This parent-child discussion guide for Walt Disney Studios’ Beauty and the Beast is a supplement to The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years.
Beauty and the Beast (1991): A parent-child discussion guide
by Rebecca Hains, Ph.D.
Common Sense Media recommends Beauty and the Beast for children ages 5 and up, due to some frightening scenes; but their review notes that the film may be okay for some 4-year-olds, too, depending on the child.
In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the “beauty” mentioned in the title is Belle, a bright young woman who dreams of leaving her town in France to pursue adventure elsewhere; and the “beast” is a young prince whom a witch cursed as punishment for treating her callously on the basis of her appearance. Her curse turned him into a monster and all his servants into enchanted objects.
Shortly after Belle fends off the romantic advances of the handsome and arrogant Gaston, her story and the Beast’s intertwine when she saves her father from imprisonment in the Beast’s dungeon, offering to take his place. The Beast’s angry outbursts and violent behavior scare Belle, but she stands up for herself in the face of his bullying. As time passes, Belle and the Beast get to know one another better. The Beast learns to be kind and gentle, and the pair grows to love one another.
In the end, despite Gaston’s jealousy-driven quest to kill the Beast, Belle’s love saves the Beast from the witch’s curse, turning him back into a prince. They live happily ever after.
Here are some suggestions for discussion, roughly categorized by age level. Use these as a rough guide: tailor them to your own child’s level.
- The Pretty Princess Mandate
Beauty and the Beast offers an opportunity to critique the Pretty Princess Mandate, because although Belle is beautiful, her beauty is not the most important or interesting thing about her. You can help children understand this message, which may not be obvious to them at first.
With children ages 4 and 5, co-view the movie and talk back to the screen to model critical viewing. Your child will listen to what you say. Consider comments such as the following:
- “Everyone in Belle’s village keeps talking about how pretty Belle is. But they don’t realize she’s really smart and interesting, too! Maybe they should get to know her better.”
- “Wow, Gaston is way too focused on appearance. He only wants to marry Belle because he thinks she’s beautiful enough for him. That’s not a good reason to like somebody!”
With children ages 6 to 8, you can make these points while co-viewing, but later—perhaps over dinner or while in the car running errands—you can expand upon them and work towards a dialogue. Remembering to avoid yes/no questions, try something along these lines:
“When we were watching Beauty and the Beast this afternoon, I noticed that everyone in town is really focused on how pretty Belle is—but that doesn’t seem to make her happy. Why do you think she’s unhappy?” Give your child time to respond to this question; listen carefully to what she says and respond accordingly.
You might add, “Being pretty isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. Gaston says he loved Belle at first sight, but he didn’t know her very well. I think the way Belle and the Beast take the time to get to know each other is so much healthier than love at first sight. What do you think?” Listen to your child’s response and acknowledge her perspective, even if she disagrees with you.
Make it real: This would also be a good time to talk about healthy romantic relationships. Who in your social circle are good role models in this regard? Consider sharing the story of how you and your partner met and decided to get married, or that of an aunt and uncle or of family friends.
- The Gender Stereotypes
As a modern Disney Princess, Belle defies several stereotypes regarding feminine behavior. She’s not a passive damsel in distress; she’s smart, active, and courageous. Bring out these positive traits when talking with your children to show that you value them.
With children ages 4 and 5, praise Belle’s positive behavior as it happens on screen. Be as specific as possible. Here are some examples:
- “It’s good that Belle stands up to Gaston for herself and her father. ‘Don’t talk about my father that way’ was a good, clear thing to say to Gaston.”
- “Belle is so brave to go look for her father in the woods, and to speak up to the Beast when she finds him.”
- “I’m glad the Beast saved Belle from the wolves, and it was really kind of her to save him, too. She could have left him there after the wolves left, but she didn’t.”
With children ages 6 to 8, you can bring these things up as they happen, but you could also connect these dots in a later conversation. Try something like this:
“We’ve been watching Beauty and the Beast a lot lately, and I’ve noticed there are some really great things about Belle. She loves to read and she’s really smart. She wants adventure; she’s not looking to settle down with the first fellow who pursues her. And she’s very brave: she goes out and saves her dad from the Beast, and later, she saves the Beast from the townspeople. That’s very courageous.”
You might then ask your daughter, “Can you think of any people who are brave like Belle?” Listen to what she says and validate her ideas. Ask if she can think of a time when she has been brave about something. You could share a story about a time you spoke up on someone’s behalf, too.
Make it real: Use Belle’s bravery as a launching pad for a discussion about real courageous girls and women, historical and contemporary. Examples: Amelia Earhart fearlessly setting out to circumnavigate the globe; Malala Yousafzai’s courageous work as a girls’ education activist.
