Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Finally an Elegantly Produced Defamiliarization: A Trick

Films are living literature and instructional tools, and the action moved forward by words then signals to the viewer what to anticipate, and eventually dictates what they will enjoy in the future. Orthographically similar, but polar in intention, the title characters of the animated film Beauty and the Beast are best suited for a primarily structuralist interpretation. Author and teacher Martin Ryder makes a valid proposition when he asserts, “Whether used as a tool for representing phenomena or for interpreting it, the value of semiotic analysis becomes most pronounced in highly mediated, postmodern environments where encounters with manufactured reality shift our grounding senses of normalcy.” (Ryder). There are a copious amount of reflections to be made concerning one of the most successful cartoon films about love of all time, but the structure stands on its own as one of driving factors in that accomplishment.

The simple and predictable plot of Beauty and Beast, although exceptional in some ways, relies on tried and true formulas. This story is a classic fairytale, but context and history aren’t as important as the pattern it follows. Literary Theory: An Anthology editor Julie Rivkin explains, “Structuralism begins with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, an early twentieth-century Swiss linguist who argued that language should be studied as if it were frozen in time and cut transversely like a leaf” (Rivkin 53). The main characters in Belle and the Beast are unique, and although their attributes change, as Propp would say, “neither their actions nor functions change” (Propp 72). Vladmir Propp wrote “Morphology of the Folk-tale”, an eerily scientific breakdown of most, if not all, fantasy stories. Whether there is a main hero or heroine, there is a recipe for these kind of stories. The Beauty and the Beast tale as a picture, as well as many Disney fairytales, counts on some of these Proppisms to create a hit.

The tale begins as most do, an exceptionally out of place heroine at the mercy of the town she was born in to. A single parent household headed by a ‘Papa’, an eccentric but dim-witted man she has unbreakable allegiance for. She immediately sings, “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere” (Beauty). Meanwhile, once upon a time on the other side of town the prince was approached by a witch like figure, usually a sign of evil, but she warns him to not be deceived by appearances and turns out to be a powerful sorceress. The now transformed Beast receives the magic mirror and enchanted rose, a mirror he later offers to Belle as a gift of sight and remembrance. Belle is a reader and thinker and an attractive lead, but her role is classic and very conventional, and could be switched to be a hero. She sacrifices her freedom for her father and is at the mercy of a beastman who wants something from her, but it is constructed oh so romantically.

Worldwide, audiences agree that moving pictures are the way to connect to one another, and the phenomenon is that once translated into another language these movies are still significant in almost any culture. Anthropologist and theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss provides more answers on why these formulaic plots are so ready devoured universally by audiences. At one time literature connected the globe, but we now see that the film industry is more accessible and easily digested by the masses. The most amazing fact is that these American films work so well in practically any country. Why can Argentinean citizens identify so well with the Disney cartoon about a princess in the making and a foppishly dressed animal man? It has also been shown to viewers in South Korea, Portugal, Germany, Japan, Peru, and Iceland and so on, and was nominated for Best Picture in 1992 (IMDb). This brings many issues to account for, such as the amount of labor that is involved in a film and if the profit is distributed equitably- but that is a whole other topic. One fact that is true, which is why the structuralists were right on, and that is that most audiences gain similar cathartic effects and recognize the plot as universal.

Structuralism gives reasons why these actions and story lines resonate with audiences. Observers are always able to describe objectively what actions take place, but as linguist Jonathan Culler would say, “he would be unable to grasp their meaning and so would not treating them as social or cultural phenomena” (Culler 56). I claim that the toxic relationship, which will be discussed later, between a man and a woman which is then torn apart and then rebulit is a universal model and that when manipulated strategically can use any platform for presentation, even an animated one. Lévi-Strauss would suggest, “that all cultures and not only scholars understand the universe around them through such models, and that humankind comprehends his world on the basis of these mental structures” (Glazer). These cognitive models are not merely stories, but typically predictable archetypal fairytales. The characters may switch roles, but the roles themselves are consistent. Lévi-Strauss was hot for patterns the that the words form and spent more than half of his life studying North and South American Indian tribes, and it is said that, “His belief that the characteristics of man are everywhere identical was found after countless travels to Brazil and visits to North and South American Indian tribes." (Schmitt). He also believed that, “Man passes from a natural to a cultural state as he uses language, learns to cook, etc... Structuralism considers that in the passage from natural to cultural, man obeys laws he does not invent, it's a mechanism of the human brain” (Schmitt). These connections are what allow us to function and flourish, and most of these linguistic phenomenons come together in binary patterns that organize the biological and rational jobs of the human brain.

