Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Boys VS Books: A Tale as Old as Time

During the late 1980s and 1990s, The Walt Disney Company was actively trying to change it's image. Over the past several decades, it had struggled to make the caliber of movies they wanted to be known for. The stories they chose to animate - like The Black Cauldron and The Aristocats - failed to strike audiences as timeless and moving in the same way that their earlier efforts did. With this in mind, they decided to return to the faerie tales that made them famous in the first place.

But returning to this formula, they knew, needed to be different in the hip, happening times of the 80s and 90s than it had been back when Walt first let a 14-year-old Snow White pine for her prince. Princess Aurora was given the gifts of beauty and song by the faeries of old, but the modern princess needed a little more than that.

Their trial run was Ariel, the persistently spunky, but admittedly problematic, protagonist of The Little Mermaid. She was bold and feisty and bursting with personality! But...  sold her soul for the chance to meet a boy. This could have been okay, if Ariel had been responsible for correcting that mistake. But the honor of slaying the sea witch and uniting the lovers falls to the men around her - Eric and her father, King Triton.

As a result, Disney's first truly modern princess is often thought to be Belle. From her very introduction, the narrative drives home how DIFFERENT Belle is from the shallow archetypes that came before her. She has the gifts of beauty and song, but she gets another gift too. A book.

She really is a funny girl.
The book was meant to convey a lot of things. That she was a dreamer, that she wasn't shallow, but most importantly, that she was intelligent. She had imagination! She cared about more than the world immediately around her! That book served to humanize Belle, and you know what? We frickin' loved her for it.

Beauty and the Beast was the first animated feature to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. As much as we liked The Little Mermaid, the ultimate winner of the early Disney Renaissance was Belle. I still remember seeing this movie in theatres at the age of four, falling madly in love with it, and forever being a little sad that when I played Beauty and the Beast with my siblings, my older sister got to be Belle and I had to be Maurice.

Luminous, wonderful Belle! Bookish girls everywhere found someone to identify with in her. One of the most violent arguments that ever took place among my friends was over "who-was-who" in the Disney Princess line-up. Belle was one of (if not THE MOST) sought after characters. We all wanted to out-Belle each other. Incidentally, these were not arguments we had as children, but rather teen-agers. We hadn't moved on. Mulan stole a few of the would-be-Belle's into her camp, as she was equally smart, and with an added kick-butt element. But Belle's popularity has hardly waned.

She's a meeting point for many of the feminine contradictions that women admire (or are trained to admire). She's down-to-earth, but not above wearing a pretty ball gown when the mood suits her. She's tender, but demands to be taken seriously in return for her kindness. She's beautiful, but not shallow. She's smart, but also still enamored with faerie tales and whimsy. She's also dark haired and dark eyed, which statistically is what most women are, even the white ones. And of course, most of that characterization in some way ties back to her love of books.

In fact, Belle's love of reading has been problematized by recent commentary. Does Belle really have more agency than previous heroines? Is she truly a role model for a feminist generation? Or is she just distracting us from larger characterization issues by holding up a book? Is a "reading princess" really that much of a break away from the problems of the past?

Doesn't matter! Belle has a book! And it's no coincidence that this balanced, appealing view of femininity is tied to books because, really, girls and women are the readers of our day and age. Women make up the book clubs and the Oprah viewers and the YA-crossover readership. Woman have cultural systems set up surrounding reading and sharing books with each other that largely don't exist for men. The only man I have ever known who attended a book club was the one Hugh Dancy played in The Jane Austen Book Club and you might have noticed this example is fictional. (Oh my gosh, I forgot! I totally fall in love with fictional men. I'm so like Belle!)

This is not merely a cultural observation, but instead a terrifying battle that is affecting men and boys throughout the western world. The statistics are actually quite alarming. Study after study has shown that boys are falling behind girls in reading and literacy rates in the UK, the USA and Canada. For those who would like to take a quick tour of the issues facing boys in today's schools, here's a brochure the Ontario School Board released about the challenges of boys' literacy. And frankly, it's a trend that causes a fair degree of puzzlement.

