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“Well, you should learn to control your temper” December 30, 2012

Posted by Erin Ptah in Meta.
Tags: , , , ,

Earlier today I came across a post about critical examination of media. It’s engaging and well-written and makes a lot of very good points, and I agree 100% with its conclusion.

But I take issue with one of her examples, and it’s one that people bring up a lot, so allow me to tear it apart unpack it.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is not an abuse-apologist narrative.

Here’s that narrative as the OP explains it:

“If you love your abuser enough, they’ll stop being abusive. You just need to love them more. It’s your job to love them, to fix them, to change them.” Which is, of course, a terrible and dangerous and very pervasive lie.

This is a myth that’s all over our culture. It’s in a lot of villain-redemption fic; it’s in media; it’s in the minds of the real people who blame themselves for being abused, who think it’s their obligation to stay in the relationship, who get hurt over and over waiting for a change that isn’t coming.

And there’s a list of warning signs for domestic abusers. At this point the parallels are obvious:

This list included things like, “Isolates partner from support systems—tries to keep them from family, friends, outside activities.” It included things like, “Attempts to control what partner wears, does, or sees.” It included things like, “Is extremely moody, jumping quickly from being nice to exploding in anger.” It included things like, “Is overly sensitive—gets hurt when not getting their way, takes offense when someone disagrees with them, gets very upset at small inconveniences.” It included things like, “Has unrealistic expectations of partner,” and “Is abusive towards other people,” and “Has ever threatened violence, even if it wasn’t a serious threat,” and, “Gets romantically serious very quickly,” and “Holds partner against their will,” and “Intimidates with threatening body language, punching walls, breaking objects, etc.” The Beast meets almost every criterion on the list, and those he doesn’t meet (“Was abused by a parent,” “Grew up in an abusive home,”) are only unmet in the sense that we have no way to know, from the narrative given to us, whether he meets them or not.

Now picture the part of the movie where Belle’s imprisonment had just started. She’s got a nice room, and a sympathetic talking wardrobe. She’s also already experienced quite a few of the abuses on the list already. And here comes the Beast to stand outside her room and deliver another: “You will join me for dinner,” he growls, and then adds in a roar, “That’s not a request!”

So what does Belle do? Does she put aside her hurt and attempt to be kind and loving? Does she assume he must have a troubled past and decide to go along with his not-requests until her sweet acquiescence tames him?

No. She stays the hell away from him, not even allowing herself to be in the same room with him, and has dinner that night with nice people who care about her feelings instead.

This is the part critics ignore or gloss over, and it baffles me, because it’s a vital part of the movie. Early on, Belle would not give the Beast the time of day. She doesn’t like him, doesn’t associate with him, certainly doesn’t do things for him.

Meanwhile, the castle’s various talking furniture and crockery have softer feelings towards the Beast, but all their advice on “how to change yourself so this relationship will be less antagonistic” is directed at him. They apologize to Belle on his behalf, they do what they can to make her experience less awful, and they repeatedly urge the Beast to be polite, to stop being demanding, to control his temper.

This is an appropriate role of friends, by the way. Abusers try to cut their victims off from outside support systems because abusers are frequently trying to turn the victim into their own one-person support system. (Queue up Pink’s “Please Don’t Leave Me” for a story about this from the abuser’s POV.) Romantic-sounding phrases like “you’re the only one who understands me” and “without you, I don’t know what I would do” are frequently woven into the abuse-apologist narrative.

An emotionally healthy person who is capable of being in relationships should have a support system of their own. Part of the job of your friends, family, maybe your therapist, etc., is to be sympathetic to your legitimate issues, if you have them — abusive past, mental health issues, whatever. And part of it is for them to offer some trustworthy perspective, to call you out when you’re being unreasonable.

The turning point with Belle happens after one of the Beast’s explosions. (We as the audience actually know that she broke a serious rule — if she disturbs that rose, she could cement the curse forever. But she has no idea that it isn’t just another of the Beast’s random whims.) Enough, Belle decides, is enough. Remember that the only reason she’s been staying around at all is because she made a contract; it’s about her honor and good word, not any romantic obligation. And even her honor and good word aren’t worth her emotional health. She takes off–

–and gets attacked by wolves. At which point the Beast comes to her rescue, taking a whole lot of damage in the process, to the point where he might well have died if Belle and her horse hadn’t hauled him back to the castle.

Abusers say “I love you, you’re special to me, I treasure you,” but they don’t back it up with actions. (Sidenote: One pattern of many abusers is to buy their victims nice things, to make them feel beholden to the relationship. The point still applies. Gifts are not a substitute for care.) The Beast? Just took action. Serious action. Putting-his-life-on-the-line level action.

Now stay with me — it gets even better.

Since the Beast has done something legitimately good and selfless, and is wounded as a result, Belle decides he deserves a little caretaking. Not indefinitely, and not because her goodness will ~change~ him; just in this situation, because he’s done something to earn it. And the Beast, because he hasn’t had a magical personality transplant, grumbles and flinches and tries to make out like it’s all her fault.

Again: so what does Belle do? Apologize for being such a burden on him, thank him for his grace and charity, and promise to be more obedient from now on — as abuse victims are conditioned to do?

Not hardly. She snaps back; she doesn’t let him off the hook. “Well, you should learn to control your temper!” she counters, and the argument ends there. Belle gets the last word.

It’s only after this that we get a becoming-friends montage. And during this time, we get to see that the Beast does get his temper under control. There’s no yelling, no orders, no explosions, no taking offense at harmless things like being hit with a snowball. The items on the abuse checklist are being walked back, one by one. The last one to go is the first one put in place: he releases her from the contract, so she can move freely and see her family again with her honor and good word intact.

Belle doesn’t love her way out of being abused. She doesn’t express any romantic intentions until after all the domestic-abuse signs are gone.

So let’s recap.

Here are the lessons that Beauty and the Beast teaches for girls and/or potential victims of abuse:
1. Don’t have dinner with, or even associate with, people who yell at you and order you around. Spend that time with people who care about you.
2. A person who is abusive or has anger issues needs to deal with that on their own, and with the help of their existing support system.
3. If a person was previously abusive, they need to take some serious, meaningful action to demonstrate that they’ve changed before you give them the time of day.
4. Even if you screw up in a serious way, that’s no excuse for someone to explode all over you. You don’t have to let them off the hook for it.
5. Sometimes, abusers can change. However, they aren’t suitable for falling in love with until after the change is made.

And here are the lessons for boys and/or potential abusers:
1. Buying a person pretty dresses or other nice things does not give you a right to shout at them or demand anything from them.
2. In fact, nothing gives you that right. You can get mauled by wolves while saving someone’s life, and it still doesn’t let you off the hook for being abusive to them in the first place.
3. Don’t snap at people who care about you for calling you out on your issues. On the contrary — listen to them.
4. If you’ve been abusive or aggressive with somebody, you’re going to have to change. Meaningfully change. And you can’t just say it, you have to live it.
5. …but even if this sounds hard, it’s possible. You are not irredeemable, unfixable, doomed to a life of “this is just how I am” forever. No matter how abusive you’ve been already, you can turn yourself around. Take heart, and make the effort.
6. Learn to control your temper.

These are not ideas that play into abuser narratives. These are ideas that work explicitly against abuser narratives. Nowhere does a good woman use her love to change a bad man. Belle continuously stands up for herself, and has healthy requirements for who she associates with, much less falls for. While the Beast’s whole emotional arc is about him finally pulling together the maturity to change himself.

And when critics (or noncritical fans, for that matter) don’t see that, I have to wonder what movie they were watching.



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