“Beauty and the Beast”: A Story of True Love or a Problematic Relationship?

Discussion Post

With the anticipated release of Disney’s live-remake of Beauty and the Beast, discussions have been renewed about the potentially problematic nature of the plot.  Critics worry that the story celebrates Stockholm Syndrome and that it teaches girls and women to forgive the men who hurt them, because the message is that if they only love a  man enough, the man will change.  Others however, bristle at the thought that a beloved classic should be read this way.  The story is, in their eyes, about the transformative nature of love.

To be fair to the critics who read Stockholm Syndrome into the plot, Disney’s version does make changes to the fairy tale that make Belle into more of a prisoner than a guest.  The version told by Andrew Lang in his Blue Fairy Book features a Belle who willingly goes to the Beast’s palace because it was her request for a rose that got her father into trouble there.  She is treated respectfully by the Beast, roams freely about the palace, and enjoys talking with the Beast.  She understands him as kind and argues that his ugly appearance is not his fault and does not reflect his personality.  When she requests a visit home, he immediately agrees, though sadly.  She returns willingly because she is worried about him and his well-being.

In contrast, Disney’s Belle is at first locked in a cell, then understood to be a prisoner of the palace with limited movement.  She does not initially like the Beast because he is angry and rude (though, to her credit, she does not put up with his behavior but rather calls him out on it.)  She seems, on the whole, to be more at the mercy of the Beast in terms of her physical agency, though she is not a passive character and makes small resistances throughout the film from refusing to dine with the Beast to arguing her way home.  In trying to make their story more dramatic, Disney does in fact introduce elements that viewers can find troubling and that complicate the narrative of the transformative power of love.

These changes illustrate the challenge inherent in determining what kind of story Beauty and the Beast is, and whether it is productive to think of the story in terms of frames such as Stockholm Syndrome.  The source text for Disney’s version focuses on Belle’s learning to recognize how kind the Beast is, despite his appearance.  Because it is shorter and somewhat sparser (and because Lang’s version at least contains a good amount of dialogue about learning to see past appearances, just in case readers missed the memo), it lends itself  much more readily to the somewhat allegorical interpretation favored by those who defend it.  (An attitude that mirrors that of G. K. Chesterton, who writes in Orthodoxy that: “There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.”)  But that message can be lost in translation once Disney makes changes to the story.

In a way, the debate about the possible ramifications of romanticizing Stockholm Syndrome seems to be about two distinctly different texts–one argument is focusing on Disney’s very specific adaptation and the other argument is recognizing the embedded message that is carried over into Disney’s version from the source text.  However, I would go farther and suggest that Disney’s version ultimately does not romanticize Stockholm Syndrome for the simple reason that Belle does not begin to love the Beast until he begins to show he is capable of change.  That is, she does not commit herself emotionally or begin to fall in love until he stops throwing tantrums and shouting and generally being awful and uncouth.

Yes, she is still a prisoner in his castle and, yes, that is a problem.  However, she does not fall in love with the Beast simply because he is there or because she sympathizes with him or his reasons for doing what he does.  She does not  make excuses for his actions or wave aside his anger management issues because he is just “misunderstood” or had a hard childhood or just has some things going on emotionally because it’s difficult being a hideous monster.  She falls in love because he shows himself capable of gentleness and heroism, and because he is willing to learn and to grow.

It’s not a perfect story and if I were to retell it, I would hesitate to make the Beast imprison Belle as he does in the Disney version–not without a more in-depth exploration of how this could impact Belle as she tries to decipher her feelings towards the Beast.  However, I do not think fairy tales are really meant to be taken literally.  They operate on an allegorical level through their sparsity--and the short run time of Disney films mimics that sparsity to an extent.  These movies are not psychological explorations.  They assume that their viewers will take away, in good faith, the idea that qualities such as kindness, caring, and sacrifice are noble things that can make positive impacts on the world.  That’s a message I still believe–and so I can still love Beauty and the Beast after all these years.

What do you think?  Is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast dangerous for children or a positive story about the power of love and looking beyond appearances?

Is It Dangerous to Relax Our Writing Standards When Blogging?

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As bloggers we generally do not hold ourselves to the same writing standards we would if we were writing for school or work.  Blogging is a hobby, a way to relax, so doing rigorous research before posting, providing a Works Cited with at least ten sources all in meticulously correct MLA, and revising the post several times to ensure that the structure is the most effective one we can think of are not expected.  Likewise, we can usually scrape by with providing much less evidence for an argument than we would if we thought the stakes were higher.