How did this happen? Males are commonly understood to benefit from a host of increased privileges in our society, yet boys are behind in reading and writing, are entering post-secondary education at lower rates, are more likely to drop out of school than girls and form the bulk of special-education class participants. There was a time when all writers were male and their works intended for men. For most of history, men have been better educated than women, frankly because they've had better access. So if this is the narrative we're used to hearing - of male privilege and achievement - why is the trend we're seeing in schools so different now?

There are a myriad of possible reasons, and this essay won't attempt to describe them all now. Rather, I intend to address some of the sprawling issues around boys and reading over an ongoing series of posts. For now, I mean to point out that at the very least, cultural practices play a role in why boys (comparatively) don't read.

This might seem a strange discussion to frame around a movie like Beauty and the Beast, which is so clearly about a GIRL who reads. But isn't that the problem? Where is Disney's reading boy? Milo from Atlantis, maybe? No one liked that movie! Male heroes who make an impact on childhood culture almost never make it by modeling reading.

Interestingly, if you look at Beauty and the Beast closely, Belle only discusses books with men. She never sips a cup of tea with Mrs. Potts while she reads. She never stacks novels inside the Garderobe. Instead, Belle deals with men who face the most common problems associated with the battle of Boys VS Books today. They are...

THE BAKER: The boy who is "too busy" to read

Baker: Where you off to?
Belle: The bookshop! I just finished the most wonderful story about a beanstalk and an ogre and-
Baker: That's nice. Marie! The baguettes! Hurry up!

GASTON: The boy who can't find a book that he likes

Belle: Gaston, may I have my book, please?
Gaston: How can you read this? There's no pictures!
Belle: Well, some people use their imagination.

BEAST: The boy who feels self-conscious about his lack of ability

Beast: Could you read it again?
Belle: Well, here. Why don't you read it to me?
Beast: Uhhh... all right. Mmmm... erm... I can't.
Belle: You mean you never learned?
Beast: I learned! A little... it's just it's been so long.

So what do we do for them? The busy bakers, the grumpy Gastons and the bashful Beasts? The next posts in this series will try to answer each of those questions and tease out both the problems (and potential solutions) for helping boys become men who read.

I'm aware that Beauty and the Beast probably didn't intend to be a story about the challenges boys face in their efforts to read. The movie certainly isn't sympathetic to either Gaston or the Baker's literacy plights. But regardless, the movie did something that art can do inadvertently, and that's shine a light on our own cultural baggage. In this case, the way that books are presented to boys and girls. While Belle is free to love books and commended for her obsession, the men around her are largely at odds with books.

But if there's one thing Belle can teach us, it's that a book-lover might be lurking anywhere. Even in a beastly little boy. Let's see if we can get books and boys back on the same page again!


  1. Was Belle commended for reading/loving books? As I recall, people were at least impartial to her reading or, in the case of Gaston, she was mocked for it. Sure, the Beast opens up about his illiteracy, but there's a deeper relationship and trust there.

    I was going to write a whole long thing about my thoughts on the subject of boys and books, considering I have always been a reading boy. I decided it would be better to see where you went and comment in piecemeal as future posts appear to warrant any input from me.

    1. Haha, yeah, there are a LOT of comments to come.

      As for my comments about Belle being commended for her love of books, that is of course not how the town's people react to her in the opening of the film, but once she reaches the castle, it's treated positively. More importantly, she was commended for it OUTSIDE of the narrative; ie, by audiences. It was definitely a move to make her more appealing to an audience.

      I'd actually argue that what's done with the townspeople is a very common tactic in fiction where a characteristic that is desirable, but actually rather typical of the main character's demographic, is presented as revolutionary or unusual so that people in that demographic can congratulate themselves for being like the hero. Simply put, book reading women like to see themselves as unique for their love of books, but it's actually a pretty common personality for a young woman or girl. So we like seeing our bookish heroines first as outcasts, but then ultimately adored for their bookishness.

    2. I guess I assumed that everyone outside the story commended her for reading, so I was only thinking of in the story. As for the reason that it's made a deal at all, what you said makes sense.