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Monday, March 20, 2017

Love as a Means to an End (My Thoughts on “Beauty and the Beast”)

Chinese movie poster for "Beauty and the Beast." (美女与野兽)

[content note: spoilers for “Beauty and the Beast” and “Frozen”]

I saw the new “Beauty and the Beast” movie, and as a 90’s kid who grew up on Disney, I totally loved it. So much nostalgia. Seriously, if the cartoon “Beauty and the Beast” was an important part of your childhood, you have to see this new movie.

And I want to talk about the concept of love as a means to an end. Because you see, in “Beauty and the Beast”, the curse that turned the prince into a “beast”* and his staff into furniture could only be broken if he learned to love someone and get them to love him too. This creates a very very weird situation where love is not necessarily something that is seen as valuable in and of itself, but it is a step in the process to reach the goal of turning into a person again.

And first of all, I’d like to point out how incredibly strange it is that everyone assumes the love that can turn him into a human has to be romantic love. At the beginning of the movie, the prince was turned into a “beast” because he was a jerk to everyone; in particular, he refused to help an old woman looking for a place to stay. That has nothing to do with romantic love. Why on earth would romantic love be the one type of love that would teach him to be a better person and undo the curse? What if, for example, the “beast” learned to show kindness to poor people who came to him asking for help? Wouldn’t that be a more fitting way to atone for his previous heartlessness?

Actually, that's the direction that "Frozen" went, and I LOVED IT. In the movie “Frozen,” we are told that only “an act of true love” can save Anna’s life, and the characters in the movie work hard to help her find a male love interest that can kiss her, because obviously that’s what “an act of true love” means, right? But no, in the end, she was saved because of the love between her and her sister. I totally loved that ending. We need movies like that because in our culture, people have this idea that the very best form of love is romantic love. Which is just not true.

Anyway, back to “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s weird that the prince is supposed to get a woman to fall in love with him as a means to an end. That’s not what love is. And I really really appreciated the bit where Belle asks how the curse can be broken, and offers to help, and the castle servants (who are various household objects) refuse to tell her. They do NOT say, “he has to get someone to love him,” because that would be extremely coercive and unethical to put Belle in a situation like that (even though that is technically what they are doing, in a less direct way).

But the movie is aware of how messed-up it is to try to make love happen as a means to an end, and that’s why we have the part where the “beast” lets Belle leave. Instead of continuing his efforts to woo her, the “beast” sees that Belle really cares about her father and needs to go help him- and because he loves her, he decides that’s more important than his curse ending. (You guys, I cried when the “beast” sang the song about Belle leaving.) He lets her go. Really. No strings attached. Of course he wants her to come back, but he has no power to force her to.

That’s what love is. So yes, the movie understands that love isn’t just “two people meet and start this sweet romantic relationship”- real love allows the relationship to end when that’s what’s best for the other person.

(The backstory with Belle’s mother is also an example of “sometimes love means letting the relationship end” but way more heartbreaking.)

I’ve seen several examples of this concept of “love as a means to an end” in evangelical Christianity. First, there’s the idea that the secret to finding a spouse is loving God. I’ve heard a lot of stories like this: “I was so desperate to find a person to marry, but then I stopped pursuing that and focused on loving God instead. And then, right when I least expected it, when I had learned to be content in God and wasn’t even looking for a partner anymore, God brought this person into my life and we are married now.” These stories are often presented as advice for single people, as the “secret” to finding a partner to marry. Think about that: The message is “you need to love God, and then after you do that, God will give you a spouse.” But how real can your love for God really be, if you’re doing it for the purpose of getting the reward of a perfect marriage?

Actually, back when I was “on fire for Jesus,” I pushed back against this idea. It was very very important to me that I loved God just because loving God is an amazing thing in and of itself, that it brings so much more meaning and happiness than a romantic relationship could. Being single was an important part of my testimony because it was proof that God really was “all I need.” I worried that if I got into a romantic relationship, people would think, “She’s so devoted to God, and finally she’s getting her happy reward for it” which would be totally wrong.

