I loved Disney’s Beauty and the Beast when I was a kid, and I couldn’t wait to see the recent remake. For a whole week afterward, I was humming my favorite tunes from the score.

But it wasn’t until last week that one of my students pointed out that the movie nicely illustrates many points of search theory: the study of how buyers and sellers find and select each other in markets where finding a trading partner is difficult (such as the job market or the marriage market). Allow me to give an economist’s review of the movie through the lens of this theory.

The opening song, “Belle,” gives a lot of insight into the marriage market that the protagonist, a young woman named Belle who loves to read and longs to travel, faces. The townsfolk remark, “Ahh, if it isn’t the only bookworm in town!”

And Belle laments,

“Little town, it’s a quiet village

Every day like the one before

Little town, full of little people…

…There must be more than this provincial life!”

Later, the townsfolk acknowledge,

“Now it’s no wonder that her name means ‘Beauty’

Her looks have got no parallel.”

And Belle’s arrogant suitor Gaston, a former soldier, also takes note, singing to his companion,

“Look at her, LeFou — my future wife

Belle is the most beautiful girl in the village

That makes her the best…

…Right from the moment when I met her, saw her

I said she’s gorgeous and I fell

Here in town, there’s only she

Who is beautiful as me

So I’m making plans to woo and marry Belle.”

Thick vs. thin markets

All of these observations give us a clue about the number of buyers and sellers in this market. If there are many options to choose from, economists would call it a “thick” market. This one, however, would be described as “thin.” There are few options for Belle and certainly none she is interested in. She loves to read and dreams of far-off adventures away from her little town.

Gaston’s prospects are not much better. There are a few damsels who would love to be his wife, but only one that meets his “reservation value” — that is, the minimum he will accept in order to end his search for a wife. The bar he has set is someone who is as attractive as him, and apparently, there’s only one — Belle.

His faithful companion, LeFou, foresees a problem with the match, though.

“But she’s so…well-read! And you’re so…athletically inclined.” LeFou inherently understands that it’s not enough for Gaston to be happy with the match. Belle must also agree. Here, we see another complication with the market for romance: a “double coincidence of wants” must be met in order for the market to clear. In other words, both parties must have something to exchange that the other wants. Gaston wants Belle as a marriage partner, but Belle does not want Gaston. The market doesn’t clear.

Search theory: Finding the perfect partner and the perfect job

Search theory applies to situations where buyers and sellers have difficulty finding each other. Finding a marriage partner (or a job) is usually not as simple as finding a loaf of bread in the grocery store. Every potential match has something different to offer — quality varies. And searching for your Prince Charming is costly in time, emotional energy, and other resources. The theory asserts that people don’t search indefinitely trying to find the perfect match. Instead, they search until their reservation value has been met.

Can you describe your perfect job? My guess is that it isn’t the one you have now. If you could magically change something about it — hours, location, benefits — you would. So why didn’t you keep looking for a job that met all your criteria for “perfect?” You understood that you would incur costs by continuing to search, and the job you have now was good enough to convince you to stop searching. Belle hadn’t met her “good enough” in her provincial town, but all that changed at the castle.

Once again, she met her potential partner’s criteria. “It’s a girl!” Lumiere, the Beast’s butler, exclaimed. It seems that trait was the only one necessary to qualify her as a potential spell breaker for the Beast.

The Beast’s reservation value was quite low. Why? His cost of searching was much higher. Without finding a match within a short period of time — before the last petal fell from the cursed rose — he would remain a beast forever. The only way to break the curse was to fall in love and be loved in return.

But what of Belle? Why did she want to be with the Beast? It could be that her prospects were even more limited than before. After all, she was supposed to spend the rest of her life in the castle where the Beast had imprisoned her in exchange for releasing her father. Or perhaps the Beast met her reservation value. It did seem that there was a turning point in the relationship when he showed the town “bookworm” his expansive library. What do you think?

Charity-Joy would like to thank Nicholas Pehrson for the inspiration behind this post.