The Beauty and the Beast (of publicity and marketing)

If you haven’t noticed the overwhelming marketing campaign of Beauty and the Beast then congratulations- clearly you spend far less time on social media than I do.

I realize I am one of the movie’s core demographics: female, a book-reader and born in the early 1990s, so almost certain to have seen the original film. So for those sins, I have been mercilessly harassed by:

  • Goodreads lists of what Belle would read
  • General Disney advertising on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter
  • More details about Emma Watson and her personal opinions on feminism that I would ever think necessary
  • Persil washing up liquid’s special offer on Beauty and the Beast (what?/ why?)
  • numerous Vogue articles about the Beauty and the Beast dress

I should probably add that I don’t own a TV so I have not been exposed to advertising of the Beauty and the Beast dolls, colouring books, etc that many others probably have seen.

The most successful publicity moment of the film, however, would have to be ‘the gay moment’, which was publicized by most of the major news networks including the BBC, The Guardian, and The Daily Mail. It almost got the film banned in Russia. There was also a whole discussion about Disney refusing to censor the film in Malaysia. Fantastic work from Disney’s publicity team considering the gay moment was for a minor character (almost evil, really) and lasted for all of two minutes.

Then, of course, there was the whole issue of Beauty and the Beast being marketed as a feminist film. Vanity Fair showed Emma Watson in slightly revealing clothing on its cover, causing some to comment that revealing clothing might be in conflict with her feminist stance. She defended herself (very ably, one must admit) and therefore partially set-up a platform for Beauty and the Beast being a feminist film (as it stars Emma Watson, the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and coincidentally a Hollywood Film star). So the other message that was constantly being impressed upon me on Facebook and Twitter was that Beauty and the Beast had to be a feminist masterpiece because it featured Emma Watson.

Reminder: Emma Watson is not Hermione Granger, people! She is an actress, and she will play, for the most part, what she is scripted to do. Her presence does not automatically make a film great.

The net effect of all of this is that I was tired of hearing about Beauty and the Beast before I actually went to see the film (which I was planning to see in any case as I am a devoted fan of the animated movie).

Having re-watched the 1991 film before I saw the new one, I am pretty convinced that the original was actually far more feminist than the new version.

Let’s begin with the opening sequence – the film starts with the Beast being surrounded by dancing women, apparently all for his choosing. His material wealth ensures that all women are at his disposal, and there is a definite hint of the libertine in his enjoyment of both his opulence and sensual pleasure. Instead of being merely selfish, as he is in the animated movie, he is also promiscuous. Does this matter?

Why yes, because combined with the film’s materialism, the film begins to be worryingly reminiscent of 50 Shades of Grey. The camera lingers lovingly on every detail of the Beast’s castle. To make things worse, in this film version Belle’s first reaction after being shown the room in which she is going to be imprisoned is being impressed by the expensive furnishings. In the animated film, she at least had the decency to cry.

In the animated film, it is Belle who teaches the Beast how to read. In the live-action remake, the Beast scoffs at Belle for reading Romeo and Juliet as it is ‘too romantic.’ So now Belle is effectively criticized for her ‘girly’ reading matter, which happens to be by that well-known chick-lit writer, Shakespeare. Could we please just introduce kids to reading without implying that it is gendered in any way? Please?

Why am I so frustrated? Because the animated cartoon is pretty feminist for a 1990s Disney cartoon, and this film isn’t. If I want something witty and feminist done with Beauty and the Beast, I’m better off reading Angela Carter. Or even watching Shrek.

To make matters worse, this film is not particularly adapted to make young kids happy either: in the original animated film no parents die, here we have to witness the agonizing death of Belle’s mom. We also have a sequence of the palace servants ‘almost dying’, even though all the grown-ups watching the story and many kids know that they will survive in the end – why? Both of these subplots seem strangely unnecessary.

Not to mention that setting Beauty and the Beast in 18th century France in a palace means that probably the characters won’t get to live happily for very long after all.

Overall, the marketing campaign described what the film wanted to be rather than what it was –and set me up for a disappointment. It is a sweet, rather melodramatic fairy tale musical, enjoyable in its own way. The film’s main strength are Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor and Emma Thompson playing the roles of the castle servants. And they didn’t seem to get much publicity at all – and neither did the new Alan Menken songs, which are also worth listening to.

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