I was 12 years old when Disney’s Beauty and the Beast first premiered. Two weeks ago, I watched the live-action remake with my daughter who serendipitously also happens to be 12. Her response to the fairy tale was similar to mine when I first saw it: She sat starry-eyed in awe of the independent, intelligent girl who makes her way through the world in search of adventure and love. But two decades ahead of her, I watched a different story—a story, not so much of independence, but of dependence; a story about how we must live in community in order to know and, yes, even be ourselves.
How Community Shapes Us
The remake of Beauty and the Beast stays remarkably close to the original while offering up a slightly more autonomous Belle along with an extended back story. But in the end, it is the same story: the cursed beast, the precocious young woman, the parochial village, and the enchanted castle. Despite being the same story, however, there was “something there that wasn’t there before.” As an adult, I couldn’t help but see how the Enchanted Castle mirrors the larger institutional decay of western society, showing us how we are slowly but surely morphing into either machines or beasts. And just below the surface, the film offers a deeper truth about how human identity forms—a truth that might very well help us chart a path forward in the midst of decay.
Initially, the most obvious identity under threat is the Beast’s, his crisis stemming from a radical individualism. By pursuing selfish decadence in his youth, he has brought himself under a curse; by acting like a beast, he is condemned to be one. Only when he learns to love and be loved will he return to his former humanity.Whether it is sexual identity or religious identity, our sense of self must take shape both internally and externally.
But the story of Beauty and the Beast is more than a narrative of individual redemption. When the Beast was cursed, the Castle’s inhabitants were cursed as well. In an interesting addition, the new version reveals the Castle’s inhabitants to be both victims and perpetrators. Mrs. Potts admits to Belle that they saw the young prince becoming beastly and did not intervene because they feared his father. In an attempt to save themselves, they sacrificed the young prince. In failing to protect his humanity, they lost their own.
This vision of human identity tracks closely with the Christian understanding of our identity as image bearers. Genesis 1 teaches that God created mankind “in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (emphasis added). As humans, we are at once individual and communal; to be image bearers, we must exist in community with other image bearers. Because of our dual nature, both radical individualism as well as group conformity can jeopardize our sense of self. To lose the individual is to lose our humanity; but to lose community is to lose our humanity as well.
While not as obvious as the Beast’s, Belle experiences a parallel crisis of identity. Like the Beast, Belle is an outlier; but unlike the Beast, she doesn’t struggle to live in her full humanity because of a loss of virtue, but because the Village has rejected her. Her independence and intelligence are a threat to established norms, leading the Villagers to name her a “funny girl.” Ultimately, the dissonance between Belle’s internal sense of self and the Villagers’ rejection propels Belle to question her own identity. “Am I… odd?” she asks her father in a moment of emotional vulnerability.
In this sense, both the Village and the Castle represent the effect that toxic communities can have on our humanity. Such communities happily sacrifice the individual to maintain their collective comfort. Whether it’s ancient human sacrifices to appease the gods or a church that covers up abuse to avoid scandal, toxic communities will sacrifice the individual for the sake of the whole—all while conveniently forgetting that the individual is at once both an individual and part of the whole. By destroying the individual, they necessarily harm the community.
In the end, Belle’s identity is affirmed by her father, the Beast, and a repentant Castle community. As the Beast and the Castle inhabitants move from wanting to use Belle to break the curse to seeking her good, they free her to leave. And only then, when the community learns to seek her good, can she seek theirs in return.
Identity in Plurality
The dissonance between our individual sense of self and the community’s sense of who we are also explains the controversy surrounding Beauty and the Beast. Shortly before release, director Bill Condon confirmed that the character of LeFou (played by Josh Gad) had been interpreted as a gay man, and Condon hinted at an “exclusively gay moment.” Religious conservatives quickly called for a boycott. Here was yet one more example of a progressive agenda being forced upon us, a subtle indoctrination of our children, they cried. In response to the backlash, others asked, Can we not live and let live?
Underneath such cultural conflicts is the hard fact that identity grows from both who we believe ourselves to be and who the community around us tells us we are. This is also why the debate about sexuality has centered on gay marriage and why, despite the Obergefell decision, the question is far from resolved. Marriage is not simply about legal rights or equal protection. Marriage is an act of identification, the process of making a private reality a public one. When a couple marries, they are making a covenant with the community to affirm and establish their new shared identity.
Correspondingly, when conservatives argue for the religious freedom to NOT affirm gay marriage, progressives cannot extend it because they instinctively know the role that community plays in forming our sense of self. Whether it is sexual identity or religious identity, our sense of self must take shape both internally and externally. It is not enough to love your gay partner in your heart; it is not enough to oppose gay marriage in your heart. To simply live and let live is the individualist’s pipe dream.
Given the dilemma of human identity, communities will often pursue conformity as a means of silencing the dissonance. Conversely radical individualism fights back by flouting communal norms in an effort to establish internal identity. But neither leads to becoming fully human because each cuts off an essential component of human identity. So how shall we then live?
If we cannot live and let live, perhaps we could learn to love and be loved.
Christianity offers a model of human identity that goes beyond the dualism of radical individualism and group conformity. Within the core doctrines of the Christian faith reside a vision of existence that is based on love and sacrifice. I show you a mystery: In the Trinity, each person is distinct and yet dependent. In the Atonement, the individual willingly sacrificing himself for the sake of the community—not out of compulsion, but out of love. And in the Church, a body with many members honors the unique contributions of each in order to work together as an integrated whole.
In the wake of increasingly polarized society, some have called for a confident pluralism—the ability to live side by side with neighbors with whom we disagree. But confident pluralism requires more than striking a balance between individual and group needs or holding our tongue. It requires that we all do the hard work of being human, that we all do the hard work of love. Confident pluralism can only happen as the individual seeks the good of the community while the community simultaneously seeks the good of the individual.
This is no small task. But it is iron striking against iron that shapes and molds us into our truest selves. Radical individualism and group conformity allow us to bypass this process, ensuring that we will never be fully human. But what individualism and conformity cannot do, love and sacrifice can. And if Beauty and the Beast teaches us anything, it’s that the curse will be lifted as we learn to love and be loved.