Several weeks ago, my husband John and I watched The Breakfast Club with Emma and Lucas. I initially questioned whether or not the film would be good for them. The kids assured me they hear bad language in school all the time, and they know all about marijuana. Great. I feel so much better. But we decided to watch it together and then discuss it as a family.
The Breakfast Club is an all-time classic from my era. I watched it over and over with friends, and thought little about the overt theme that plays out in this movie. Now, as a grown woman and a mother, I have to admit, I’m less concerned about the swearing than I am the menacing bully who takes the movie by storm.
In The Breakfast Club, we've got a rebel bully with anger issues who comes from a terribly abusive family. He treats Molly Ringwald’s character, Claire, with overt disdain. He sexually harasses (and assaults) her, talks down to her, makes fun of her, and yet for some reason, she pursues him at the end of the movie. She kisses him in the closet where he’s been banished to, and gives him her diamond earring. It's all so picturesque. Or is it? Claire is sexually attracted to the guy who put his face up her skirt, and mocked her throughout the entire narrative.
After rewatching this popular and beloved teenage movie, I wonder: how should we deal with the Beauty and the Beast motif in our culture? Particularly, how do we deal with this motif in the era of #MeToo and #ChurchToo?
Don't get me wrong. There are some lovely aspects of the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. I like that the Beast transforms into a good prince and this happens primarily because a kind and loving girl becomes his friend. The problem is that our society seems to have a fetish with this narrative. We are besotted with the idea of good girls redeeming bad boys.
At first glance, this seems harmless. What’s wrong with the good girl who makes a lasting difference in the life of a bully? As a Christian egalitarian, and as a mother trying to raise a boy and a girl, this motif makes me nervous.
Molly Ringwald wrote a great essay on this entire subject in the New Yorker, where she admits once being more attracted to the bad guys than the good ones. She writes, “I was well into my thirties before I stopped considering verbally abusive men more interesting than the nice ones.” Case in point.
Literature does show us some good alternative narratives. Consider the difference between Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. While Mr. Darcy certainly has some arrogance to contend with, he’s still the foil to Mr. Wickham. Darcy is a good, virtuous man with a strong moral compass in contrast to Wickham, who is a terrible scoundrel in every way.
Or consider Anne of Green Gables and her friend, Gilbert Blythe. Eventually, Anne realizes Gilbert is the one she will be most at home with. But even with those good titles in our reservoir of literature, the Beauty and the Beast theme is too pervasive too ignore.
Take a good look at some of the most popular books in our culture. Books such as Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, and even The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks elevate this Beauty and the Beast motif. One of my favorite Christian novels as a young woman was A Voice in the Wind by Francine Rivers. In it, a pure, homely girl wins the love one of the most selfish, hedonistic men of the time. Her goodness wins him over, and changes his heart. While the book has beautiful qualities, its message is one we should treat with extreme caution.
In all these movies and books, the good girl sees the redeeming qualities of a rebel who she believes in, who she has "faith" in. Over the course of the movie or novel, the rebellious guy finds her goodness so appealing he falls in love with her. Over time, he makes changes to please her and therefore, keep her. I don't want to suggest this never happens in real life, but I do think we do great harm to women by perpetuating this message.
We're teaching them to romanticize harm, and minimize emotional and physical abuse. It’s as if we’re saying: abuse is tolerable if it's for the sake of redemption. We saw this same teaching from the Baptist leader who instructed a wife being abused to pray for her abusive husband's redemption and put up with his violence for the sake of his ultimate salvation. It's difficult to even find the words to describe how far this advice is from a healthy theology of redemption.
Beauty and the Beast teaches us to see past a bully’s exterior to the beautiful soul underneath. That’s all well and good. But it also encourages girls to push bullying behavior aside when they encounter it in boys and men, and it suggests that bullies can be wooed and won over by the unconscious goodness of females.
We're placing the onus for change on the wrong person. We're teaching rebellious boys that all they really need to make a heart-level change is a good girl. Women provide the magic men need to better themselves. The responsibility for men's inspiration to grow lies with women—in their ability to wait out men's “badness.”
Fast forward a few years into marriage, and the "bad boy" now sees “good girl” as a nag. She's not quite as adventurous in the bedroom as he'd like, and her sweetness fades. The magic wears off and he’s back to square one. He’s still the “rebel.” He’s still angry. And maybe he’s violent and controlling. He doesn’t know how to be good on his own because society taught him that it’s not his burden to bear. The abusive cycle continues.
We may think these stories are harmless. But they’re socializing our girls to choose men they must “redeem” over men who are already gentle and kind and ready to love without variation or shifting shadow. Instead of encouraging our girls to find power in the redemption of “beasts” and “bad boys,” we should be urging them to choose men who are faithful, respectful, emotionally competent, and consistent in thought, word, and behavior.
In Scripture, we read beautiful stories of God seeking out the lost ones, which is exactly how God is. As God's children, we must believe in redemption. We must work for it, and hope for change. But not so you can marry the man. Not because it will lead to “happily ever after.” We are never called to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of someone else’s redemption.
It’s time to stop telling an entire generation of women to find their power and identity in their ability “fix” the bad boy and save the abuser. It’s time to stop telling our girls that Beauty can redeem the Beast.