Spoiler alert: If you still haven’t managed to watch this film, cancel your one o’clock, grab the popcorn and watch it now. If that’s just not possible, or you simply cannot deny yourself the pleasure of reading this magnificent post first, be aware that there will be spoilers. And more moaning about that baker.
Welcome to part two of LttL’s first attempt to destroy your love of classic Disney films. No, not really. Actually, the plan is to offer you the chance to look beyond the heartfelt romance, sharp banter and singing clock, and examine it with a more critical eye. As we discovered in Part One, Disney have set up a female character who wants more than the role prescribed for her by her society. Belle is intelligent, imaginative, brave and desperate for adventure. This makes her a bit of an oddball in her town, which boasts an illiterate population, a horny hunter and a terrible baker (selling the same old bread and rolls every day, the monster), not to mention a lot of sheep. However, as noted, she’s beautiful, so they can cope with her fancy ideas about reading. Just about.
The topic of beauty gets a rather contradictory treatment in this film. The prince is cursed because he turns away an old hag, who then turns out to be a hot young sorceress who curses him for his shallowness. The message, then, is that appearances can be deceptive, and you shouldn’t judge people by their looks. That’s all well and good, but why couldn’t the hag have simply pointed this out? In order to gain power over the prince, she had to reveal her physical beauty, thereby suggesting that only good-looking women can have power over men. The emphasis on Belle’s beauty (which, as Francophiles and GCSE French students will tell you, starts with her name) also suggests that the only reason her differences are accepted is because she is beautiful. Belle is oblivious to her own good looks and she doesn’t judge others by their outward appearance, turning down the chiselled chin and bulging biceps of Gaston in favour of a hairy, scruffy, poorly-mannered Beast. However, these preferences are only extraordinary because Belle herself adheres to society’s ideals of beauty, that is to say, she’s white, with an impossibly slender hourglass figure, straight brown hair with a slight wave at the ends, and enormous eyes. If she were, say, a hag, she wouldn’t be a celebrated and kind-spirited heroine, she would be accepting her rightful place in society. The message Disney is sending women is that you shouldn’t judge men by their appearance, but that you should absolutely be beautiful if you want to have any power.
Let’s move on from Belle’s looks, because, as Disney have gone to great pains to show us, not only is she the local beauty, but she’s intelligent, imaginative and craves adventure, which is something she finds through her reading. Upon examining Belle’s reading material, however, we find a disturbing contradiction between her supposed desire for adventure, and what she actually seems to want.
Early in the film, she outlines the plot of her favourite book for the bookshop owner, a man who will surely be going out of business imminently. (Seriously, his attitude is unbelievable. As we’ve learned, Belle is the only woman in the village who reads, and the men find her hobby rather uninspiring too (or at least the baker does, but he’s an unimaginative individual). Furthermore, the bookseller (which the sign outside identifies him as) doesn’t seem to understand that he’s running a shop, not a library: Belle, his only customer, breezes in, declaring she’s just returning a book she borrowed, and rather than pointing out that this might otherwise be known as theft, the man proceeds to give her another one for free. No wonder the book trade is in so much trouble.) She tells him that the reason she loves it so much is because it’s about ‘Far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise’. The last two elements foreshadow events in the rest of the film, and all of them are exciting and extraordinary, particularly when you’re facing the prospect of eating the same old bread and rolls every day (just too horrible) in a sleepy French village.
So which bit of this fantastic, totally out-there book is her favourite? The exotic locations? The stunts? The spells? The royalty-flavoured twist? No, she tells the sheep, her favourite part is where the heroine meets Prince Charming (but she won’t discover that it’s him until chapter three). And with that one mushy sentiment, our independent, daring rebel reveals that while she thinks all that adventure is sort of cool, what’s actually ‘amazing’ is meeting a man. Oh Disney. Oh Belle. Even the sheep is disgusted. Ultimately, it turns out that all these kooky characteristics are just flavouring: enough to make her seem like an interesting character, especially when compared with Gaston’s image of his little wife and the swooning identical triplets (don’t get me started on the bleak representation of triplets in this film), but not something she would actually act on. Good god, no.
And so, after declaring her passionate desire to explore the great wide somewhere, Belle willingly returns to an isolated castle to live happily ever after with a man she barely knows. The relationship between Beast and Belle is more complex than your usual Disney fodder, thanks in some part to the comparison with Gaston’s feelings for Belle. Gaston wants Belle solely because she’s the most beautiful girl in town, whereas Beast values her selflessness, courage and kindness. Gaston chastises her for reading, before tossing her favourite book in a puddle, whereas Beast gives her an entire library. There is certainly more substance in their relationship, but it still posits them within traditional gender roles.
One thing that should be said in favour of this romantic pairing is that the verbal sparring between the two characters does contribute to an image of them as equal partners in this relationship. Neither is afraid to stand up to and defy the other if they believe they’re in the wrong. However, once the relationship has been established, Belle loses most of the adventurous spirit that made her more than your generic romantic heroine in the first place. From being the main character whose experiences and desires dictate the plot, Belle effectively becomes important only as Beast’s saviour. This is a fairly common trope in romantic films: the quirky but pretty female outcast, whose charming personality and adventurous spirit help the reserved man, trapped in a rut by his own dark nature, to find the good side of life and thereby improve himself. These female characters often come dressed in fairy wings, playing harps and making cupcakes for kittens, but the essential story of the good woman with no needs of her own other than to be loved, who rescues the man so he can contribute to society, is as old as time. Or at least as old as stories. Of course, Beast does save Belle when she’s attacked by wolves in the forest, but this also plays into traditional gender roles, whereby the strong, courageous man puts himself in harm’s way to protect the woman, who is left to dab up the blood and stick a bandage on it. Oh Disney.
Belle is a deeply lovable character, at least initially, thanks to her intelligence, kindness and rebellion against her small town life and its rubbish bread. However, the emphasis on her appearance and the fact she fades into the role of love interest means that ultimately this representation fails to challenge gender roles. Of course, this is a twenty two-year-old Disney Princess story, so it’s hardly surprising that a radical challenge to gender roles was not exactly on the cards. The romance and songs are just as good as you remember, so sing along with Be Our Guest, and mist up a bit in Tale as Old as Time, but always remember we deserve more from a heroine.
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