COLUMN: Feminist and the Beast

I come from a long line of bookworms. My grandma was a schoolteacher, my mom was a children’s librarian, and my sister and I would spend all day holed up in our rooms reading. Perhaps because of this, when it came to Disney heroines, Belle was a fan favorite in my household, but as I grew older into a teenager, the allure of Belle faded, and she began to annoy me.

Every time I watched “Beauty and the Beast,” I couldn’t get past the opening musical number.

For those of you who haven’t been tortured by the film in a while, the first song sequence features the villagers of a small French town harmonizing about how strange Belle is. Meanwhile, an apparently deaf Belle wanders through the streets and reads. She is either unable to hear the villagers’ trash talk or unwilling to grace the peasants with a reply.

Why exactly was Belle labeled as peculiar by the villagers?

Sure, it’s weird that she seems to be okay with beastiality, but at the time of the musical number the villagers didn’t know that yet.

In fact, the original animated feature offers no explanation of her supposed oddities other than her bookish nature. Although seeing a bookworm who is also gorgeous felt revolutionary to 4-year-old me, my 14-year-old self was having none of it.

However, Belle was being hailed as a role model by my peers and as a feminist icon above warrior princesses like Pocahontas and Mulan.

As she appears in the 1994 animated feature, Belle is not a feminist icon. Her entire characterization hinges on the fact that she is smart, yet her intelligence is only represented passively. She reads, she imagines, she dreams, but she never creates anything, nor does she apply her intelligence to better herself or her community.

This spring, Disney’s live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” will hit theaters. The film will star former Harry Potter actress and current women’s rights activist Emma Watson, and it seems that Watson has brought the feminist edge I so crave to Belle.

In a recent Entertainment Weekly feature, Watson spoke to my own frustrations and the need to flesh out Belle’s character.

She said, “There was never very much information or detail at the beginning of the story as to why Belle didn’t fit in other than she liked books. Also, what is she doing with her time?”

To answer these queries, Disney plans to make the new princess — formerly characterized in the 1994 version as the inventor’s daughter — an inventor.

The effect of this change is enormous.

Making Belle an inventor takes her characterization as passively intelligent and repurposes it. She is no longer abstractly smart and bookish; she is an active applier of knowledge and a contributor to the world around her.

Perhaps this change was entirely motivated by frustrations about Belle’s lack of backstory, but I hope at least part of the intention is to teach children that doing is better than dreaming.

Of course, dreaming is incredibly important — there’s no going on an adventure or changing the world without hopes and daydreams — but even more important is 
applying yourself and working actively toward goals. Animated dreamer Belle didn’t understand that, but it seems small-town inventor Belle just might.

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