First, a story.
So, my first semester of my freshman year of college, I took this Intro to Women’s Studies class. The class met for five hours a week, one two hour session and one three hour session, and the breakdown of students was what I eventually discovered to be the typical sampling in any Women’s Studies class with no pre-recs at my mid-sized, southern Ohio state school. There were a number of girls who would become, or were already part of, the feminist advocacy groups on campus; there were a number of girls who would prove themselves to be opposed to feminism in both concept and practice, one of whom I distinctly recall giving a presentation on the merits of the “Mrs. Degree,” while my professor’s eye twitched in muted horror; there were a handful of girls and at least one guy I’d come to know later through assorted campus queer groups; and there were, of course, the three to six dudebros, self-admittedly there to “meet chicks,” all but one or two of whom would drop the class after the first midterm. At eighteen, I was myself a feminist in name but not in practice—I believed in the idea behind feminism (which is, for the record, that people should be on equal footing regardless of gender, not that we should CRUSH ALL MEN BENEATH THE VICIOUS HEELS OF OUR DOC MARTENS GLORY HALLELUJAH), but I didn’t actually know anything about it. I could not identify the waves of feminism. Intersectionality and how the movement is crap at it were not things of which I was aware. Never had I ever encountered the writings of bell hooks. In a lucky break, you do not need to know about the waves of feminism, or know what intersectionality is, or have read bell hooks to read this essay! (But you should read bell hooks. Everyone should read bell hooks. bell hooks is FUCKING AWESOME.)
The first couple of weeks of this class were about what you’d expect. The professor was fun and engaging, but she was not exactly pulling out the eye-opening stops on our wide-eyed freshman asses. There were handouts. There were selections of the textbook for reading. There was a very depressing class about domestic violence, abuse, and rape that was the typical rattling off of terms and horrific statistics that everyone winced at, but that nobody really internalized. The dudebros snickered in the back corner, grouped together like they would be infested by cooties if they spread out, occasionally chiming in with helpful comments like, “Dude, the lady on the back of this book is smoking,” and getting turned down by each girl in the class, on whom they were hitting in what I can only assume was a pre-determined descending order of hotness. The queer kids, myself included, huddled in the other corner making pithy comments. The up-and-coming active feminists glared at the bros, who leered back, and the Mrs. Degree-friendly crowd mostly texted under their desks and made it very clear that they were only there for humanities credit. Again, it was a fairly typical southern Ohio state school class full of fairly typical southern Ohio state school freshmen. Nobody was super engaged, is what I am saying here. Nobody, myself included, was really eating it up with a spoon.
And then one day, my professor opened the class with, “So, who here has seen Beauty and the Beast?”
Almost everyone in the class raised their hands; she was talking about the 1991 animated Disney film, and it was pretty standard fare for this room full of American kids who’d mostly been born in ‘88 or ‘89. Beaty and the Beast was in the rotation of films we’d been sat down with as children, the rotation of films we’d watched in our living rooms while our babysitters engaged themselves elsewhere, the rotation of films whose plots we’d followed while sitting next to parents who weren’t paying much attention. It was known to almost all of us, and when she asked us what we remembered about it, the participation canted up to a level it hadn’t reached in the first few weeks. People talked about the songs they still knew by heart, about the dancing candlestick and the grumpy clock, about the library they’d always wanted, about the scene at the end where Belle dances in her huge yellow dress. It had, for most of us, been a long time since we’d seen it, but we remembered it well enough. People usually do hold on to the things they see as children, after all. People usually do remember the stuff that enters their brains, when their brains are at their most malleable and impressionable.
The professor let us exhaust ourselves with our recollections, and then she smiled and said, “All right. Let’s watch it.”