However, when we adopt this approach we also lose sight of why we learn to do what we do in school or at work.  That is, we aren’t trained to conceive of an original argument, make sure our sources are credible and objective, and provide sufficient evidence just so we can get an “A” on the paper at the end of the term.  Rather, we are trained to do this because being able to evaluate an argument, to use rhetoric effectively, and to evaluate the arguments and rhetoric of others are important skills that affect our daily lives, even if that just means we can recognize a bad financial decision or a manipulative junk food ad when we see one.  And, of course, the American school system has always been conceived of a way to make individuals into informed and responsible citizens.  Learning to argue, learning how to assess the arguments of others is political.

To tell ourselves that we are able to, in a sense, switch off our brains we are done with the day, home from school or home from work, places us at the mercy of all the messages around us.  Advertisements, Facebook posts, memes, Twitter arguments, and the news media are consistently using rhetoric in service of an agenda.  If we aren’t savvy, we’re likely to buy into whatever we read because it seems, at face value, to be correct (especially if we already agree with the sentiment behind it).  However, not everyone writing on the Internet has researched the topics they are speaking about.  Sometimes people writing on the Internet do appear to have done research–but a closer look reveals the research is dated, from a biased or non-credible  source, or somehow skewed to give a false perception.  As we find ourselves launched into a world of “alternative facts,” it’s important to remember that we are responsible for becoming aware of the rhetoric being used to move us and of learning how to research the facts.  Consistently using the critical thinking skills we have been trained in is how we can effect real change in the world.

We should be bringing our critical thinking skills to blogging and encouraging others to engage with us in lively dialogues about the issues we discuss and the ways we discuss them.  We should be wary about reading posts that make claims that are not true or cannot be backed up by evidence.  We should be careful ourselves to do research so we can prevent ourselves from making false claims.  Likewise, we should be wary of individuals who encourage us to not read, to not assess things from ourselves, to just take the word of the semi-anonymous individual on Twitter.  Blindly accepting claims without asking for evidence, without doing the research ourselves, is dangerous.

We should also be encouraging each other to assess our arguments fairly and to interact with them in critical and productive ways.  We need to be careful about letting our emotions guide our reception of an argument.  It’s possible to support a position and still recognize that some arguments in favor of that position are weak or not based on credible evidence.  Pointing out a flawed argument does not make anyone a bad person or an opponent of the cause.  Rather, recognizing that an argument is flawed can only help strengthen your position.  You cannot convince others to accept your position if it seems to be built on outdated research or biased sources.  You can convince skeptics by piling the evidence on them.

Book bloggers don’t need to all turn into semi-professional researchers overnight. However, we should be encouraging a culture that seeks the truth and that is willing to question, to debate, and to learn–and, yes, to do our own research whenever we see a sketchy claim and before we write any claims ourselves.  We need to be practicing our ability to make an argument and to assess evidence every day.  The skills we need at school and at work are the skills that are going to allow us to make a difference in our communities and in our politics.

Krysta 64

A Place for the Classics in the Classroom

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I have written about this before, but the periodic occurrence of blog posts advocating less required reading in schools compels me to offer again my argument in favor of keeping the classics in the classroom.  I agree that students should be offered the opportunity to read what they like for school.  I agree that a book does not have to have been sanctioned by the academy or designated a classic for it to be a worthwhile read.  And I agree that students are often more motivated in the classroom when they are allowed to pursue their own interests.  Even so, I argue that this does not mean we should abandon the classics.

The argument against required reading in schools rests primarily on the assumption that English is equivalent with literacy and often with composition.  However, English also encompasses literary studies, a professional discipline that some students may desire to enter later in life.  English courses should go beyond teaching reading and writing and acknowledge the existence of literary studies.  After all, history, chemistry, biology, philosophy, etc. all require writing (and different types of writing than the English class–try writing a lab report like an English essay and see what happens), but no one reduces those classes to only composition.  Literary studies should also be given a space in schools.

Literary studies, like art history or film studies or music history or many other disciplines, encompasses a body of works that are seen as influential.  It is divided into periods, maybe historical, maybe more thematic, that make it possible to see trends and their influences.  Try teaching art history by telling students that the works by Monet, Picasso, Giotto, etc. are optional because people find those things boring.  Students can simply bring in artwork they enjoy.  Now imagine what that course would lack: an understanding of Impressionism, modernism, realism, etc.  A lack of knowledge about the names art historians regard as influential.

Or imagine teaching a history course and telling students they need only focus on the past twenty years, because stuff before that is boring.  Students are only really invested in this modern stuff that affects their lives in more direct and obvious ways.  What would those students be missing?  Background, a sense of scope, an understanding of how the past reaches into the present.