The title alone sets up a theme of hierarchical binary opposites, but this unique tale has the female above the character representing man. Traditionally there are binary pairs like, good/bad, happy/sad, man/woman and so on. Derivational morphology even allows for hierarchical binaries, like selfish/unselfish or tolerable/intolerable. The pairing of beauty and beast places the emphasis and positive connotation on the women over the man. Specifically in the Disney version the Beast is rude and controlling, but his features are softened and humanized. Earlier illustrations of the pair feature a boar-like or warthog type of bust, still with the princely attire. Besides bestiality this pair presents the ultimate odd couple, a match only possible in fairy land.

One could also argue that it makes a case that only brutish men are below women who happen to be smart, beautiful and kind. Unless she possesses a myriad of qualities our heroine has little chance at besting her complement, who is often higher in socio-economic status and education. Although the lead character in Pride and Prejudice is a bright and delightful female, her happiness is guaranteed at the match to an equally affluent and intelligent man. Mr. Darcy is also allowed rude behavior, thought not to other beast’s extents, this attitude as acceptable breeds tradition. An entire lineage of men and women who are slaves to love, and do what it takes to keep it or get it. The end of this is not in sight as modern romantic comedies still rely on happy endings, or justified ends. Thinker and Marxist-Lacanist Slavoj Zizek comments on the structures that an ingrained to our core, he comments, “We ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” (Zizek!)

Earlier I mentioned the toxic relationship of the pair and sometimes in this and other stories the beast is romanticized, and all his bad behavior is excused. By the end of Beauty and the Beast the audience has fully forgiven the man, because after all he has now proved himself a man by his words accompanied by actions, and not any longer the beast, who locked up and imprisoned Belle. In the play A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams the characters were all very hot and heavy. When sex does happen at first between the married couple Stella and Stanley we accept the vulgarity as almost sweet. Stella excuses he husband’s rough foreplay by reasoning, “But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark- that sort of make everything else seem unimportant” (31). We learn by the end however, to open that door and let in indecency opens up a whole new level of impropriety. The next to final scene in the play is a rape of Blanche by her brother-in-law Stanley that is not justified by her actions. Yes she is flighty, flirty and asking for it- but you never give it to her- in a decent society. The words and phrases used in a fairytale are far less gruesome, but add an R rating and there are plenty of possibilities for the story to go south.

Although in this postmodern world we see more and more unique voices as our narrators, their goals are similar in popular culture. In Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated there are several sexual scenes during the fragmented Trachimbrod narrative between the smarter and lovestruck Brod and the handicapped Kolker. Before the two meet Brod is a passionate twelve year old with a brain too big for her own good, she defamilrizes love in the most touching way making the author come alive for me from the text. Referring about Brod he says, “She had to satisfy herself with the idea of love – loving the loving of things whose existence she didn’t care at all about. Love itself became the object of her love. She loved herself in love, she loved loving love, as love loves loving, and was able to reconcile herself with a world that fell so short of what she would have hoped for.” (80). After the pair meet the audience is pried for action and the first time they made love, “Her belly lit up like a firefly’s bulb – brighter than a hundred thousand virgins making love for the first time” (98). Although she loved him madly, this was no excuse for his later on violent physical abuse of her. As a reader I even found myself being swept up by the powerful discourse of love forgiving all acts. Author Anita Moss wisely claims, “To make meaning from literary texts, structuralists argue, a reader must bring them within the modes of discourse which one's culture makes possible. Cultural conventions become after a time so thoroughly internalized that they appear to be natural. A central structuralist notion (deriving from the Russian formalist critics) concerns the force of genre conventions in establishing a reader's expectations, which may or may not be fulfilled by a given text.”(Moss). Her line is worth repeating, “Cultural conventions become after a time so thoroughly internalized that they appear to be natural.” As a reader you want the main characters to fall in love and be happy, you get a momentarily feeling of bliss when it does happen, and it is very satisfying. Do we crave love stories because human relationships are the deepest need of humankind, or because of centuries of cultural reinforcement? Writer Franz Fanon postulates that, “we have to fall back on the idea of collective catharsis. In every society, in every collectivity, exists- must exist – a channel, an outlet through which the forces accumulated in the form of aggression can be released.” (464). Is love real? This is a philosophical question that plenty have tried to answer, and plenty have made money from.