In the 91 minute run-time of Beauty and the Beast, the following things occur: the heroine, Belle, is pursued relentlessly by a man named Gaston, to whom “No one says no.” (Additionally, no one hits like Gaston, matches wits like Gaston, or in a spitting contest spits like Gaston—he’s especially good at expectorating. The fact that I am about to explain some things about this film does not mean I don’t love it; the Gaston song is in my iTunes with a ridiculous number of plays. No judgement.) When she rejects his pursuit of her, he becomes enraged and concocts a plan to have her father committed to an insane asylum unless she agrees to marry him. Meanwhile, said father has been imprisoned in a castle by the Beast, who is cursed to remain a beast unless he loves and is loved by someone before his twenty-first birthday. Belle’s father, who has grown very ill, is released when Belle offers to take his place, a bargain to which the Beast agrees on the condition that Belle remain within the castle forever. He physically throws Belle’s father out of the castle without so much as allowing her to say goodbye; when she refuses to dine with the person who kidnapped, imprisoned, and threatened her father, the Beast instructs the servants not to allow her to eat anything at all. He screams at her. He physically intimidates and threatens her. He chases her out of a room he does not want her to enter in a furious rage, and through it all she is told by his assorted servants (the teapot, the candlestick, etc) not to judge him too harshly, not to take him too seriously, not to think of him as a villain.
When Belle attempts to escape the castle in overwhelming terror of the Beast, she is attacked by wolves, whom the Beast fights off. She nurses his wounds and the story turns; in response to her kindness, the Beast begins to to display a softer side, a gentler side, a side Belle grows to love. She sings a song about how she can’t believe she didn’t see this in him before. They dance together, her in that big yellow dress. As she continues to show him warmth and kindness, he continues to stray farther and father from his original incarnation—to wit, the one that physically and emotionally terrorized her and instructed his servants to starve her if she didn’t want to eat with him—until he is in all ways but appearance a gentleman. The villages, led by the still-enraged Gaston, storm the castle, and there is a battle between Gaston and the Beast that is clearly meant to be viewed as The Battle For Belle, so to speak. Gaston loses but stabs the Beast anyway before being thrown to his doom, the Beast more or less dies, but Belle loves him, which breaks the spell keeping him trapped as the Beast and saves his life. They, in theory, live happily ever after.
The film ended, and my professor flicked the light on. She passed out a handout we’d already received, a list of warning signs for domestic abusers. 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.
My professor said, “Okay. Now let’s talk about it.”
So we talked about it. She laid it out for us fairly neatly, because—and again, I say this as someone who loves this film—the movie Beauty and the Beast is a fairly cut-and-dried abuse-apologist narrative. It is quite literally a movie about a woman who takes a ~wild beast~ and tames him with her love. It is a movie that says, “Here is a man who is literally a beast, and here is a woman who shows him love despite that! And lo, her love changes him. Her love makes him better. Her love saves him. Her love—quite literally—transforms him from the dangerous and abusive personality he is at the beginning of the film into someone else entirely.” In short, it is a movie that says, “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.
There was, naturally, backlash from the room. We’d all loved this movie since we were children, and none of us wanted to see it the way she was showing it to us. None of us wanted to have to acknowledge what she was saying, both because it made something we loved feel less worthy of loving and because it made us feel shitty for not having recognized it ourselves. Eventually, one girl raised her hand and said, “Okay, I see what you’re saying, but come on. We’re all adults here; it’s not like anybody is watching this and taking it seriously, or thinking that, like, the Beast is a good boyfriend model or whatever! I mean, for god’s sake, it’s a kid’s movie.”
My professor rounded on her heel, pointed a finger at the girl, and said, “Exactly.” Just like that, the room went silent. Not a creature was stirring, not even the dudebros.