By not teaching classic works, we are withholding the values and knowledge of literary studies from students.  We are telling them it does not matter if they read Shakespeare or Dickens or Austen as long as they read.  This is disingenuous.  It does matter if they have read the big names, especially if they plan on majoring in English in college or going on to grad school.  They will need to be familiar with a good chunk of the Western canon just to pass the GRE to get into grad school.  These books still matter, rightly or wrongly, to a lot of people and a lot of institutions.  And students will need to know that if they hope for a career in literary studies.

While it’s desirable for students to find a love of reading through reading what they love, it’s also important that we do not obscure the values of literary studies from them because we believe that the classics just do not speak to students.  This is a rather condescending attitude–many students are capable of reading classics and enjoying them.  It also ignores the fact that you could assign The Hunger Games in school and people would still hate it because it was assigned–student reactions to books are not always directed at the books themselves.

It’s also an attitude that we do not tend to see in other courses.  How many people have you heard say, “Oh, no, we can’t teach students about Bach–it’s Beyonce they want to hear!” or “Goodness, no!  Teach Newtonian physics to students?  They find that stuff boring!  I’d rather let them imagine for themselves what physics as a discipline looks like.  They’ll find it much more interesting to just bring stuff in and play around with learning what happens.  But teach them how physicists think and what they value?  No, they can figure out who Newton is and why he’s important later.”

There is a middle ground here, one where we keep required reading in schools and also offer students the opportunity to read what they love and to pursue their own interests.  Opening the doors to student interests does not mean forsaking literary studies.  But to do this, we might first have to re-imagine what the English class is and what it does.  Are English classes only to teach literacy and how to write an English paper?  Or can English classes also introduce literary studies to their students?

Krysta 64

 

The Canon vs. the Classics: What Are They and Do We Need Them?

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Bloggers tend to conflate the canon and classic books, but they are not necessarily the same.  The canon refers, more specifically, to the Western canon, which is a body of works seen as influential in shaping Western culture (assuming you believe in such a thing).  That is, these books are understood to have had large-scale effects on the culture and they are the works that other influential authors would have drawn upon in creating their own works.  The names in the canon vary depending on who is curating it, but two of the more famous versions of the canon are the 1909 Harvard Classics and Harold Bloom’s 1994 The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.  You can think of the canon as a collection of books that someone presents to you and tells you you ought to read to be a cultured individual.

Depending on the collection, the authors will vary, but generally speaking they include names such as Socrates, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Joyce.  Females have been scarce.  Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Charlotte Brontë are considered canonical.  Bloom added Virgina Woolf to his list.  Through the years the canon has been challenged for its lack of diversity, with some trying to add names (think Toni Morrison) to the list, others proposing additional lists such as the Black Literary Canon, and others arguing that the idea of the canon should be eliminated completely.

A book can be a classic and not be canonical.  What exactly a classic is has been debated, but these books are generally considered important and “timeless,” the idea being that the literary merit of the book alone has kept it in print over the years.  (We conveniently ignore market trends, authors who had influential friends in publishing, and sheer dumb luck such as an unknown academic deciding that an author everyone forgot about for two centuries is now essential.  The reality is that the list of classics has changed over the years as literary taste has changed, just like the canon.  These works are not “timeless” at all but bound up in the attitudes of the day.  But I digress.)  An author like Stephen Crane or Anne Brontë might have written classics, but they are not considered part of the canon.  They are not considered influential or important enough, not in the league of Socrates and Co.

There is also hierarchy of classics.  J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy classic.   Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a children’s classic.  Chaim Potok’s The Chosen is a modern classic (likely to become one, but it’s too soon to know).  If you have to add a descriptor to “classic,” you are indicating that these classics are somehow “lesser” than a straightforward classic.  The hierarchy of books thus might be considered:

  • the canon
  • classics
  • genre or children’s classics.

So no one is teaching “the canon” in middle-school.  Ramona and Her Mother might be considered a modern children’s classic, but it’s not the canon.  And it’s not even considered on the level of something like Peter Pan because it’s too new.  Much less on the level of Dickens or Chaucer or Tolstoy.

Obviously, you can argue for the importance of various texts and believe that children’s literature should be as respected as adult literature.  You can challenge the notion of a canon or argue for more diversity in classics and the canon.  However, before you do, you should also have an understanding of how terms like “canon” and “classic” are nebulously defined.

What do you think about the canon? How useful is it today?  Should it be expanded or should it be dropped?

