An intelligent, strong-willed, female protagonist. Who reads books. And seeks adventure. With a heroine like Belle, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, must be a feminist-minded film. Right?? At first, I thought so too. But appearances can be deceiving…
Hailed by critics as a touching romance and one of the greatest animated films ever made, Beauty and the Beast became the first animated movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. When I watched it in the theatre years ago, I too fell under its spell, seduced by its lush animation, whimsical tunes and of course Belle.
It felt refreshing to see an intelligent, outspoken, animated heroine who loved to read. Outspoken and loved books? I was outspoken and loved books! I saw myself in Belle. She was a misunderstood misfit, wanting “more than this provincial life” to which she had been born. I too felt like an outcast, yearning for adventure and freedom. We were kindred spirits.
But it wasn’t until years later that I saw the crack in the veneer. As I got older and embraced myself as a feminist, I began to question things more diligently. Once you start to see sexism, you can’t NOT see it. Sadly, it’s everywhere, including children’s films. Actually it’s possibly most prevalent in children’s films, which often reinforce tired and oppressive gender roles and stereotypes.
Yes, Belle is intelligent, courageous, curious, opinionated…all the things I admire in female protagonists. Disney was painfully aware of the criticism against The Little Mermaid’s Ariel giving up her family, her life, hell even her voice all for a stupid prince. Linda Woolverton, Beauty and the Beast’s screenwriter, drew inspiration for Belle from tomboyish, book-loving, outspoken Jo in Little Women. Belle’s feisty independence heralded a new kind of Disney heroine, paving the way for Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan. And yes, we often see the world from her vantage point, another plus. Although the film begins and ends with the Beast, who also happens to go through the biggest transformation (literally and figuratively) in the film. Despite her awesomeness, there’s still a huge problem with Belle.
Even though Belle possesses admirable traits, her merit still comes down to her looks. The Beast, Gaston, the villagers and the enchanted servants all exclaim she’s beautiful, gorgeous, pretty and “her looks have no parallel.” Girls and women should be valued for their intellect, skills and kindness. But no one in the movie is raving about Belle’s inner beauty. Not only is Belle stunning, which of course all Disney “princesses” must be, and white and thin (god we need some diversity in films). It’s her name.
Her fucking name is “BELLE,” which in French means “beautiful!” Despite her intelligence and bibliophile ways, even her fucking name revolves around her looks. Once again, women are subjugated and reduced to their appearances. Disney says sure, it’s okay to be smart, bookish, even a weird outcast…as long as you’re pretty. Ugh.
In fact, the whole goddamn movie revolves around beauty. Symbols of beauty (mirrors and roses) permeate the film. Ironic since the intended moral of the fairy tale is looking past appearances to seek true inner beauty. But here’s the kicker. Beauty and the Beast would never have been made with a woman as a beast. Again reinforcing that yep, beauty is only skin deep…if you’re a dude. If you’re a woman, you’d best be gorgeous.
The only other female characters in the movie are Mrs. Potts (I heart Angela Lansbury!), the wardrobe (who has no personality) and the French maid feather duster. A grandmotherly type and a sexpot. Of course Disney does their notorious matricide in the form of the protagonist’s mother either dead or non-existent. They demonize stepmothers and solely focus on both daughters’ and sons’ relationships with their fathers. Seriously, Disney, what the hell have you got against mothers?? And yep, I’m aware Mrs. Potts is Chips’s mother. Doesn’t count. Not only is she not Belle’s mother, she’s a fucking teapot for most of the film. Belle has no female friends, no mother, no sister, no female role model. The importance of female camaraderie and sisterly bonding remain absent from the film.
Unlike many female characters in animated films (or annoying rom-coms for that matter), Belle isn’t looking to be rescued or waiting around for her prince. Two reasons that make Belle a feminist in Woolverton’s eyes. Belle rejects the sexist chauvinist Gaston and his numerous marriage proposals, finding him “boorish” and “brainless.” She wants more out of life than shining that jerk’s boots and popping out his babies. But Belle rebuffs one dysfunctional suitor for another.
A cursed spoiled prince, the Beast imprisons Belle’s father, Maurice, for trespassing. When Belle comes to his rescue, she sacrifices her cherished freedom, for his release. As a
“guest” prisoner in the castle, the Beast demands Belle attend dinner with him and forbids her from the West Wing. He screams and throws things at her, his selfish temper raging out of control. Oh, I forgot…the Beast is a romanticized tortured soul. So it’s okay if he’s an abrasive douchebag!
Sure, the sympathetic Beast eventually becomes nicer, giving Belle access to his library and letting birds treat him like a bird feeder. And I do like that Belle and the Beast become friends first before falling in love, which rarely happens in fairy tales. Except for one teeny tiny thing. He’s her captor. Falling in love with the guy who imprisons you, holds you hostage, tells you when to eat, where to go and doesn’t let you see your family?! That’s not love. That’s Stockholm Syndrome, sweetie.
Poisonous messages about love and relationships plague Beauty and the Beast. Don’t worry, ladies…if you suffer and stick by him long enough, your man will change. Just be patient with a guy who’s controlling or abusive. In her lifetime, 1 in 4 women will suffer domestic violence. More and more teenage girls contend with dating violence. Love should not hurt. Ever. But this movie (and sooooo many others) insidiously tells girls that when they grow up, they should stand by their man. Even if he treats you like shit.
I’ll admit Belle as a female character is a huge step in the right direction. She’s smart, stubborn, kind and ambitious. But Belle gives up her entire life to live forever in a castle with an asshat prince. What about her goals? Her dreams?? Oh that’s right. She becomes a princess! Yet another princess in the pantheon of princesses clogging up girlie-girl media.
Films and books reinforce gender roles and with a lack of female characters, imply that girls and women don’t count. Out of Disney’s 51 animated movies, only 12 feature a female character as a protagonist, most of them princesses. Princesses only care about their clothes and hair. Their looks matter more than their personalities. It seems society would rather teach girls to obsess over their appearance and how to snag a man.
Couldn’t Belle have opened up a bookshop/café or started a book drive or something?? When Belle sang about wanting “more than this provincial life,” I simply refuse to believe twirling around a ballroom in a pretty gown is what she had in mind.
People might think I’m being silly or overreacting about a Disney movie. Fair enough. But I call bullshit. Listen, when we’re young, books, music, movies, TV shows, advertisements and even toys teach us gender roles and identity. Little boys pretend they’re kings or aspire to be president while little girls yearn not to lead like queens, but to be passive princesses. One film probably won’t have much impact. But when the same sexist messages repeat over and over and over and over…well, then it seeps in.
I’m not going to lie. I still watch Beauty and the Beast, singing along to the songs. When I discovered Disney World was building a Beauty and the Beast themed restaurant and attraction, I admit I felt giddy with excitement. But look beyond the gorgeous animation, catchy show tunes and unique heroine.
Sadly, you’ll see yet another fabulous film tainted by sexism, spreading toxic messages that reinforce damaging beauty norms, violence against women and suffocating gender stereotypes.
Not all that glitters is gold. Unwrapping the beautiful package can sometimes yield an ugly core.