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Is Emma Watson’s Belle the Feminist Heroine 2017 Deserves?

Pacific Standard asks a few critics of the first film to re-appraise Disney’s new live-action adaptation.
(Photo: Disney)

(Photo: Disney)

By the time Disney debuted its latest princess, Belle, in 1991, the studio had already amassed a pretty poor reputation as an author of stories absent of gender parity. With Snow White and Sleeping Beauty snoozing through half of their respective movies, and Ariel deciding that her best route to a man was simply not to speak, Disney seemed to suggest that a woman’s beauty—rather than her mind—might be used to help her achieve her goals. Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, by contrast, managed to stay awake and speak throughout the entire movie (she even read some Shakespeare). It was enough to garner the studio major applause from critics and advocates alike.

In recent years, though, critics have argued that the movie romanticizes an abusive relationship between Belle and the Beast, and strips its source material—Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original 18th-century fairy tale—of its moral and intellectual guidance for young women.

Perhaps fueled in part by this more recent criticism, collaborators on Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast talked quite a bit about updating Belle for 2017. Emma Watson, an outspoken feminist who is a Goodwill ambassador for the United Nations and advocate for HeForShe, was cast as Belle in part for her extracurricular activism, according to director Bill Condon. “We wanted to update Belle as a strong female role model and Emma Watson is that in her own life,” Condon toldUSA Today earlier this month.

Watson herself has told press outlets about her say in creative decisions — in recent interviews she has said that she persuaded the film’s costume designer to swap Belle’s skirt for a pair of bloomers and replace her character’s ballet flats for boots. Watson also successfully argued to make Belle an inventor, not just an assistant to her tinkerer father.

But did Watson’s casting — and the cosmetic costume changes — really transform Belle into a heroine fit for 2017? To find out, we asked a few academics who wrote critically about the original Disney film’s feminist aspirations. The upshot? Don’t be fooled by Watson’s casting — the new movie still preserves the core romance plot and creepy Stockholm Syndrome-esque undertones.

Dr. Allison Craven, Author of “Beauty and the Belles: Discourses of Feminism and Femininity in Disneyland” (2002):

Emma Watson’s “tomboy” performance, with hitched-up blue pinafore, pantaloons, and boots, is — like the opening scenes of the dancers at the French court — more striking for its baroque-kitsch art direction than its gender politics. For all of Watson’s activist efforts off-screen, and her touting of a personal coming-of-age playing fantasy characters (child Hermione in Harry Potter to Belle “as a woman”), and the film’s sparse sub-text about girls’ reading and education, live-action Beauty and the Beast doesn’t overcome the obvious un-feminism of a romance plot that grows from a hostage drama. The persistence of such entertainments testifies to corporate (Disney’s) investments in its brand of fairy tale, and the perverse nostalgia of the reconstruction of these tales as pro-feminist.

And money? With little information about pay scales in Disneyland, and no reassurance of the equity of Watson’s remuneration (with male stars), promoting a modernized Belle who still relies on romance as a means to freedom is faint feminism. 

Professor June Cummins, Author of “Romancing the Plot: The Real Beast of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” (1995) 

I said in my article that it is the Beast’s story and not Belle’s: she functions as a plot device for his story, and that has not changed. Her value to the residents of the castle is the fact that she is a girl of marriageable age. The love of a good woman redeems a man! The movie still focuses on courtship as plot and marriage as denouement and it still does not offer a balanced view of the relations between men and women. Maurice and the Beast still need Belle’s maternal nurturing. Belle may have the accessories of an inventor, but it is her actions in the service of family and suitor that define her, not actions for her own sake. The female character once again sees her vague desires for quest and adventure restricted to the confines of Prince Charming’s castle. 

One of the changes is that Belle actually appears to be well read and she discusses and even argues about literature with the Beast, who is no longer ignorant, although he holds his learning in low esteem until the girl shows up. It is as if the script writers read my article, where I denounce Disney for having Belle read very little. Nonetheless, the assumption remains that girls prefer romance tales to all else, whether fairy tales or plays by Shakespeare. She is entranced by Romeo and Juliet, not Julius Caesar or Henry V. She reads a poem by an obscure Scottish poet from the late 19th century because it’s conveniently about snow and ice. If the script writers were grabbing poems from an anthology, why not choose a more challenging one by his contemporary Emily Dickinson? 

The storyline and relationship dynamics are exactly the same in the new 2017 Beauty and the Beast as they were in Disney’s original version. Someone living in an abusive relationship could still interpret the message as being that if they remain in that abusive relationship and love their captor/abuser that he will turn into their prince, but this doesn’t happen often in real life. Smart, educated women also become stuck in abusive relationships, and although Emma Watson’s Belle might read more and invent more efficient ways to wash the laundry, the relationships are not unproblematic. 

Audiences seem to have continued to enjoy reading about and watching young women love distant, controlling, and abusive men, whose love is reinforced when the men become loving, or prince-like. However, there can be an element of “complicit pleasure” as we enjoy certain movies or books while at the same time not necessarily buying into the message. So, I have, perhaps guiltily, enjoyed Beauty and the Beast,as well as all the Twilight books and movies, while at the same time recognizing this worrisome message; I don’t believe it is so much about looking beyond appearances and I wish it had a message about not looking beyond abusive behaviors.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.