Fast forward to last night, when I’m doing my annual Christmas season re-watch of Love Actually while half-assedly reading through yet another blog post lamenting the current state of the internet, so full of feminists and social justice folk who are ~ruining everything~, who are taking things too seriously, who should just shut up. Now, Love Actually is a film that I love despite myself; it is shamelessly emotionally manipulative and deeply problematic in many ways, but I love it anyway. Perhaps it’s just that I enjoy narratives told in interconnected vignettes; perhaps it’s Colin Firth’s face; perhaps it’s the fact that I watched for the first time it at a formative age. Whatever the reason, it’s a film I keep coming back to no matter how many times I realize that many different parts of it are deeply fucked up.
So I’m watching this movie and reading this blog entry, and, as I do every year, I get to the plotline between Hugh Grant’s David and Martine McCutcheon’s Natalie, an aide with whom he falls in love. For those who haven’t seen the film, this plotline proceeds as follows: Hugh Grant, as the recently elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, develops feelings for this employee that he does not wish to acknowledge for reasons of the fact that she is his employee. They flirt, etc, and then the President of the United States, played, in a casting choice I will never understand, by Billy Bob Thornton, mentions in a very gross way that he finds her attractive. There is then a scene in which Hugh Grant briefly leaves the Thornton’s President alone in a room with McCutcheon’s character, who is there in her capacity as a low-level aide. When he returns, Thornton is hitting on McCutcheon physically, in a scene which, to me, reads very clearly as an uneven exchange between one of the most powerful human beings in the world and a very uncomfortable, very intimidated employee.
As a result of this incident, Grant’s character has McCutcheon’s “redistributed” from her position, choosing to do so through a third party and never discussing it with her. She then sends him a card apologizing for the incident and saying she is “his,” and must then apologize again, in person, before the narrative allows them to kiss. As I do every year, I find myself thinking about what that professor would say about this plotline, about how she’d point out that this is a narrative which punishes a woman for being put in an unequal, unreciprocated, and objectified position, that this is a narrative which makes this woman apologize both in writing and in speech before it forgives her. And yet, as I do every year, I find myself rooting for them. I find myself charmed by Grant’s sly smile and McCutcheon’s exuberant relief at his forgiveness. I find myself pleased when they get together, even though everything about the entire plotline perfectly embodies more or less everything I hate in media. As an educated consumer, as a self-described fervent feminist, as someone who makes it a point to look for and see these things about the media I engage with, I still want to watch this happen. I still want what the narrative tells me to want. I do it despite myself, but I do it all the same.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a child, nobody sat down with me after I watched Beauty and the Beast and said, “Okay, this is a movie, and it’s okay to enjoy this movie! It’s okay to think this movie is great! But just so you know, if someone in real life did to you the things the Beast does to Belle, that wouldn’t be okay. That wouldn’t be right.” When my mind was young and malleable, there was no trusted adult pointing out, “This is a movie, and it’s okay to like this movie, but the relationship it shows is unhealthy.” And that’s not because I didn’t have those trusted adults in my life! I was lucky enough to grow up with two intelligent, liberal, kind, forward-thinking, active parents; they didn’t tell me because they didn’t know to tell me. They didn’t tell me because nobody told them.
When I was 14, I saw Love Actually in theaters. It was an enlightening time for me on more than one level; I was discovering romance first-hand, as well as consuming it in films and television I had, until recently, been considered too young to watch. I was also getting schooled on the full contents of the “Don’t get raped,” handbook, not that any of managed to prevent rape for me in the end. I was told not to park in parking garages, because someone could hide under my car and rape me, but also not to park on the streets, because someone could come out of the shadows and rape me. I was told not to wear my hair in a ponytail, because someone could grab it and rape me, but also not to wear my hair down, because it made me look older and could entice someone to rape me. I was told not to walk alone or with only other girls, because it would leave me vulnerable and allow someone to rape me, but also not to spend time alone with or trust guys, because they could be planning to rape me. And while I was receiving this assortment of contradictory and ultimately useless guidelines, nobody was saying, “Hey, in movies like Love Actually, in these films that are so-called ‘Chick flicks,’ in these movies that are targeted towards your social group of teens and young women, there are going to be scenes where shit goes down that is gross and rapey and wrong. There are going to be scenes where people the film is designed to make you identify with are objectified, discarded, and minimized, and those people are going to be portrayed as being fine with it. It’s okay to like the movie! But in real life, that shit would not be okay, and you would not have to be fine with it.” Nobody told me because nobody knew to tell me. Nobody told me because nobody told them.