Another big example of “love as a means to an end” is the idea of loving God in order to escape hell. If you’re explaining why people need to become Christians, you could go the “my relationship with God is the best thing ever and I just want everyone to experience that happiness” route or the “if you don’t get saved, you will suffer in hell forever” route. And if your ideology includes a hell for people who don’t believe the correct things, then no one is truly free to choose or reject God. Their choice to love God can’t be separated from their desire to avoid eternal punishment. Can anyone really love God under these conditions?

(Christians who believe in hell, let me ask you this: What if heaven and hell were reversed? What if you could live your earthly life in relationship with God, with all the love and purpose and meaning that came from that, but it means after you die you go to hell? Is your love for God great enough that you would still choose it, even if it meant you go to hell? If not, maybe don’t go around claiming that hell isn’t a huge motivating factor in your reasons for being a Christian.)

In all of these examples- “Beauty and the Beast”, loving God in order to get a spouse, and loving God in order to escape hell- people believe the ideal resolution is to love, to love in such a way that’s so real and true that you no longer care about the supposed reward, and you also get the reward in the end but that’s no longer your real motivation. Which makes for a nice happy ending, but at the same time, the desire for happiness and self-preservation is a completely legitimate thing, and I don’t like how all of these “happy endings” require you to stop treating that as a goal that is worth pursuing.

Really, there can be no good resolution when love is merely a step in the process toward achieving some goal related to one’s own happiness or survival.

But wait. There’s a problem with the point I’m making here.

What about marriage?

See here’s the thing. A lot of people have a desire to get married, but they would only want to marry someone they really love. And a lot of people have a desire to have sex, but they would only want to have sex with someone they really love. (Note: I don’t think there’s anything immoral about choosing to have sex with someone you don’t have super-deep love for. Just, you know, be honest, treat them with basic human decency, and that’s fine.) And those desires are very normal and legitimate. (Please note, however, that asexual and aromantic people exist.) And the idea of only being willing to do it with someone you love is also legitimate.

So here we have a problem, don’t we? People have marriage or sex as a goal, and in order to reach that goal, they need to love someone and get that person to love them too. But didn’t I just say that it’s really messed-up to treat love as a means to an end, as some kind of intermediate step in reaching one’s own personal goals? But yet, desires for marriage or sex (and standards about certain levels of love and commitment before doing those things) are perfectly normal and healthy. So what can we do about this seeming contradiction?

For one thing, if love is a requirement for you to get married or have sex, then you have to also be okay with not having those things. You can’t force anyone to love you- that’s not love. You may have to live without those things for a long time.

At the same time, there are actions you can take to increase your chances of finding someone who can love you and who could potentially be interested in marriage or sex. (Like purposely going to places where you can meet people who are likely to share your interests.) Love means you want someone else to be happy, so what you need to do is find someone who also has that desire for marriage or sex- then there’s a possibility it would make them happy to do those things with you. And those are pretty common desires, so in many cases the goal is achievable.

But the key is that, even if you find a partner who desires marriage or sex with you, in the future the situation might change and they might not desire those things anymore. And love means you do what’s best for them. Like the “beast” did when he let Belle leave.

This is actually an important thing I need to think about, since I’m getting married soon: Under what circumstances would we choose to get divorced? My view on this is that we love each other, and that love is more important than the marriage itself. If in the future the situation somehow changes so that it would be healthier for both of us if the relationship ended, then that’s what we would do.

Love should be seen as a good thing in and of itself. To treat it as a means to an end necessarily twists it into something that isn't love. And yet, our own happiness and health often depend on other people loving us- and our happiness and health are good things, things that we definitely should work hard to achieve. It seems that, for practical reasons, we can't completely avoid treating love as a means to an end.

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*I put “beast” in scare quotes because I just LOVED the line where the “beast” says to Gaston, “I’m not a beast!” Perhaps the real beast in this movie is Gaston, who literally says women are his “prey.”

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