For a few sheltered years during my early childhood, I was enamored by Belle from Beauty and the Beast.
I mean, who wouldn’t be? I think my fascination with Belle is one that many young readers shared. While most of my friends preferred TV screens over pages, I was obsessed with reading. Belle shared that sentiment. In fact, Belle made reading cool. Disney made it pretty clear in the 90s movie that Belle’s love for reading expanded her imagination, gave her independence, and made her levels smarter than the villagers who mocked her love for learning in their “small provincial town.”
In the opening scenes, perhaps Belle’s most powerful choice was picking books over Gaston (in fact, she shuns him again in the second half of the movie). As a woman, Belle was set on learning more than becoming Gaston’s wife and tending to their family. She wanted to leave her close-minded town with her family and her books- a man was not part of the plan.
At the time, I didn’t know any better, but Belle was viewed by older viewers as more than a fierce intellectual: she was a feminist. A feminist so popular that her story was remade into a live-action film in 2017. It makes sense that she was portrayed by actress Emma Watson. Not only did Belle share the same feminist mentality as her actress, but she also shared many positive traits with Watson’s most famous character, Hermione Granger, who is seen as a strong, female leader in the Wizarding World.
A note: I grew up in the mid-2000s. Now, in 2018, it’s a lot more difficult to argue that Belle is a feminist.
To be fair, Belle was portrayed as a decently convincing feminist at the beginning of the film. Things did not seem to change until she met the Beast. Despite standing up for herself to the Beast by arguing she has taken away her freedom and independence, the story takes an ugly turn when she starts to fall in love with the Beast. Actually, no, it’s not love. In her search for comfort and company, Belle becomes attracted to her captor, more aptly known as Stockholm Syndrome.
Another aspect of the movie I have problems with is how Disney presents body image. I’m not just talking about Belle’s unrealistically skinny waist, a trademark of Disney’s golden age of animation and, well, male animators and creators (but that’s another problem for another day). It goes deeper than that. The entire reason why Belle’s town is fascinated with her is that she is known as remarkably pretty. They completely ignore her intelligence and wit. Likewise, while the Beast recognizes her character a little more, he and the palace staff still focus on her physical appearance.
This fascination with Belle’s appearance throughout the movie seems a little out of place for the Beast, as well as the message of the movie. Beauty and the Beast practically preaches that personality is more important than appearances. The film prides itself on teaching young viewers that staying true to what’s inside matters much more than your appearance– a sentiment shared by many people who practice body positivity. In particular, it would have been extremely impactful if this lesson was taught to boys, who are particularly prone to objectifying their female peers.
Instead, the movie contradicts itself by turning the Beast, who is supposed to be “ugly”, into a human. After that, he and Belle share a dance and a kiss, and we are left to assume that they get their happily ever after. Sure, Prince Adam is objectively more human and arguably more attractive, but that goes against the message that appearances shouldn’t matter. Disney had the opportunity to teach young children a valuable lesson, but they passed it over in favor of the objectively beautiful lead character who was praised for her beauty.
The girl who watched Beauty and the Beast in 2005 is much different than the girl who watched it again in 2018. I would consider myself who is much more educated and well-versed in feminism than my preschool-aged self. That being said despite me first watching the movie right after the start of the century, Beauty and the Beast is still a staple children’s film, which means the children of today are watching it, too. If we don’t change the media our children consume, how are we supposed to change the way they think?
(Featured image: Wallpaper Site)