Where Beauty Reigns and Belle Is Still Reined In...
No subtle feminist tweaks can rehabilitate Disney's "tale as old as time..."
Posted Mar 31, 2017
Full disclosure: I went to see Disney's Beauty and the Beast in part to sing along under my breath to the catchy, up-tempo songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (as did the woman sitting next to me, apparently), but also to see whether the live-action remake of the 1991 animated movie, currently breaking box office records, would deliver on its promises to up the feminist ante of the original (the bar was low). And, to see whether the basic plot points would read any more or less “problematically” in 2017.**
According to the ubiquitous advance press, the film had some key tweaks inspired by Emma Watson, who plays the title role, and who has become known for her commitment to gender egalitarian ideals. As noted in this Vanity Fair cover story, Watson even invited Gloria Steinem to see the film, who noted, “It was fascinating that [Watson’s] activism could be so well mirrored by the film.” Leaving aside that Watson’s Belle seems—improbably—less dynamic and believable than her animated predecessor (was she aiming for enervated ennui as feminism?), and leaving aside the bonus of increased ethnic diversity in this version, Steinem’s characterization is generous at best.
For example, there was the widely publicized shift, described in the article above: “In the original Disney movie, Belle is an assistant to her inventor father, but here she’s a creator in her own right, developing a ‘modern washing machine that allows her to sit and read.’” Her ground-breaking innovation turns out to be tethering a donkey to a barrel that spins the clothes and gives her time to teach another young girl to read. Laudable, for sure, but not quite the cover of Popular Mechanics I was hoping for. Besides the donkey-washing machine, Belle’s skill set lies in knowing which tools to hand her father before he knows himself, whether he’s fixing a clock or picking the lock of the wagon in which they are trapped (her hair pin, natch).
Watson’s own ideas also apparently inspired an update from Belle’s 1991 ballet slippers to riding boots (always a good plan), and “bloomers” for riding. The latter are all but imperceptible underneath the dresses she wears to ride. When she dashes off to warn the Beast of an angry village mob, she does shed the iconic yellow gown in what feels like a vaguely satisfying act of liberation. However, because she is left wearing thin white undergarments (not unlike the ones she's sporting on the Vanity Fair cover, in fact) for the remainder of the extended action sequence, rather than appreciating the sensibility of this update, I was distracted thinking how cold and vulnerable she must have felt in the snow, in her underwear.
The primary and still-disturbing plot-line of captor turned love interest is still quite intact, although in 2017, Belle is less a wide-eyed, sobbing hostage and more an indignant, make a get-away rope out of an ornate gown kind of gal (before being distracted by the allure of a warm, albeit enchanted, dinner). The Beast, too, is dialed down in his ferocity, leading The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane to lament, “he’s not scary.” The romance is nevertheless disconcerting. Belle’s second foiled attempt at escape is due to apparent guilt/obligation to the Beast, who is injured saving her from the wolves that attack her on her way through the woods. The fact that the Beast’s capricious decision to imprison her father and then Belle is the reason she was almost killed by wolves in the first place seems trivial, especially when they bicker good-naturedly later (“If you hadn’t frightened me, I wouldn’t have run away!”). Their rapport then progresses in an awkward if sweet, teenage fashion, helping us (and Belle) to forget her predicament entirely. We are reminded only when she (tenderly?) tells the Beast, who asks if she could possibly be happy with a creature like him, “can anybody be happy if they aren’t free?” (oh right).
Belle even chides herself in song: “There’s something sweet, and almost kind, but he was mean and he was coarse and unrefined, and now he’s dear and so unsure, I wonder why I didn’t see it there before” (um…because he was mean and coarse and unrefined?!). All sarcasm aside, the most insidious interpretation of this dynamic is that not only should earlier aggression be forgiven in light of better behavior, but that if you can’t see the best in someone who behaves badly *you’re* the one who is missing something.
And of course, like any Disney movie (and so many others), the climactic romantic turning point hinges on an inevitable princess “makeover.” No longer wriggling out of the enchanted wardrobe’s first attempt to dress her in finery, Belle seems to find inner peace donning that perfect-fit yellow ball gown for date night with the Beast. Despite the intended moral that we should not be taken in by someone’s superficial exterior, the story conveys a powerful paradoxical message about the value of inner beauty; namely, that it appears to manifest as outer beauty. We are supposed to see beyond the Beast’s appearance (and behavior) to his misunderstood heart of gold (his father was a major jerk after all), and we are supposed to see beyond Gaston’s handsome physique to his heart of stone. However, these messages are eclipsed by their opposite.
