I was first introduced to Beauty and the Beast at the tender age of two years old. I don’t have many early memories of watching Disney films, but it’s clear that this one had significant impact on my young life. My first teddy bear was gifted to me at my mom’s baby shower for my soon-to-be little brother. Unbound by the unwritten law that first-toys must always be given generic, self-explanatory names (such as my first doll called ‘Dolly’), I proudly dubbed him ‘Chip’. He’s still here over twenty years later, albeit with a head hanging by mere threads and wearing a faded jumpsuit handcrafted by my aunt to contain his remaining stuffing. Despite his poor appearance Chip still bears the sweet and adorable nature of his namesake, the quirky little teacup ‘Chip’ of Beauty and the Beast.
My memory of the rest of the film was somewhat foggy until recently. Now aged 23 and in a relationship with someone whose love for Beauty and the Beast is unmatched (I genuinely feel that ‘love’ is an understatement in this case), I decided to revisit my childhood favourite.
I’ve never been big on the Disney fairytale romances. My recent re-watch of The Little Mermaid only proved frustrating when I was reminded that Ariel’s story is primarily about a transition from daughter to wife — hardly one for the feminist album. My adult self has always preferred the slightly more unconventional romances like Mulan and Hercules. My memory of Beauty and the Beast was in line with the more run-of-the-mill Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (despite claims of the latter being Disney’s secret feminist masterpiece), so I was surprised to find that I not only enjoyed the film much more than anticipated, but found ways to identify strongly with the characters and the story’s central themes.
Beauty and the Beast is all about identity. Almost all of the characters struggle with an apparent conflict between the way others perceive them and who they they truly are on the inside. When I realised this and how easy it was for me, a queer woman, to identify with, I was inspired to unpack the film further and explore other forms of identity and themes of sexuality and gender present (or open to interpretation) within the film. I present to you “A Queer Reading of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast“.
Why Read Beauty and the Beast through a Queer Lens?
I’m sure at this point you are wondering about the benefits of reading what is obviously a fairytale romance between a man and woman through a queer lens.
This article takes its inspiration cues (very loosely) from a branch of academics called “Queer Theory”. I’ll barely be touching the tip of the iceberg, but at its broadest and most basic definition Queer Theory is a critique of binaries and labels. Closely aligned with Women’s Studies, Queer Theory takes a particular focus on gender and sexuality to examine how identity can transcend boundaries — societal or otherwise.
“Queer theory is not a singular or systematic conceptual or methodological framework, but a collection of intellectual engagements with the relations between sex, gender and sexual desire.” – Tamsin Spargo, Foucault and Queer Theory
To be clear, this article is not about searching for representation where representation does not exist. I am not unpacking Beauty and the Beast in an attempt to present evidence that Belle is pansexual, or make a case for the Beast’s story as a metaphor for a struggle against AIDs. Although these are fascinating arguments and I will indeed touch on both of them later, a queer reading of Beauty and the Beast is not about telling you that you’ve been viewing the movie wrong for all of these years. For me, the idea behind reading any film with Queer Theory in mind is looking at the ways in which a film’s plot and characters can go against the expected grain, transcend the boundaries of tired tropes and cliches about sexuality and gender roles, and leave room for interpretation and personal identification on a much broader scale.
Beauty and the Beast is hardly the pinnacle of inclusive representation, but I believe there is a little more to it than the heteronormative romance it’s cracked up to be.
I’ll start by examining the two lead characters in-depth before pulling back to see how they relate together within the wider context of the story and its additional characters. As the film opens with the origin story of the Beast, it seems only appropriate to examine his character first.
We are first introduced to the Beast as “The Prince”, a spoiled young man who turns an old woman away from his castle after finding her appearance and her gift of a rose repulsive. The old woman turns out to be a powerful enchantress and punishes the Prince by making him hideous the way he considered her hideous.