Hollywood is no stranger to making a profit off of female lead characters, but their reliance on love is usually essential. In the The Philadelphia Story Katharine Hepburn’s, Tracey Lord is pushed down in the face to the point of falling by Cary Grant’s, C.K. Dexter Haven, her rich ex-husband. On the one hand this is a landmark for a female lead doing slapstick comedy; on the other hand it is a confusing picture of violence to someone less educated in the antics of the elite. Grant is a chauvinist and confident male, but he is oh so witty so it is excusable. Hepburn is clever but hysteric without her true love, and although she shares the lead with the other two men, she relies on them for action. If one Netflixes “Movies with a strong female lead” they will be presented with a list a varied as can be. Audrey Hepburn films dominate a list that also includes, Funny Face, Chocolat, Knocked Up, Reality Bites, Harold & Maude, Bring it On, and Sliding Doors (Netflix). One of main reasons perhaps that Beauty and the Beast is so popular could be that is provides the happy ending. Some other movies to consider that feature glorified antagonistic love fencing are V is for Vendetta and The Phantom of the Opera. Both feature brutal male leads that by strategic lines and patriarchal traditions the audience is forced to root for mindlessly. All these movies defamiliarize us with the brute or the beast, making us complacent with his crimes because he is placed in conventionally romantic positions. However these movies differ significantly in that there is no happy ending relying on romance, and the couple is torn apart for the betterment of the heroine’s life. Still we don’t know what we want and some viewers may have hoped for an ending they wouldn’t have been happy with any way.

Various members of the intelligentsia will try to answer these questions about love. Zizek has strong opinions on the subject, he provides the premise that, “Love...is an extremely violent act. Love is not ‘I love you all’, love means I pick out something... a fragile individual, and I say ‘I love you more than anything else.’ In this quite formal sense, love is evil.” (Zizek!). In their book Relationships, Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott see the need as well, but their answer differs in that they state, “There is in all of us, at the very center of our lives, an aching, a burning in the heart that is deep and insatiable. Most often we try to quench that yearning with a human relationship.” (Parrott). They maintain that a spiritual connection to God is the only way to truly fill that void, and we see a completely different view of the love obsession humankind seems to share. There is of course an endearing thought that the unconditional love of a girl can change any man into a prince, but this is not wise as an instructional tool for impressionable younglings. Love is such an extremely personal yet simultaneously universal concept; the word is an endless signifier with endless ways of being signified. The future of many theories will still revolve around fixations that can be fetishcized, capitalized, or signified. It will be remarkable to see where things go as we realize how powerful society and culture are at shaping reality, and just meaningless that constructed reality can truly unbe.

Sidebar: I could have wrote a lot more about EVERYTHING, I didn't have time or patience to go into the implications of the human servants turned practically cyborg according to their utilitarian counterpart, like Mrs. Potts and so on. I didn't expose how much Belle is an amazing heroine and better than Sleeping Beauty any day. I also didn't talk about the phallic death scene between Gaston and the Beast. I also didn't mention that this fairytale of poor girl is swept up into royalty has its roots in the first historical princess story of Ester from the Bible. I didn't address Belle's class influencing her decision to stay and be patient with the Beast for her potential 'great wide somewhere'. Now that I think about it- I could have wrote more- but it is late now.

Works Cited

Beauty and the Beast. Dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Perf. Paige O’Hara. 1991, Walt Disney Pictures. VHS, 1992.

Culler, Jonathan. “The Linguistic Foundation.” Literary Theory: An Anthology Second Edition. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 56-58.

Fanon, Frantz. “The Negro and Psychopathology.” Literary Theory: An Anthology Second Edition. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 462-9.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything is Illuminated. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Glazer, Mark. Structuralism. 1994 McAllen , Texas. 6 August 2009.

IMDb. Beauty and the Beast. Addition Details: Certification, Awards. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101414/ 7 August 2009

Moss, Anita. “Makers of Meaning: A Structuralist Study of Twain's Tom Sawyer and
Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle” http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/childrens_literature_association_quarterly/v007/7.3.moss01.html 12 August 2009

“Netflix: Movies with a Strong Female Lead.” http://www.netflix.com/AltGenre?agid=23288&lnkce=mtag 14 August 2009.

Parrott, Drs. Les and Leslie. Relationships. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002

“Propp's Structure of the Magic Tale”
http://www.uky.edu/~jrouhie/rae370_proppmagic.html 10 August 2009

Ryder, Martin. 2004. “Semiotics: Language and Culture” http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/semiotics_este.html 6 August 2009

Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. “Introduction: The Implied Order: Structuralism.” Literary Theory: An Anthology Second Edition. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 53-5.

Schmitt, Sarah. 1999 Edited by: David Gardner, 2007 http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/information/biography/klmno/levi-strauss_claude.html 6 August 2009

The Philadelphia Story. Dir. George Cukor. Perf. Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart. 1940, Film.

Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 2004

ZIZEK! Dir. Astra Taylor. Perf. Slavoj Zizek. 2005. DVD. Zeitgeist Films, 2006.

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