The “ugly” (read: old and poor) beggar woman transforms into a beautiful enchantress once she is rebuffed by the haughty prince (that’ll teach him!), and the Beast returns to his handsome human form as a reward for winning Belle’s love (reinforcing the unhealthy notion that aggressive, rejecting men can and should be “tamed” with a little TLC). Belle is, as her name suggests, beautiful through and through (despite the villager’s encouragement not to be fooled by her “fair façade”)-indeed, her entrance to the castle is trumped by a staff remark (something to the effect of), “look, it’s a beautiful girl!” She automatically fits the bill for breaking the spell because of her appearance, as though love stories only happen to beauties. Thus, there is more than a kernel of truth to Gaston’s vapid commentary: “She’s the most beautiful girl in the village, and *that* makes her the best.”
Also eclipsed by the romantic story-line is Belle’s passionate bid: “I want adventures in the great wide somewhere, I want it more than I can tell; and for once it might be grand, to have someone understand, I want so much more than they’ve got planned.” Perhaps the romantic awakening she experiences with the Beast is meant as an antidote to the “provincial life” she is desperate to escape, but when all is said and done, the grand coup of the movie seems to be avoiding marrying the wrong person (Gaston) in favor of the right one (the Beast/Prince). At least with a giant library and, okay, a magic mirror she can imagine she is wandering the globe? Of course romance can be a form of adventure in its own right, but playing house with the Beast appears to completely assuage Belle’s original disaffected wanderlust.
But wait, you say, they both love books! Surely this is a substantive angle? Even Steinem offers, “It’s this love of literature that first bonds the Beauty to the Beast, and also what develops the entire story.” But Belle doesn’t consume just any literature so eagerly, she specifically loves romantic tales (Romeo and Juliet, and another unnamed favorite part of a favorite story: “here’s where she meets Prince Charming, but she won’t discover that it’s him ‘til Chapter 3…”). She is delighted when she “catches” the Beast enjoying the love story of Guinevere and Lancelot, despite his initial disdain for romantic stories, and his protest that he’s reading about “knights and men and things” before conceding her point. Romance is, of course, a legitimate and compelling genre and can be both empowering and exciting, but there is a reinforcing meta-narrative in this tale that bears mentioning: we are consuming Belle’s traditional (twisted) love story while she consumes others. Interestingly, this marks a less progressive shift from the animated version in which Belle delights in her favorite book for its “far-off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a Prince in disguise!” It seems since 1991, her tastes have gotten a bit narrower.
At the end of the day, it’s a Disney movie about an 18th century (?) French village, how gender-progressive might we expect it to be, and why does it matter? For one thing, we are still flocking to see it in 2017 (according to a recent Observer article the film is “rocketing toward towards a 1billion dollar box office gross”), and it is still being well-received (7.8/10 on IMDB and an 86% Audience score on Rotten Tomatoes). However out of date it may seem on the surface, this film continues to be perceived as relevant and entertaining. For another, movie narratives, characters, and images become powerful templates that inform how we think about ourselves and each other, particularly when we are young. What does it mean to be “fearless” (as Belle’s father emphatically describes her deceased mother)? What does it mean to be beautiful? How much should we forgive male roughness? How much should we give up for romantic love? What do young girls, who may have already imprinted on Watson’s Hermione (from the Harry Potter series), leave the theater hoping for, feeling excited about? Is it more than a yellow dress and a happily-ever-after romance?
Research suggests not only that admiration for female characters is linked to their perceived attractiveness (Hoffner, 1996; Hoffner & Buchanan, 2005), but that young women who admire female media figures also report increased appearance anxieties (Harrison, 1997; Greenwood, 2009). At best, films like Beauty and the Beast may reinforce the message that beauty is a necessary, if not sufficient, ingredient for being valued and admired. Moreover, frequent consumers of romantic-themed movies (after accounting for gender) tend to have idealized perspectives on love—believing that “love finds a way” (Lippman, Ward, & Seabrook, 2014). While optimism can help bring out the best in our romantic partners, believing that “if another person and I love each other we can overcome any differences and problems that may arise” can be a liability if it keeps one persevering in a destructive relationship. Finally, men (and male movie-goers) should not be shamed for taking an interest in romance, nor should romance be pejoratively considered female-only (read: trivial) territory—research shows boys who believe that Beauty and the Beast is “for girls” enjoy a clip of the film less than girls who share that belief (Oliver & Green, 2001). But, it is equally important to expand the boundaries of that “great wide somewhere” to give us all more room to run…in our sensible shoes.
**The outdated, tongue in cheek, caricatured nod to homosexuality and drag in the film that nevertheless inspired a preemptive ban from a drive-in movie theater in Alabama merits its own discussion.
Greenwood, D. N. (2009). Idealized TV friends and young women’s body concerns. Body Image, 6, 97-104.
Hoffner, C. & Buchanan, M. (2005). Young adults' wishful identification with television characters: The role of perceived similarity and character attributes. Media Psychology, 7, 325-351
Lippman, J. R., Ward, L. M., & Seabrook, R. C. (2014). Isn’t it romantic? Differential associations between romantic screen media genres and romantic beliefs. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3, 128-140.
Oliver, M.B. & Green, S. (2001). Development of Gender Differences in Children's Responses to Animated Entertainment. Sex Roles, 45, 67-88.