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Beauty and the Beast (1991): Part Two

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The public reading of ‘Babe’ was proving immensely popular.

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.

Verdict

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.

Do you agree with this verdict? Let everyone know what you think with a comment. If you enjoyed reading this, and have friends with similarly awesome taste, don’t forget to share it with them. Make sure you follow the blog so you never miss the chance to read more of the same.

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Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken (1991)

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Click picture for trailer: Gabrielle Anwar plays feisty Sonora in Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken

A gutsy heroine aspires to join the dangerous horse diving profession in this true life Disney tale, but are we looking at a winner for women or just a ‘mare?

Plot

In the early years of the Depression orphaned teenager Sonora Webster (Gabrielle Anwar) is determined to see the world, or at least Atlantic City. When her aunt surrenders Sonora to the mercy of the state, she runs off to join Doc Carver’s (Cliff Robertson) diving horse act, headed by aspiring actress Marie (Kathleen York) and assisted by Doc’s handsome son Al (Michael Schoeffling). While Doc initially rejects Sonora as too young, her stubborn refusal to take no for an answer sees him hire her as a stable hand. As the act travels round the country, Al helps Sonora train a difficult horse in the hope of impressing Doc and earning her the chance to be a diving girl.

Bechdel Test

Passes: Marie and Sonora have a brief discussion about the importance of make-up, and Sonora’s aunt tells her she is nothing but trouble.

Leading Ladies

Gabrielle Anwar is bright and bold Sonora Webster, and Kathleen York is haughty wannabe starlet Marie. Lisa Norman also appears briefly as Sonora’s Aunt Helen.

How are women represented?

Sonora is the Disney heroine we have all been waiting for. She is resilient, driven, and defiant of those who would stop her from reaching her dream. She resolutely refuses to accept limitations inflicted on her by general life happenings or narrow-minded people, and she isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. I’m not saying that punching a classroom bully in the face is big or clever, but it’s pretty satisfying to see a girl let her fists do the talking in the same way a male character would. Warm and caring with those she likes, particularly horses, not only does Sonora have self-belief in bucket loads, and a no nonsense approach to haters, but she doesn’t blink at taking on slightly bizarre, death-defying stunts.

Teenager Sonora’s slightly disturbing romance with the obviously much older Al thankfully doesn’t dampen her spirit, since she continues to defy him in order to achieve her dream. Although the film is based on real events (yes, horse diving was apparently a thing), it would have been nice if they had veered off course in order to avoid marrying off a sixteen year old, and particularly one with such an independent spirit. The only redeeming point to note is that this information is tactlessly given out by an extremely curt ‘and they lived happily ever after’ type announcement right at the end, which at least goes to show that the totally unnecessary marriage plot was an afterthought rather than the main message.

Critics have pointed out that Sonora’s big dream apparently consists of living a glamorous life as defined by an advert for the Atlantic City pier, and that this superficial goal is what leads her to cut her hair, in an effort to live up to this image of femininity. However, this haircut is less about adhering to cultural expectations of women, and more about taking control of her life, refusing to give in to the limitations inflicted by the Depression, and defying people’s expectations of her. The bobbed hairstyle was all about rejecting traditional notions of how women should look, and marks her as a modern woman in charge of her own destiny. Sonora’s priorities, prizing her character over her appearance, are emphasised throughout the film, in which she remains almost entirely make-up free, particularly when compared with the eternally dolled up Marie.

However, although there’s a lot to love about Sonora, the film offers mixed messages about women. While Sonora benefits from instruction offered by male characters like Al and Doc, the women in the film are either stressed out, unfeeling nags, in the case of her aunt and her teacher, or superficial and vain, as with Marie, the other main female character. This seems to imply that Sonora is the exception that proves the rule, hence her affiliation with men rather than women. In this way, the film praises an extraordinary heroine by identifying her positive traits with men, thereby rejecting the notion that women can be feminine and also courageous, defiant and determined. This message is made particularly clear when you compare the characterisation of Marie and Sonora: bare-faced Sonora is lauded for her bold character, while heavily made-up Marie, who prides herself on her appearance, is a shallow, fickle airhead. On the one hand, you have to admire Disney for refusing to cover their leading lady in more than a dash of lipstick, and for celebrating her admirable personality instead. However, on another level, this implies that femininity is incompatible with the grit displayed by Sonora, and that in order to be respected, women must sacrifice typically ‘feminine’ traits.

Verdict

Three

This film grapples with social and cultural expectations of men and women, sometimes supporting them and sometimes undermining them. Sonora is one of those rare heroines who makes you want to throw your popcorn/film food of choice into the air and shout ‘YES!’ She goes to extreme lengths to take on a wildly dangerous job, refuses to give up when the going gets tough, and is unswerving in pursuit of her dream. However, the unflattering portrayals of Marie and the other women, and the fact that Sonora’s positive relationships are with men, implies that Sonora is an exceptional woman, and that most women are insensitive and unfeeling, while particularly ‘feminised’ women, who wear make-up and skirts, must also be shallow. Overall, this is a brilliant portrayal of a feisty female that nevertheless neglects to examine the place of femininity within empowerment.

Did you find Sonora’s refusal to adhere to traditional expectations of femininity refreshing or frustrating? Is she a role model? How do you perceive the women in the film? Spill your heart and go wild in the comments.

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