Representations of the Past and What You Can’t Un-know

As I was watching Beauty and the Beast (2017) this afternoon–the day of its release for at-home viewing–a thought occurred to me…. 

Beauty and the Beast is, of course, myth. Yet it has a time–roughly mid-18th century–and place–France. Like basically all such texts. The actors and actresses, of course, are all from 2017 and have embodied in them the world, in particular the European/White patriarchal world, of 2017. Hopes and fears. Good and bad.

My question then is what influence does it have on representations of the past that we have performers playing roles in times and places without electricity, current sanitation practices, computers, television, cars, wide-spread literacy, for example, when the everyday lives of these performers is inseparable from that world, the world of industrialism and postmodernism and social constructionism, the world of today. Even if said performer is very well versed in the necessary historical knowledge, they cannot un-know it to truly and accurately portray the past. 

Put very specifically: Emma Watson is a wonderful actress. But, how does her role as a celebrity, vocal feminist, active Twitter user, etc., etc., influence her role as Belle in 18th century France. Watson can’t un-known the world she lives in. The answer requires looking at the psychological unconsciousness and the historical unconsciousness.

A major tenant of film studies/cultural studies is that any cultural artifact provides more information about the time and place in which it originated compared to the time and place represented. The above is a new way to understand how disconnected any attempt at representing the past actually is when compared to the largely unknowable, which is what actually happened. 

Although a bit of a deviation from the overall topic of this blog, I was very interested in how Beauty and the Beast placed the emphasis on love between Belle and Beast when, historically speaking, romantic love originated over a century later. Beauty and the Beast is far from unique among such tales in rewriting the past with an emphasis on contemporary notions of romantic love–notions that are, historically and according to recent evidence–maybe already a thing of the past. 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda