One of my favourite internet rabbit holes to get lost down is the secret history and meaning of Disney classics. Of all of my school friends, I was the one with the most impressive collection of Disney movies on video; I was enchanted by the stories of young girls from faraway places. It’s a fascination that I haven’t shaken, even in adulthood. So when I’m presented with a more mature way to still obsess over my favoyrite fairy tales, I’m all in. With the recent live-action release of Beauty and the Beast, I thought it would be interesting to revisit an interesting theory about this love story: that it’s subliminally racist.
Disney has a chequered past when it comes to depicting any kind of otherness. It took the franchise over five decades to introduce a non-white princess in the form of Aladdin’s Jasmine. And there is a valid critique to be made about many of Disney’s characters of colour: the further back you go, the more offensive the caricature. Sebastian in The Little Mermaid is a lazy Jamaican. Pocahontas romanticises Native American genocide. And Dumbo features a group of “jive-talking” crows, the leader of whom is named Jim. Yes, Jim Crow.
For Beauty and the Beast, the theorised racism is more subtle. It plays on assumed biases about about whiteness and femininity in relation to Blackness — specifically, the notion that white women need to be protected from Black men who are uncivilised and violent. In this fairy tale, the symbolism of a big, dark beast pervades Belle’s perilous captivity. It’s the same symbolism that has been used in franchises like King Kong, and even the sci-fi thriller Alien. The idea is that if it’s bigger and darker than a white woman protagonist, then it’s a threat.
The new live-action of version of Beauty and the Beast has been intentional about positioning itself as a product of a more progressive Disney. They’ve been touting their first openly gay character and applauding Belle as a feminist character. There is diversity in the form of Audra McDonald and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as people turned into household items under the castle's curse. Their ensemble roles represent an intentional decision to add some diversity to the cast. As an adult lover of Beauty and the Beast, these are the updates that keep me hooked.