You wouldn't think that aristocracy would be popular with freedom-loving American individualists. But these extremes are often in bed with each other. Fantasy exaggerates them both too. Advertising and popular entertainment emphasize wealth and heroic individuality in a dream of consumer utopia. What's peculiar is that these fantasies are also hostile to democracy, which is supposedly the at the heart of "the American dream."
Take Disney's grossly popular 1991 update of "Beauty and the Beast," which has achieved mythic familiarity. The movie looks like the fairy tale model of tenderhearted romance until you realize that Belle is a gal on the make, and the Beast's palace is a version of Downton Abbey.
The original French "Beauty and the Beast" (1756) had a class theme. Love nobly, and the genteel daughter of a rich merchant may redeem a "beastly" nobleman and make a princely marriage. Disney makes love competitive by inventing a village lout ("Gaston") whose abusive courtship of Beauty ("Belle") climaxes when he leads a mob of villagers to storm the Beast's palace. Though he advertises his hunting prowess, Gaston is actually a sneaky coward, and after nearly killing the Beast, he falls out of the film. The recovering Beast turns into the Prince in a shower of fireworks or sperm, and the film ends with Belle and Prince waltzing before their admiring servants.
The Prince suffered the curse of an aged crone he once rejected, and the curse has turned his servants into appliances such as a candlestick, clock, and teapot. The Disney treatment foregrounds the servants. They're loyal, eager to please, and as at Downton, they're sympathetic, even parental toward Belle and Beast. But they're not the only working stiffs in the tale.
The film shows Belle as a romantic dreamer. She's sweetly contemptuous of her workaday village neighbors and their grinding drudgery. The film identifies them with the sheep who at one point mindlessly munch on one of Belle's romance novels. While the palace servants are individualized, the villagers are independent yet faceless nobodies. And here's where Disney politics fires up the plot.
When Belle spurns Gaston's advances, he turns into a rabble-rousing demagogue who turns the villagers into a vicious mob that invades the palace. The melee caricatures the French Revolution, pitting the Prince's "good" servants against workaday louts. The good workers rout the bad workers with the usual cleverness of Disney underdogs, including some winking anal jokes (attackers burned and stabbed in the backside). The lowlife villagers and Gaston vanish into oblivion, and in their place aristocracy and its good servants become triumphantly human.
The sublimated class warfare makes it possible to forget that Belle has been striving for superior status and a "dream life" all along. When at last she becomes a princess, the premier woman in the land, it seems her natural reward. In the end she will preside over society as the supreme woman in the kingdom. As Americans say, she's made it.
Like the Mitt Romney fundraiser that pepped up hostility toward the 47% of working Americans who are supposedly "takers," the film slyly vilifies the villagers. They're a mindless mob enraged at the ruling Beast / Prince. But just as Romney's public lingo blurred the contempt for the 47%, so the film's happy ending makes the beaten villagers vanish. Instead we find the curse lifted. No longer robotic appliances, the palace servants have become the bosses' doting, starry-eyed family, with a footstool-become-doggy and a teacup-become-cute-tyke.
For the noble couple, no parent-child struggle for autonomy. No stressful pregnancy and childbirth. No demanding boss. No predatory credit cards. No need to give orders. Instead of the mob's class warfare and a burlesque of the French and American revolutions, the palace servants' song has become reality:
"Life is so unnerving / For a servant who's not serving."
But wait. How does the palace pay its bills? Ah. Belle's bumbling dad has invented a machine that chops firewood and eliminates grinding work. Dad has created the promise of industrialism without its cruel complications. No hoarded capital, no deafening assembly line, no pollutants, no strikes, no scabs, no 70 hour work week. But on his way to show the world his machine, Dad is jumped by wolves malicious as the village mob will be. They're like furious workers losing their jobs to wood-chopping automation. Luckily, Dad finds shelter in the palace, held there until his daughter ransoms him.