Krysta 64

Why Do Students Think They Don’t Need to Know How to Write?

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In Deborah Brandt’s book The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy, she argues that the U.S. has changed from a reading society to a writing society.  The informed citizen is no longer simply one who is informed by reading, but one who produces by writing. Furthermore, she addresses the “emergence of the so-called knowledge or information economy” and notes that “It is not unusual for many American adults to spend 50 percent or more of their workday with their hands on keyboards and their minds on audiences” (3).  That is, most students who go to college will likely end up in some sort of career that requires them to write, whether that means they are submitting journal articles for publication in fields like chemistry, physics, or psychology; submitting reports to their CEOs or managers; explaining their research to those outside the field; or writing manuals or instruction guides.  The possibilities for writing are diverse and seemingly endless.

However, despite the prevalence of writing in daily life and the increasing demand for workers to be able to write in the various genres of their fields, many students seem to continue to harbor not only an aversion to writing but also a disinterest.  It’s commonly accepted that students are more interested in work that they find useful or believe is directly related to them, and that they consequently expend more effort in completing such work.  So, somehow, it would appear, students believe that, if they don’t study English, they don’t really need to know how to write.

Students are correct in believing that if they don’t enter literary studies, they will not need to know how to write literary analysis.  And that seems to be the crux of the problem.  So many schools expect the English department to also be the composition department, even though rhet/comp is its own field of study separate from literary studies, and every discipline requires specialized writing skills that tend to be specific to that discipline.  That’s why Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) emerged back in the 1970s.  Rhet/comp individuals realized that there was a need for students to be able to recognize that the writing done in each of their classes was based in values specific to the discipline and thus requires unique ways of expression.

However, most individuals have probably never heard of WAC, even if their school had or has a WAC program. Most students probably are not quite sure why their history teacher seems to want them to write one way but their biology instructor wants them to write in another way.  And they continue to view writing as synonymous with English because it’s typically English instructors and English grad students who are recruited to teach the general education composition courses.  And, of course, in grade school and in high school, writing routinely gets lumped together with literary studies as  “English class,” even though students ought to be writing in all their courses.

WAC is one way to address students’ disinterest in writing.  However, there is still work to be done.  We need students to recognize that all writing is valuable and increases understanding of the field and the content of the field.  We need students to understand that learning to write well in one genre does not mean learning another genre will not be difficult–for example, just because you learned how to write a thank-you note, that does not mean you know how to write a cover letter, a book review, or a recipe.  We need students to learn that writing skills can be transferrable, however, and that the general education composition course does not have to be meaningless because it is required, and not part of the major.  And we need to get students–and society–to recognize that writing isn’t just the job of the English department.  It’s everyone’s job because it’s important to every discipline.  Maybe it’s time to show our students some statistics, time to show them how writing really impacts their lives and their careers.

Works Cited

  • Brandt, Deborah. The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy. Cambridge UP, 2015.

Krysta 64

The Case for Reading More Non-Fiction

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I seldom see non-fiction reviews in my feed and when we post non-fiction reviews here on the blog, they are some of our least-viewed posts.  However, non-fiction is often very readable and very accessible, not at all like reading a textbook for class!  Furthermore, there are plenty of reasons why adding some non-fiction to your reading list could be immensely valuable to you.

Support your arguments with evidence.

It’s not enough to make a claim.  You have to be able to demonstrate 1) that the claim is true, and 2) why the claim is important.  So you can talk all day about your views on how the education system works or how publishing works or ought to work–but without solid facts to bolster your authority and show you’ve done the research, you won’t be very convincing.  Throw in some statistics, some data, some evidence and now you have an argument people will be willing to listen to.

Theorize your own work and create deeper and more complex arguments.

No matter what your field is or where your interests lie, it can always pay to examine them closely and to ask questions about what you are doing and why.  That is, you might ask yourself how far a scientist can go with research before it becomes unethical.  You might ask whether the rights of the individuals or the rights of the group should take precedence. You might wonder what the effect is of using “he or she” instead of “he” or “they” instead of “he or she.”  Read some non-fiction that addresses the values of your field, theorizes the work performed in it, or questions the current paradigm.  Your own work will be richer because you will have the tools and the words to engage with the ideas you already have.

Understand the political, social, and historical contexts out of which texts arise and be able to critique them in an informed manner.

Can Chaucer’s work be “unfeminist” if feminism wasn’t yet a concept when he was writing?  How racist is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work?  How racist were Abraham Lincoln’s views, for that matter?  Experts in the fields typically examine texts from a perspective that acknowledges the contexts out of which they arise.  Learn to speak their language and you add to your own authority.

