The first image of Belle in Beauty and the Beast is of a girl longing to escape a provincial town to find adventure in any place beyond the bounds of her status quo world. She is gifted with imagination and the ability to read which sets her apart as a “funny girl.”
Belle is an outcast. Think of her as the daughter of a loving father, too obsessed with his invention to take care of himself. This, of course, does little to help the townsfolk identify with her, because up until the last ten to fifteen years, nothing has driven “normal” people away like mental illness.
Add to this the fact that the local pretty boy, the ultra popular and, obviously, narcissistic and affluent enough to spend his entire life hunting, Gaston, wants to marry her just because she’s the prettiest woman in town, making her the target of jealousy by the shallow-minded maidens who spend all their time swooning over him.
While most people in town just shake their heads at Belle and leave her and her family alone, all it takes is Gaston deciding he wants to force Belle to marry him, and the whole town turns homicidal.
Disney holds no corner on this theme. Many westerns also portray this theme of provincial mobs, the mass of borderline ignorant, small town humanity ready to pounce on any outsider who threatens their status quo.
While Beauty and the Beast portrays the vindictiveness of these groups, Westerns like Shane depict the ingratitude of townsfolk.
Shane is a gunfighter riding out of an unknown past into the world of the main character, Bobby Starret. When a local cattle baron decides to drive the homesteaders out of the area, Bobby learns from his father and Shane how to face fear and stand up to the bullies in one’s life.
However, after the final battle of the story, Shane, acting in response to a rant given by Bobby’s mother, leaves without a single word of gratitude expressed by the town in the wrap-up chapter.
In the movie version of Shane, there’s a scene at the graveside of one of the homesteaders murdered by the cattle baron’s hired gunfighter, where the farmers come to the consensus that they are leaving rather than risk death themselves.
Shane, in a typical patriotic ode of 1950s cinema, tries to get them to understand that you have to stand up to the bullies in life. Unfortunately, his speech falls on deaf ears.
It’s like those situations in life when despite all indications to the contrary, most people would sooner tolerate the bully than risk even social death.
Doesn’t that sound like your typical coming-of-age grade school or high school story?
It should, because it is. High school never ends, especially in small towns.
Alliances created in school carry on through past marriages and children because nobody moves away. These adults fumbled their way through becoming friends in childhood and then never had to practice that skill until they went away to college or trade school. Some people never leave their hometown.
My small town has a two-year college in the city limits. The nearest four-year college is an hour and a half away, not far enough to mandate living away from home. Because of the prevalence of family businesses in the area, these graduates go straight into a profession where they already know their coworkers and all of their customers.
When a new person comes to town, roughly half of the locals don’t know how to read, let alone talk to them.
I saw this phenomenon with a coworker who chose to move away for college. Prior to her first semester, she wouldn’t give me the time of day. After her freshman year, she said hello to me for the first time in the two years we worked together. Now, we chat like good friends.
My Grade 11 English teacher loved to preach to her students about getting out of your comfort zone. This was mainly in the context of Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken”. As one of the few students who switched schools, I rolled my eyes at that attitude, thinking the whole concept was overrated.
At that time, and even now, I can’t recall when I had that “safe zone”, but now I understand the difference that made in me compared to others. So, yes, Ms. K. You were right, but I still think you were preaching to yourself, in part.
In the Facebook writing groups I follow, I’ve seen plenty of questions about what small towns are like. My own small town has seen an influx of people from the West Coast seeking the “simpler life.”
Some will be fortunate to miss the reality I see and live their lives here in a modern version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry or Beaver Cleaver’s Mayfield, both probably named for the rosy spring month on purpose.
Others will learn that small, insular towns like this one are an over-sized version of high school complete with Gastons, cattle barons and all-around bullies maneuvering their stooges against any force who threatens their control over the people around them. I can only wish them luck and recommendations. The rest, they’ll have to figure out for themselves.