“It was the first kind of feminist of the Disney princesses,” Emma Watson says in an interview at the LA premiere of Disney’s new live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, “I just wanted to bring out what was originally there!”
The first Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast came out in 1992, and 25 years later their live-action adaptation builds on the same female empowerment message. Pushing dialogue and action further towards recognizing and supporting social equality of the sexes, the newest Disney record breaking film supports feminist messages. But it’s also important to remember that there is space to question the messaging of the film. American writer and journalist Peggy Orenstein criticizes Belle as “the “modern” Princess, whose story shows that the right woman can turn a beast into a prince.” Belle is marketed as the modern princess, singing of her desire for adventure rather than marriage. But is the story line really modern?
The plot of the Disney adaptations is concerned with Belle changing the Beast’s heart, rather than focusing on Belle coming to love the Beast as in the original tale. In this aspect, the Disney adaptation does a disservice to the fairytale, which follows Belle closely while she is overcoming her judgement of the Prince in Beast form to love him anyway. As a Beast the Prince has already learned his lesson, there’s no plot line of Belle being the one to get the Prince to change. So Disney added a questionable message into their adaptation that creates an expectation in viewers that girls can convince beastly men to change. The necessity for Belle to love the Beast to break the curse on the Beast does give the story the appearance of valuing female agency above all the other messages, so among the Disney films Belle is “a departure from the girl wanting to be rescued,” as Emma Watson puts it, among other positive things for young viewers to witness and experience vicariously.
New dialogue in the new Beauty and the Beast supports qualities of emotionally healthy women. In the opening scene, after Belle has walked through town and Gaston attempts to be with her and she rejects him, Gaston talks to his sidekick Lefou about how Belle doesn’t fawn over him like other women. He asks Lefou, “What is that?” Lefou answers, “Dignity,” and Gaston’s reply is, “That’s very attractive!” Then in conversation with her father Belle asks about her odd-ness, and her father reassures her that he knew a woman much like her who experienced similar treatment from townspeople: “They mocked her, until they found themselves imitating her.” And a kind of mantra is forged by Belle with her father’s encouragement – fearlessness. In multiple scenes Belle claims her fearlessness and acts decisively. These instances of dialogue support women as dignified, trail-blazing, fearless people – an empowering message that falls in line with feminism.
Some of the action in the new adaptation of Beauty and the Beast breaks from the old adaptation. In the live-action Belle is an inventor as well as her father, helping him as he builds and knowing what he needs before he does, then on her own creating a rudimentary laundry machine so she can read while the washing gets done. She also spends some time teaching a young girl to read, and receives criticism from the townspeople who put a stop to it. In these ways she is a truly modern character, with goals that are not acceptable for women, yet. In the animated film Belle watches as the Beast fights Gaston, in the live-action film Belle joins in and helps the Beast fight off Gaston. In all of this new action Belle has an intelligence, a conviction, and a strength that are more modern and feminist than her earlier characterization.
While Disney films have not always been respectable in their choices for their female characters (Peggy Orenstein exclaims Ariel “actually gives up her voice to get a man”) recent movies are making strides towards placing in their films female leads that feminist girls can aspire to emulate. Belle is the most recent and most successful in this endeavor. If you don’t believe me, go watch the movie and see for yourself!