughts and feelings of the victim in the situation are somehow not valid. Employing this concept within the trope is troublesome, because it can serve to send the message that a woman who objects to unwanted male force just does not understand the big picture. As a result, both girls and boys are presented with the notion that the female’s perspective in male-female relationships is not worthy of consideration and that as long as an aggressor can concoct some wild justification for inappropriate behavior, all is well.

Blame the Victim

SOURCE: Disney Plus “Beauty and the Beast”


Another problematic aspect of the abduction as romance trope in Beauty and the Beast is the idea that while clearly wrong, the Beast’s actions were necessary due to Belle’s behavior. 

SOURCE: Disney Plus “Beauty and the Beast”

By framing the action in this way, the young viewer learns that he has the perfect excuse to use if ever he is made to explain why he acted inappropriately in a given situation. Furthermore, if he is held to account for his bad acts, he expresses remorse, not toward the feelings of his victim, but for how he was made to feel after she made him act poorly. Since the audience sees the Beast hanging his head in regret, we are encouraged to feel empathy for him, rather than his captive. This treatment represents a classic portrayal of blaming the victim in both the movie and the abduction as romance trope, in general.

SOURCE: Disney Plus “Beauty and the Beast”

Transform to Hero

A commonly used theme of the abduction as romance trope is illustrated in this movie when Belle escapes and gets attacked by wolves. The Beast is there to swoop in and save her, but gets severely injured. This prompts Belle to return with him to the castle and tend to his wounds. Unfortunately, these actions are all too played-out in movies using the abduction as romance trope. As the abductor endangers someone by kidnapping them, for presumably the good of the victim, the abductee is then exposed to danger beyond the abductor’s control, establishing the abductor as a heroic figure.

SOURCE: Disney Plus “Beauty and the Beast”

Rationalize

SOURCE: Disney Plus “Beauty and the Beast”

After reconciliation and more forced one-on-one time, Belle begins to forgive the Beast’s actions thus far. She now starts to feel that she is “getting to know him” and that he has redeemed himself for his kidnapping and imprisonment of her. She wonders, through a whole musical number, why she had not seen “it” there before. In her mind, she has decided that she can now see the Beast’s humanity, over the violent acts of mental and physical strain he has inflicted upon Belle during her imprisonment. At this point in the movie, Belle has still never been freed officially by the Beast, so while the two of them begin to get along, she is still at the castle by force. This plot development conveys the idea that despite any and all forms of violent, abductive behavior, enough time sticking it out with the captor will bring clarity into who the captor is as a person, and that once their true nature has been revealed, perhaps they are deserving of appreciation. This conclusion negatively humanizes and justifies bad behavior as a normal foundation to a healthy relationship between two people, one built on possession and cruelty instead of consent and equality. Furthermore, as we approach some of the final scenes in the movie, Belle has been made to associate good things happening when she is with the Beast (freeing her dad, getting a library, dancing in the ballroom), and bad things happening when they are apart (wolves attack, the villagers try to kill the Beast). A child viewer may conclude that Belle was wrong about her original feelings toward the Beast because, after all, the Beast had a legitimate reason to make her adhere to his wishes, and that if he kept at it for long enough, she would eventually fall for him.

At our fairytale ending, we witness the Beast transformed back into his human self. Belle, his previous captive has now fallen in love with the man she knew as the Beast and they are depicted as headed toward their happy ending. The youthful consumers of this movie cannot help but walk away with the feeling that all is well that ends well. This is not something we should be indoctrinating into our youth. At a time in their lives when impressionable young men are just beginning to explore how to interact with people outside of their nuclear family, we should be careful of the messages we convey.

SOURCE: Disney Plus “Beauty and the Beast”

What Now

Hollywood, thus far, has never abandoned the abduction as romance trope, no matter the age of the target audience. The continued use of this trope, especially in children’s movies like Beauty and the Beast, is unfortunate because children may, understandably, come to think that this kind of interaction is a perfectly acceptable ways to begin a relationship. It sends the not-so-subtle message that, in terms of male-female romantic relationships, the ends always justifies the means, nevermind the trauma along the way to getting to the resultant fantasy. In the #MeToo era, as we are looking for ways to put and end to the mistreatment of women in our culture through sexual harassment, the American movie industry needs to do a better job of realizing and taking responsibility for their contribution to the culture of ‘no means yes’ in our society. The abduction as romance trope cannot simply be characterized as only a plot device for entertainment purposes. Because we know movies can be a tool for influencing culture, we should encourage movie makers to think long and hard about the continued use of the abduction as a romance trope in contemporary American films. In fact, perhaps it is finally time to think about putting it to rest. 

References

Abduction as Romance. The Pop Culture Detective Agency. (2019, March 9). http://popculturedetective.agency/2018/abduction-as-romance.

Beauty and the Beast Theme Song Lyrics. (n.d.). Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.disneyclips.com/lyrics/lyrics74.html

Beck, J. (2018, January 17). When Pop Culture Sells Dangerous Myths About Romance. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/01/when-pop-culture-sells-dangerous-myths-about-romance/549749/.

Burge A. (2016) Romancing the Abduction Motif. In: Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. The New Middle Ages. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-137-59356-6_6

Coates, L., Bonnah, S., & Richardson/Kinewesquao, C. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: MISREPRESENTATION AND SOCIAL RESPONSES IN FAIRY-TALE ROMANCE AND REDEMPTION. International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies. https://journals.uvic.ca/index.php/ijcyfs/article/view/18809.

Goldhill, O. “Beauty and the Beast” is a pretty film disguising the ugly beast of misogyny. Quartz. https://qz.com/940783/beauty-and-the-beast-is-a-pretty-film-disguising-the-ugly-beast-of-misogyny/.

Parks and Resorts, W. D. Consumer Analysis. http://advergators2.weebly.com/consumer-analysis.html.

Stone, M. (2015, April 6). No Means No — Especially When it Comes From a Child. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/no-means-no-especially-when-it-comes-from-a-child_b_6616288?guccounter=1.

Sultan, R. (2016). The Changing Attitude Towards the Empowerment of Disney Princesses through the Ages. Literary Endeavor ,VII(3), 154.

Townsend, C. (2020, August 4). Tropes in entertainment media: Abduction as Romance. North Texas Daily. https://www.ntdaily.com/tropes-in-entertainment-media-abduction-as-romance/.

[Author removed at request of original publisher]. (2016, March 22). 8.3 Movies and Culture. Understanding Media and Culture. https://open.lib.umn.edu/mediaandculture/chapter/8-3-movies-and-culture/.

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