“The rose she had offered was truly an enchanted rose, which would bloom until his 21st year. If he could learn to love another, and earn her love in return by the time the last petal fell … then the spell would be broken. If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast for all time.” – Beauty and the Beast
Already we have a fascinating intersection of the themes of gender, sexuality, and identity, and the film continues to address all three. Firstly, we have gender roles that subvert expectations: the Prince attempts to exert his assumed authority over the old woman and is taken by surprise when she reveals herself to be much more powerful than he is. Secondly we have a young male character approaching adulthood, where romance and sexual desire become of significant importance — so significant in this case that the enchantress uses the prince’s own burgeoning sexuality against him. Both of these aspects are tied closely to the film’s central theme: identity.
The Prince has a problem with identity. He judges books by their cover, letting his ignorance become his undoing by refusing to love and be vulnerable. You could say that his repulsion towards the old woman represents a kind of fear — fear of ugliness, fear of misinterpretation, fear of ageing, fear of the unfamiliar. In transformation the Prince becomes the very thing he feared as something unfamiliar, unrecognisable.
The narrator notes that the beast is “ashamed” of his monstrous form. Viewed through a queer lens this opening can invoke a metaphor for confrontation with one’s own internalised homophobia and fear of the unknown. The Beast hides himself away from the world and hides equally from himself; the mirror becomes a tiny window into the outside world instead of a way to reflect on his own form and come to understand himself.
In my interpretation, the beautiful and ugly versions of the Prince/Beast and Old Woman/Enchantress are not meant to represent good and bad, but understood and misunderstood. The existence of the ‘beautiful’ version does not mean that the ‘ugly’ version is lesser; rather the transformation each character undertakes reveals that the way they are initially perceived is not necessarily their truth. The Prince becomes a Beast when he is confronted with the reality of his own self; one that he struggles to accept. He must embark on a journey of self-discovery and find his truth (and the timing just so happens to coincide perfectly with his romantic/sexual coming-of-age). The beginning of this journey is full of shame, fear, and darkness, much like the initial journey of a queer person coming to terms with their newly discovered sexuality.
Sometimes it’s better not to walk alone, but to find someone else who can understand. Enter the Beauty to the Prince’s Beast.
Like the Beast, Belle also has a problem with identity. But Belle’s problem is not how she sees herself; rather it’s how others see her. Her conflict lies not with her own identity with but with the world around her. “There must be more than this provincial life!” is her repeated refrain in the film’s opening musical number. Meanwhile the townsfolk refer to her as “strange, no question”, “never part of any crowd”, “a funny girl”, “so peculiar”, “rather odd”, and “very different from the rest of us”. While everyone else is content with the ordinary small town life, Belle is dissatisfied with such normality and desires something more. She expands her horizons the only way she knows how —by reading.
I was struck by how easily a queer metaphor can be read into Belle’s story, but it should come as no surprise given that her introductory description uses every synonym in the book for the original meaning of ‘queer’. Not only that but Belle’s motivations are all about moving beyond what she knows, into bigger and broader definitions of the world. She is all about transcending the boundaries of identity and gender roles, what with her rejection of heteronormativity as represented by the hyper-masculine Gaston.
“I want adventure in the great wide somewhere! I want it more than I can tell … and for once it might be grand to have someone understand … I want so much more than they’ve got planned.” – Belle
Above all, Belle desires someone to relate to on an intimate intellectual level. She has big dreams and imagines herself in a big world, but when she steps inside the Beast’s castle, she believes herself to have dashed all of those hopes away. Little does she know that soon she will find just what she’s looking for (this is a Disney romance after all! Need we not forget).
After Belle’s arrival at the castle, the two lead characters begin their next stage of development from opposing ends of the scale. Now with a motivating opportunity before him, the Beast jumps the gun in trying to get Belle in on his journey, but Belle has just been confronted with a journey of her own.
At this point Belle is kind of the like the early developments of Dumbledore’s Army — she knows all the theory, she’s just never lived any of it out. Well-versed in the concepts of danger, mystery and adventure she may be, but when faced with these themes in her own life she becomes overwhelmed. I can’t help but feel there’s a little bit of a metaphor in the Beast’s overzealous attempt to get Belle to ‘come out’ of the room before she’s ready. Luckily, he isn’t the only one on hand to help her out of her shell.
