In honor of BYU’s December stage production of “Beauty and the Beast,” we will be looking at the lovely beauties and the brutish beasts on our weekly television screens. And luckily, we have a slew to choose from. Courtesy of our twin site, FTTV.byu.edu, we are able to trace the tale’s appearance on numerous shows from Rocky & Bullwinkle to Saturday Night Live to even Muppet Babies.
In this post we will concentrate our efforts into the shipping (as in relation-ship) juggernaut that is “Rumbelle,” the shipping name of Rumpelstiltskin and Belle from ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Wait, you say—Rumpelstiltskin as the beast protagonist? Well, it is Once Upon a Time, which means that yes, Rumpelstiltskin is the Beast, and Crocodile, and Fairy Godmother, and Dark One, all rolled into one glittering character. Literally: his skin glitters as part of his Dark One’s curse. A curse his true love, Belle, continually tries to break. But this fairy tale power couple has an unfortunate unbalance of power which results in this being a very problematic—perhaps even abusive—relationship.
Now that said, stay calm Rumbelle shippers: I’m a Rumbelle shipper, too. I’ve been hooked from their first titanically romantic episode, “Skin Deep.” The visuals were particularly stunning in that episode, with Belle’s golden dress and dark hair absorbing the warmth in the paneling of Rumpelstiltskin’s dark castle. Watching it you think of fireplaces and roses and other sentimental things. And then there is the sheer cosmic force that is the chemistry between the two leads, Robert Carlyle and Emile de Ravin; de Ravin was only supposed to be brought on as a guest actress but the reaction to her character and their relationship secured her a character throughout all of the seasons.
But as talented as Carlyle is, and boy is he ever talented, his likability cannot counter Rumpelstiltskin’s abuse—flashbacks show him locking her up, submerging her waist-deep in ground, and physically shaking her. Then there’s the reveal that Rumpelstiltskin murdered his own wife for wanting to leave him.
Yikes! This is less Beast and more Bluebeard.
And yet Belle stayed with him. This is where TV.com reviewer Lily Sparks slams OUAT’s choices, citing real abusive relationships where the abused went back to the abuser (Rihanna and Chris Brown). “When the Beastliness was the metaphor for physical deformity,” Sparks writes, “Belle’s love was noble and pure. When the Beastliness becomes a metaphor for abuse and cruelty, Belle’s love becomes delusional and unhealthy. It happens in real life all the time, and the belief OUAT keeps holding up as the ultimate message, that people can change, is one that leaves actual bodies in its wake here in the real world.”
And de Ravin’s Belle (whom I love with all my heart) certainly fits the bill of an abusive victim. Poor Belle, who is continually locked up or physically hit by almost every character on the show: Rumpelstiltskin, Regina, Hook, Ruby, her own father, even recently by Merida. Another recurring theme with Belle is to have characters drug her or magically erase her memory to tamp down her agency.
Belle is a brave character but she is always powerless, always off-balance. Popular Rumbelle fanfiction seeks to counter this, with some writing that Belle’s marriage status to the Dark One gifts her with some dark powers of her own. Or some fanfiction writes that Belle and Rumplestiltskin share their secrets, are honest with their pasts and futures and stand united against the threats that face them. A Belle who knows the Dark One’s plan is less manipulated than one who doesn’t, after all.
Last season, after a reveal that Rumpelstiltskin not only had been deceiving Belle throughout their entire marriage but that he also threatened harm to the town, their love fell like a house of cards. Belle left Rumpelstiltskin and bravely, pivotally, banished him across the town line. Recently, Belle even had a new pseudo-love interest (but as that character has a canon “true love” in ABC’s Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, I don’t hold out hope). But now Rumpel’s back in town and although he doesn’t have his Dark One powers, the focus in their relationship seems to be on Rumpel’s “cowardice.” Which alright, I’m sure cowardice is at the root of a lot of Rumpel’s problems (afraid your wife will leave? Well, kill her!) but OUAT’s last episode “The Bow and the Bear” accepts the simple surface solution of Rumpel being brave in physically defending Belle. And bravery is great, but honestly the bigger picture here is his abusive and murderous tendencies.
And for the Rihannas and Chris Browns of the world, we as an audience need to face this bigger picture. Because Rumpelstiltskin and Belle look poised to get together again and as much as I turn to tumblr to look at Rumbelle screencaps, they cannot be each other’s “True Loves” and have a relationship this destructive, this unhealthy. We as viewers (and the couple themselves) need to have “the Talk” about this beastly love.