Genre and film in itself, is greatly influenced by the culture and time of production. Its an integral part of the media itself and can’t be ignored when viewing genre through a critical lens. Although genre is an encompassing mode of identification for films and media, it is fluid and constantly changing through different eras and cultures. A single piece of media, with a preconceived plot can produced with many vastly varying outcomes depending on the time of creation and the values of the society it is created for. A great example of this, evident in the western film industry of today, is the remake of many Disney studio renaissance era animated films, such as Aladdin, the Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast. The latter of which will be discussed further in this essay.
Disney’s animated feature film Beauty and the beast was finished in 1991 and was met with overwhelming support and praise upon its initial release. It was a retelling of the classic fairy tale, La Belle et la Bete, published in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuv, a story that had been retold many times but never with as much financial success as the Disney film release. Due to criticisms faced in previous Disney princess films that the female characters were seen to be completed by the prospect of finding a man to love and marry, the executives at Disney studios made the decision to make Belles character that of a strong, “feisty”, intelligent female lead. Belle’s character feels she wants more to life than to just settle down with the town’s good-looking and powerful Gaston, she wants an adventure like the ones she reads about in her books and holds her own against the frightening Beast
Thirty years pass and we are in the era where eighties and nineties nostalgia is a powerful force dictating the production and consumption of media of the present. Walt Disney studios, being the multibillion-dollar company it is, seeks a way to profit on this market, and stumbles upon the ingenious idea of remaking well known Disney properties in live action. As former Disney CEO Michael Eisner once said “We have no obligation to make art, we have no obligation to make history, we have no obligation to make a statement, but to make money”. And make money they do. Starting with Maleficent in 2014 and Cinderella in 2015. Disney begun producing high profit, low risk “remakes” of older films under their company, which leads us to 2017, and the release of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson
Tokenism and forced character traits are prevalent in the remake of Beauty and the beast in an effort to pander and effortlessly diversify the cast of characters in the story via loosely expanding on old characters and rebranding them to fit with the more current social climate. Meehan (2002) outlines how media companies have over time changed their content creation and advertising strategy from targeting the so called “universal” market of white men between the ages of 18–34, to pinpointing certain niche markets that were not being catered to such as women who were stay at home mums and watched daytime television.(Meehan 2002, p. 217). What is occurring in the current media landscape, and specifically, with new Hollywood movies, is that texts created for the “universal” white male 18–34 audience are being recreated with specific attention paid to niche markets in particular women, such as the latest Oceans 11 and Ghost busters movies to name a few. These texts also alter specific elements of the narratives in order to cater to a specific niche market in an effort to attempt a “broader” marketing strategy, while the media product as a whole is still created for the “universal” audience of said white males. The remake of Beauty and the beast is guilty of this in spades with its announcement of LeFou being an “out” homosexual as well as the forced emphases of Belle being a strong independent female taking up her fathers’ role in the original of being an inventor. At Disney the main goal is to make money and, in the process, sometimes create art, because of this the main idea behind Disney’s latest movies have all been to market toys towards children. The princess line of dolls released by Disney includes Belle from The Beauty and the Beast, which was described by Variety, as “a global marketing machine shrewdly designed to accessorize young girls with all the sparkly merchandise their little heart’s desire” (quoted in Bettig and Hall 2012, p. 213). As Meehan observes, in this economic environment that focuses on marketing towards niche audiences, media content is not really being created and in fact content takes a backseat as the media manufactured only one commodity—audiences (Meehan 2002, p. 211). Beauty and the Beast already benefited from having a main female protagonist and as such Disney was able to change key characteristics about Belle in order to make her appear more “feminist” according to contemporary standards which in turn allowed for her to be more marketable towards the young women of today.
The new Beauty and the Beast remake attempts significantly in through seemingly minor changes to appear different from its original animated counterpart. This newer version prioritises the romance aspect of the plot, resulting in the sidelining of feminist elements of the original story (ibid). This change to favour the romance plot, emphasizes the relationship between Belle and the Beast, where Belle is reduced to being the focus of the beast’s desires as well as the plot device needed in relieving the curse placed upon the beast. This is first noticed when Belle enters the castle and the beast’s servants comment on her beauty whilst also dropping in exposition that details that Belle would be the one to break the curse. The movie makes such a big deal at the beginning to emphasize on Belles intelligence and how that was her most defining trait as a woman and as a person yet when the story progresses the movie only ever attempts to portray her as a woman with immense beauty, “Her beauty supersedes her interests in books, as even her interests are used as a bait to woo her (Bryant 1989)”. This slight change in the remake in where Belle discovers the curses existence before the end of the movie ends up making the movie more about the Beast than about Belle. Furthermore the narrative is changed in the remake as viewers are introduced to a more fleshed out backstory in which we see the young beast brutalised by his father which paints the beast as a victim of his environment before being cursed by an enchantress, and thereby making it the story of the Beast (Jeffords 1995, p. 166). Instead of the curse appearing as the resolution of the story in the remake it in fact is used instead as the set up for the narrative in which Belle discovers the curses existence and is reduced to a mere plot device and as a resolution for all the Beast’s problems. The focus of the story becomes then on how the Beast had grown to become a better person, and in that growth, Belle is a plot device and an object needed for romance and as a resolution to the story’s conflict, which in turn reveals the influence of the oedipal myth in Western narratives, in which the woman’s story is nothing but the man’s story, a narrative in which if the woman is successful, the man will get her/marry her (Bryant 1989).