The ‘Be Our Guest’ sequence is not only one of the film’s most famous scenes, but incredibly heartwarming.
“It is with deepest pride and greatest pleasure that we welcome you tonight. And now we invite you to relax, let us pull up a chair, and the dining room proudly presents … your dinner! Be our guest.” – Lumiere
The servants pride themselves on doing what they do best: making Belle feel welcome and providing her with all the best food and comfort. A meal around a table represents community and shared experience, and this is what the servants welcome Belle with. This act of kindness allows Belle to feel comfortable and safe within the space, agreeing that she’d like to see the rest of the castle. Of course, it’s not long before Belle escapes Lumiere and Cogsworth’s castle tour and wanders in the west wing, which the Beast strictly forbid.
Belle finds herself in a position to uncover the Beast’s most intimate secrets, and with it his pain and anger. Her trespass into his private space provides a fascinating backdrop to the next scene, in which Belle attempts to run away from the castle, only to be attacked by wolves. The Beast rescues her and Belle is witness to his monstrous form at its most extreme: big, violent, and frightening. And yet at the height of is terrifying nature, the Beast also reaches his most vulnerable state. His raw expression of himself provides Belle with a window into the unknown, a glimpse at his true nature. The scene also puts Belle and the Beast beautifully on par with one another — the rescuer becomes the rescued, and vice versa. As Belle tends to his injury, they speak to each other for the first time on equal terms. It’s an erasure of gender roles, an encounter with unexpected sexual desire, and therefore a freeing of the boundaries of identity.
The montage and song that follows continues to highlight the ways in which both Belle and the Beast make an effort to get on the other person’s level. When you look closely at the power levels in this budding relationship, it’s pretty difficult to make a solid case for the “Stockholm Syndrome” so many people like to associate with Beauty and the Beast.
Beauty and the Beast
The film continues to further emphasize the importance of identity in various scenes — from Belle’s town drastically misunderstanding the Beast and judging him by his appearance, despite Belle’s efforts to explain his true nature, to the song featured in the special extended edition of the film ‘Human Again’, which is all about the servants’ desire to return to their human form and need to express their true selves.
So is all of this merely interpretation, or was it intended by the filmmakers? Undoubtedly these themes were prevalent in the minds of the creators as it was being made, most probably lyricist Howard Ashman. During the production of Beauty and the Beast, Ashman was suffering of complications from AIDs, and died soon after the film’s initial release in 1991.
It’s a stark reminder that although Beauty and the Beast is not a story about queer experience and queer love, these experiences are true to life. Intentional or not, a writer will always inject an element of their own truth into their work. When viewing the film with Howard Ashman in mind it’s hard not to draw parallels between the Beast’s shame and Ashman’s struggle, a struggle that he kept secret from many of his coworkers for quite some time. It’s heartwarming to know that his creative partners valued both his work and his life, evidenced by the beautiful dedication to his name in the film’s end credits:
“To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman 1950–1991.”
There are many possible subtle hints to the queer experience in Ashman’s lyrics, such Belle’s introduction song which I discussed above. But my personal favourite has to be the ballroom dance number, ‘Beauty and the Beast’. The line “tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme” implies the fairytale romance we all know and love … but this one is different. It’s not Prince Charming and the Princess, it’s the “odd” girl and the “ugly” man, the unexpected and unconventional couple. You could even say there’s something not quite right about it; surely we’ve all watched this movie and initially balked at the idea of a young woman falling in love with someone who doesn’t appear human. But Beauty and the Beast proves that there’s more to it than that. The fairytale romance isn’t just for the “normal”, and what appears “strange” isn’t as strange as it may seem. “Ever just the same, ever a surprise, ever as before, ever just as sure.” It’s a surprising romance, and yet it isn’t … it’s the same love we all know.
Belle and the Beast fall in love before the last rose petal falls, allowing the Beast to transform back into the Prince. In love they express their truest selves, and in loving each other they are allowed to live this truth to the fullest. If that’s not a little bit representative of what queer love is like, I don’t know what is.