So palatial wealth rescues "the new economy" from a mob of wolves sneaking out of the wilderness like unemployed rioters or illegal immigrants. Belle's village suitor Gaston caricatures these wolvish low-lifes. Paternalistic, bullying, he'd keep a wife in servitude. He is piggishly pink and clumsy, but also a killer. Still, his ridiculous vanity helps the film to disguise Belle's narcissism. Instead of having to recognize the heroine's self-aggrandizing capture of the kingdom's top spot, we can sympathize with her plucky flight from victimization.
Belle acquires not only the supreme husband, but also the supreme house and a literal army of happy servants. She acts out the media fascination with junior British royals. But it's also an ad man's dream of corporate America. By overcoming her distaste for the ugly, hostile Beast, the little woman wins a Prince and a palace full of wish-fulfilling appliances. Dad's firewood-chopping machine turns into a utopia of creature comforts, with all human costs hidden and an attractive feminist gloss added to co-opt an audience certain to include many women and daughters.
The dark side of this gratification is not the blustering, bovine Beast, but Belle's dream. She gets to the top by rejecting community for a life of decorative superiority. With the working world banished, she will be waited on and applauded by endlessly obliging inferiors. No need for bargaining or contracts. No need for democracy. If there's conflict, the Praetorian servants will do the fighting. Like Downton Abbey and the US Gilded Age, the palace recreates the pretensions and authority of a mythic past. It shelters innocent, infantile narcissism. The noble couple play at snowball fights and feeding birds. The servants put on a Hollywoodish Busby Berkeley musical. The vast palace library promises that her romance-novel addiction will acquire the dignity of a university degree.
Because the film is so hostile to working people, Belle's narcissism stands out. You might wonder: Why no fantasies of achievement and the rewards of challenging labor? One answer is that Belle is enticed by the American dream of palace utopia. A deeper answer lies in the fantasy that the supreme couple's love originates in rescue from death. The Beast saves Belle from the wolves, then she nurses him. But symbolic death haunts them both, from the opening curse of an impoverished hag, to the wolves and the crushing violence of Gaston. The treatment of the villagers is especially disturbing because it insinuates that work kills the soul—unless you're serving the princely boss.
These themes have been playing out in the US for decades. Unemployment and suppressed wages threaten today's "villagers" with social death. Upward mobility has stalled. Meanwhile the rich are richer than they've ever been, with less obligation to share responsibility for the nation's well-being. The financial system is now 40% of the economy, sustaining a billionaire aristocracy through sleight-of-hand bubbles and subsidies. Wall Street banks and media monopolies are "too big to fail" or break up. The "banksters" are "too big to jail." Through its corporate and media lobbying, the palace has captured "big government," working to kill labor unions, government medical and retirement insurance, food stamps, and other "entitlements." The result is today's stagnant economy.
The flip side of this greed is paranoia about Muslims, blacks, immigrants, and the "47%" of Americans who want to improve the village.
When "Beauty and the Beast" appeared in 1992, riots were convulsing Los Angeles. At the same time Disney was using fancy bookkeeping to give its chairman-prince just over $197 million in stock options and save the Magic Kingdom roughly $90 million in taxes that might otherwise have gone to rebuild South Los Angeles.
The more moviegoers identify with "Beauty and the Beast's" magic circle of worshipful servants and waltzing lovers, the more limited their vision of society will be. The film invites viewers, and especially women viewers, to associate the beast not with a spoiled elite but with an enraged and frustrated mob in the poorest streets of America. If they learn to love the Prince and enjoy the righteous rout of Gaston's loutish male chauvinism, audiences will see a glorious cartoon horizon which fades to a close before anyone can ask what has happened to Belle's neighbors and how the infantile, cozily ruthless world of the palace can ever relate to those neighbors in the future. And children thrilling to this romance will be innocently preparing for service in the corporate fortress, unaware that they have left the old neighborhood behind.
Part One of this essay, about "Downton Abbey," is here.