- The Romance Narrative and the Beast’s Bad Behaviors
We covered a positive aspect of Beauty and the Beast’s romance narrative in #1, above, while discussing the Pretty Princess Mandate: It’s great that Belle and the Beast don’t fall in love at first sight, but instead take time to get to know one another. That’s a terrific thing to highlight for our kids.
But children may also come away from Beauty and the Beast with an unhealthy message: that if a woman is patient and kind enough, her man will change for her. Unfortunately, in real life, expecting a romantic partner to change his established behavioral patterns is folly. People who are abusive tend to continue abusing others.
Make it clear that the Beast’s behaviors don’t fit your family’s values, and let your children know that they should never tolerate abuse.
With children ages 4 to 5, offer concrete points of criticism to let them know that you disagree with the Beast’s behaviors and support the way Belle stands up to him. For example:
- “I don’t like how quickly the Beast separates Belle and her father. They don’t even get to say goodbye. That would be very upsetting for both of them, wouldn’t it?”
- “I like that Belle doesn’t let the Beast make her eat dinner with him. She is a strong person!”
- “It seems like the Beast is too used to getting his own way. It’s not nice to be so selfish. He’s acting like a bully.”
- “Belle stands up so well to the Beast. I’m glad she doesn’t let him shout her down.”
With children ages 6 to 8, feel free to make these same observations while co-viewing, but plan a conversation about healthy relationships later on, when you’re not in front of the screen. For example, you might say:
“You know, I’ve been thinking about Beauty and the Beast, and something has been on my mind that I want to share with you. It’s really great that the Beast changes his attitude because of Belle and becomes kinder over time. But it’s important to me that you know something: Most of the time, people who start mean stay mean, and that there’s no reason to continue being friends with someone who doesn’t treat you right. Do you understand?”
Make it real: Ask follow-up questions to prepare your daughter for instances of bullying and other abusive behaviors she might encounter in real life.
You can ask, “If a friend yelled at you that way, what would you do?” Be sure your child knows that she can always talk to you, to a teacher, or to another trusted adult if someone is bullying her.
You can also ask, “If you saw someone treating one of your friends the way the Beast treats Belle in the beginning of the movie, what are some things you could say or do to help your friend?” See what your child can come up with on her own, and then brainstorm other ideas with her.
- The Race Stereotypes
Beauty and the Beast is based on a fairy tale that was first published in France in 1740. Therefore, it is set in provincial France in a time period when white people were the predominant population.
If raising children who are comfortable talking about race is one of your goals (see Chapter 6 of The Princess Problem for more info on this), you can discuss the racial composition of Beauty and the Beast with your children in a matter-of-fact, informational way. You might say something like this about the film:
“Did you ever notice that there are only white people in Beauty and the Beast—that there are no black people like there are in Doc McStuffins or The Princess and the Frog? That’s because the movie is based on a really old fairy tale that was written in France, which is the European country. A lot of white people in the United States have ancestors who originally came from Europe. This means that historically, almost all of the people in France were white; that would have been the case when that fairy tale was first written. But if you were to go to France today, you would see people of every color. Things have changed a lot since then, and that’s great! Diversity makes our world better and more interesting.”
- Teaching Children About Media Creation
As our children’s pop culture coaches, we can help them become media literate by always reminding them that media are created by other people—people who are making choices about what to depict on screen.
The opening song in Beauty and the Beast (titled “Belle”) offers a nice opportunity to discuss directors’ choices, because the color palette in that scene was chosen with care. Point this out to your child with commentary like this:
“Did you ever notice that in this song, Belle’s dress is blue, but nearly everyone else is wearing in shades of brown? Well, the directors did that on purpose, to make Belle stand out from the crowd. The song is all about how she is different from the townspeople, and by putting her in a dress that’s different, it helps the directors make that point. Isn’t that neat?”
The ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast (during the song “Beauty and the Beast,” sung by Angela Lansbury) also offers an opportunity to talk about media creation with older kids who understand computers. Let them know that when Beauty and the Beast was created, people made animated films by drawing all of the images we see on screen. But for the ballroom scene, Walt Disney Studios tried something new: They used a computer to animate the background. You can tell your child:
“At first, the people who are in charge of the studio, called ‘studio executives,’ weren’t sure they wanted to use any computer animation in Beauty and the Beast. They didn’t know if the quality would be as good as drawings done by hand. But you know what? The ballroom scene turned out so well that they decided to use computers more and more. Now, newer Disney films like Tangled and Frozen are completely created with computer animations!”
Watch a featurette about how Beauty and the Beast was animated by hand. It’s available on YouTube, and it’s also included as a bonus feature on some copies of Beauty and the Beast.