Last year, in a rush of nostalgia, I bought a DVD of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. As a child, I fell in love with the film, excited about Belle’s obsession with reading and acceptance of her outsider status. I was also an avid reader, and I never really understood where I fit until my junior year of high school. I saw myself in the nerdy brunette princess, so as an adult, I was thrilled to revisit her story. However, about forty five minutes into the movie, I was disgusted. I already knew that most Disney princess movies were problematic in their portrayal of women and romance, and yet, Beauty and the Beast prompted a fit of righteous rage that I didn’t fully understand until recently.
So what brought on my repulsion of Belle’s story line? In order to understand that, we have to discuss the Steubenville case. Last month, two young men in Ohio were convicted of rape. A young woman was passed out at a party, and two football players violated her body, bragged about it to friends, and posted pictures on the internet. The sentencing of these young men brought out all the rape sympathizers, with TV anchors and community members attacking the rape survivor and mourning the future of the young rapists. The story is horrifying, from the rape itself to the threats the survivor has received on social media. But the thing that scares me the most is what this news story illustrates about our society at large: we, as a culture, do not seem to have a clear understanding of what consent looks like.
We have tried for decades to define rape. But the challenge with defining rape is that it is a legal term, and so rape sympathizers often use legal definitions and standards when trying to decide whether or not someone was raped. These same people are obsessed with the “grey areas,” the cases that couldn’t be proved in a court of law: what if both people were drunk? What if the victim was drunk, consented, then changed his mind? What if? So many women I know have experienced sex in this so-called “grey area,” where they are not sure if they were raped; however, they are sure that they didn’t want to have sex, and they are also sure that the partner knew they didn’t want to have sex. If we had a solid, clear, and fair definition of consent, those so-called “grey areas” wouldn’t seem so grey. Watching the footage from the Steubenville case has shown that, in rape cases, the victim is guilty until proven innocent. In the court of popular opinion, whether or not the victim gave consent is often considered secondary to the drinking habits, clothing choices, and past sexual history of the victim.
Rape is often defined as any sexual action without express consent. It should be simple, but obviously, if people are unable to label what happened to Jane Doe in the Steubenville case as rape, society is not quite sure what consent is. If we all had a clear understanding of consent, we could help communicate to young men and women what consent actually looks like.
This brings me back to Beauty and the Beast. When watching the film for the first time fifteen years, I was horrified by relationship between Belle and the Beast. Their relationship was not based on true love, but on Stockholm Syndrome. Belle was imprisoned and intimidated. Falling in love with her captor was her only path to freedom, so how can we know if she was truly consenting to a romantic relationship with him? When survival mode kicks in, a victim will do anything to secure his or her freedom. How can anyone genuinely consent to a romantic relationship in that situation?
I watched that movie as a child and saw nothing wrong with the relationship between Belle and the Beast. I idolized Belle, and thus, I idolized her abusive relationship with the Beast. I also saw nothing wrong with Prince Phillip kissing Princess Aurora while she was unconscious in Sleeping Beauty. Even though both of these women did not have the capacity to consent to any sexual or romantic advance, their stories are meant to illustrate love and romance to the next generation of both men and women.
Frankly, it terrifies me that we have not come to understand consent. As a society, we need to sit down and learn what consent looks and sounds like. I can tell you what it doesn’t look like: it doesn’t look like a woman passed out at a stranger’s home. It doesn’t look like a woman held captive for weeks. It doesn’t look like a woman forced into a long sleep from a magical spell. We need more stories about men and women clearly and freely expressing their sexual desires and agencies. We need to see our heroes and heroines ask for consent before touching. We need to teach our youth that talking about consent with sexual partners is not only necessary: it can be steamy and hot. It can familiar and comfortable. Our cultural myths should illustrate that talking about sex, consent, and respect before initiating a sexual encounter (which includes all physical touching) leads to safe and fulfilling sex lives. Because if we can model conversations about consent, we can build a society that supports survivors, educates both men and women to be respectful partners, and empowers individuals and partners to define their sexual desires and boundaries.