This weekend opened the long awaited live action “remake” or re-imagining of the Disney animated modern classic Beauty and the Beast, a movie near and dear to me for many and some complicated reasons. No longer a “cartoon” film but one with live actors, this version is likely to affect me even more.
The “original” premiered back in the day – a phrase I use too much as I get closer and closer to 50 this coming October. And really 1991 wasn’t all that much back in the day considering I started out in 1967. Disney’s great new era of animated features began two years earlier with its release of the fabulously entertaining The Little Mermaid. I don’t remember why I wasn’t fully enticed by Ariel (though I can guess) at the time but when Beauty and the Beast was released, I became a grown up fan of each new annual animated feature. Brain cells storing the memory of my first viewing of what would become an Academy Award Best Movie nominee are long gone, but I do remember being as enchanted as countless little girls wanting to be Belle. And I remember being hopeful for the message that I spread today…that people need to look beyond what is on the outside…that people who look different are regular people …not to be afraid of but worthy to befriend and perhaps even love. I didn’t relate so much to Belle (though I loved her love of books and her feisty independence) as I did to the Beast. Though many believe I have self-acceptance of my body differences there was a long time when I thought I was a freak, a grade or two below Beast level and to be honest, those thoughts rise up every now and again.
Belle, the plucky village girl dreams beyond the typical role of a woman in a provincial village with “stuck in the past” residents including the overbearing and chauvinistic Gaston. Gaston only wants Belle because Belle doesn’t want him. And later when Gaston discovers the Beast, he becomes enraged – how could anyone turn him away for a head horned pawed covered with animal fur man beast? This story “as old as time” does not need me to recap how it ends. Instead I write this about how Hollywood and Society still don’t understand how this is too much an one sided story and why it affects me so personally.
The summer before I was to enter college a well-meaning important person in my life had wanted me to be careful at campus parties. Though Smith was and still is a women’s college, male students from surrounding colleges as well as town residents were known to attend house parties. For various reasons that can wait for another blog, I did not participate in usual HS social activities. My inner party animal (pun intended) was waiting to get out. This person knew I was excited to leave home and enjoy all that college had to offer yet worried I was too naïve and inexperienced with partying situations. She later told me she agonized over how to properly prepare me for potential danger. She finally blurted, “Geri, be careful at parties where guys are likely to drink too much and become drunk. A group may see you and decide to make wagers as to who can fu@& the handicapped girl…” Horrified is too much an understatement of how I felt in that moment. I could be seen as a freak experiment? I had finally emerged from my almost 5 year self-imposed moratorium on talking to the boys in my class because in 7th Grade the all too common puberty related self-doubts took a stranglehold of my self-esteem.
I had always known I was different – having congenital deformities of all parts skeleton. I wore unbending prosthetics and my malformed arms/hands/fingers only reached below my bust line. My below the waist body is even more weird — my ugly legs and feet that don’t allow me to walk. I had been used to stares in public and questions of “what’s wrong with her?” as early as I had conscious awareness. I was actually an outgoing little girl, as plucky as Belle herself I believe until adolescence and hormones took over. And I had talked to, even kicked at times, the boys in my classes up until 6th Grade. Finally by the time 2nd half of HS Senior Year arrived, I emerged from my shell and began communicating, however difficult, with some of the guys. Yet I waited too long and I was not invited to my Senior Prom – again chalking it up to that no one wanted to go with the funny looking Geri even as I had grown up with all my classmates in our small school district.
And now this special woman was warning me that again I could be seen as freak just as I was keen to start a new chapter of my life, determined to push myself out into the world – even if it was an all-female college.
See the connection now as to why I feel a kinship to the Beast? Yet life is not a fairytale with all happy endings. No magical transformations swirling in cinematic glory. And the Beast was a guy who was loved by a woman – the way it is generally in both reel and real life. Many more men with physical disabilities are likely to be married. We see this in many more feature films and our everyday world. Women are traditional caregivers. In my many hospitalizations over the years, several in rehab settings, I’ve seen women therapists have relationships with their male patients. The Boston Marathon, while horrendous in its initial terror and tragedy, has in time brought out stories of nurses and other health care providers who have married male survivors with various life changing injuries/conditions. And while I, embarrassingly, have never been in a romantic relationship, I have nonetheless been interested in a few gentlemen over the years. And a couple of times, mothers of a two men I liked would intimate that I should not get my hopes up, that I was not wife material and could not provide a home – in other words, I would be a burden. For those who don’t know my background, I was abandoned by my biological parents at birth – was I too much a beast baby and perhaps would be a burden? These questions have followed me throughout my life.
I still want to see this new version of Beauty and the Beast, for the music I love, for the banter between Lumiere and Cogsworth, for the fairy tale ending that true love sees beyond the beastly exterior. I still want to have that hope for myself.