It’s the age of internet; media is more available than ever before, at greater volume than ever before. Through our televisions with their endless channel options, through our Netflix accounts, through our torrents and streams and Youtube videos and DVD rips, there is always something to watch. And I get it. I get that it’s exhausting to pick shit apart looking for flaws. I get that it’s exhausting to see other people picking shit apart looking flaws. I get that it’s hard to see something you love get lambasted, or tarred with a brush you’d rather not think about, or called bad names. I get that it feels like things are being ruined, like people are looking for things to hate, like people are taking things too seriously. I even get that, as much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, it can feel like a personal attack to see a piece of media we’re attached to get put through the wringer. I get that, in seeing someone say, “This piece of media is dangerous and flawed and sending a bad message,” it can feel like they’re saying, “You are dangerous and flawed and sending a bad message for liking this.” They aren’t saying that, but I get how it can feel that way, because it’s felt that way for me. That’s what happens, when you get attached to things and somebody talks shit about them. That’s what happens when media is designed to emotionally manipulate you; you become emotionally manipulated. It’s just how it works.
But consuming media critically is a skill, and in an age where media is more prevalent than ever before, it’s a skill worth having. It’s a skill worth having because you are going to continue to be exposed to media, and it is going to continue to attempt to manipulate you. It’s a skill worth having because it makes it less difficult to see people talking shit about things you like, not more. It’s a skill worth having because some of the shit being taught en masse by media is horrible scary damaging shit, and maybe you don’t think you’ve learned that horrible scary damaging shit, and maybe you don’t think you’re susceptible to that horrible scary damaging shit, and honestly? Maybe you haven’t. Maybe you’re not. I don’t know you. But I know that a classroom full of average southern Ohio state school students went silent in horror at the full realization of what Beauty and the Beast teaches kids too young to know better. I know that as someone who has spent years being taught to analyze media, as someone who has actively worked to develop the skill of understanding what a given film is attempting to wring from me, I still want to see Hugh Grant kiss Martine McCutcheon. I know that the real trick to the continued, pervasive prevalence of shit like rape culture is that it’s everywhere all the time, slipped in under the radar and riding on the fact that it’s the status quo, hidden in plain goddamn sight.
We can argue for media that doesn’t push the horrible shit we need to unlearn as a society to get to a healthier place, or we can point out the flaws in our preexisting media, or we can do both. But “Just shut up,” isn’t an option. “Just shut up,” can’t be an option, because we can’t keep playing the “Nobody told me because nobody told them,” card. Nothing will ever get better that way. Nothing will ever improve if we keep not telling people this shit. And yes, it’s easier not to watch things critically. Yes, it’s easier not to engage with this stuff. Yes, as always, “Not learning things,” is the easier option. And if you don’t want to learn things (or unlearn them, as the case may be), that’s your right. That’s your call, and nobody can stop you from making it. It’s entirely possible to like and even love problematic media while consuming it critically, while acknowledging its flaws, but if that’s not something you wish to figure out then that’s that, and there ain’t shit anybody can do about it. But for the love of god, stop arguing that people should be quiet, should stop pointing this stuff out, should stop engaging with something in a way you don’t want them to. For one thing, you’re wasting your breath—again, it’s the age of the internet. People are going to use their platforms as they please. But for another thing, there’s a huge difference between saying, “I don’t feel like dealing with this problem,” and saying, “I don’t feel like dealing with this problem and therefore no one else should either.” One of them is a personal choice, and the other is embarrassingly irresponsible. I’ll leave it up to you to work out where the chips fall on that one.