Understand the values of literary studies and the ways in which Experts Criticize Literature.

Again, by learning the values of a field you add to your own credibility when speaking on related matters.  Reach some current criticism to get an idea of where the field currently is.  You don’t want to be citing a critic from the 1980s without realizing that others theorized the field after him and added to the conversation–not if you want to be taken seriously!  You can also read literary criticism to get an idea of what kinds of arguments literary professionals make and how they make them.  That is, you can learn to make complex arguments based in textual evidence–arguments that go beyond your emotional reactions as a reader or summarization of the plot.

Create realistic worlds for your fiction.

If you’re writing historical fiction you will obviously want to do research to make your world believable.  But most novelists will end up having to read nonfiction to create a credible world.  Does your fantasy book include mages who work with fabric or rocks or sea creatures?  You’ll probably have to research those things because even fantasy worlds must have some resemblance to reality if readers are to find them believable.  You don’t want to lose readers because they’re distracted from the plot by wondering why your mage is so ignorant about geology, or why your female protagonist is acting very oddly for a lady from  eighteenth-century England.

Become a more interesting conversationalist.

The more you read, the more you have to offer during those awkward office parties or family get-togethers.  Prevent yourself from being on the outside of the conversation by storing up a reservoir of interesting facts and pertinent knowledge.  In fact, even if you just skim the news headlines before you go out, you can probably insert yourself into the conversation–but it’s always better to be prepared with more information should your audience become intrigued by what you said!

Why do you read non-fiction?  What are some of your recommendations?

Krysta 64

The Debate Over YA Is Over

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Yesterday, I published a post about why I’d like to see bloggers provide more evidence in their blogs.  As an example of a time when I would like to see the blogger cite a representative example of a trend they see and provide a link, I used the line, “People are always making fun of adults for reading YA.”   Many comments disagreed with my desire for links, suggesting that this attitude is well-known among bloggers.  However, while I agree that there are lingering vestiges of this attitude, I disagree that this a real argument we need to be engaging with.  And any blogger who does research on this trend would see why–it’s an argument that’s outdated.

By Googling a combination of phrases such as “YA Adults” and “adults shouldn’t read YA,” it became clear to me that much of the criticism of adults reading YA occurred between 2012 and 2014.  2012 was the year Joel Stein wrote “Adults Should Read Adult Books” for The New York Times.  It was also the year a survey showing that 55% of adults read YA was published, indicating that people then were becoming interested in the trends surrounding YA, perhaps wanting to figure out why it was so popular, who was purchasing it, etc. This study gave solid grounds for others to continue to observe and critique the trend.  Ruth Graham, for example, cited the survey in her 2014 article for Slate, “Against YA,” in which she criticized YA for being a form of escapism and replacing literary fiction in the reading habits of adults.

Graham’s article inspired Caitlin White to respond on Bustle (2014)and defend adults who read YA.  Alyssa Rosenberg responded to Graham for The Washington Post (2014).  Her article is titled “No, you do not need to be ashamed of reading young adult fiction.”  Simply skimming the first few Google results showed me that, besides an interview Graham did with NPR in 2014, no one else in the mainstream media seems to have been belittling adults for reading YA a this time.  All we have is one opinion piece from 2012 and one from 2014.  In 2015, The Guardian explored the question “Why are so many adults reading YA and teen fiction?” but by this point it seems to have been taken for granted that they were and it was acceptable.  The reader responses quoted in the article generally advocate for the sophistication and delight of YA.  And most of the other search results were articles or blog posts advocating for reading YA, not against.

Although no doubt there will always be individuals who believe adults should not read YA, a quick research of the criticism surrounding adults and YA indicates that this conversation was one was that was taking place years three to five years ago.  Even then, it seems there were a few disgruntled critics fighting was what already a lost battle.  To me, spending energy trying to convince people that YA is a valid art form is generally a waste, much like trying to convince people that comic books are a valid art form.  Just about everyone knows this.  YA and comics are widely read.  Journals, panels, academic conferences, and college courses are devoted to them. Maybe every now and then a critic will write an article against YA to see what kind of fuss they can kick up.   Perhaps a few educators here and there worry that reading comic books will hurt literacy rates.  But it’s counterproductive for us to act like this is a discussion we still need to have.  That makes it seem as though the critics are more numerous, more powerful, and more influential than they really are.  We’re hurting our own cause by pretending that this debate is between equals and that it is ongoing.

Do you think we still need to defend YA as a legitimate art form?

Krysta 64