Over the years, Disney hasn't akways been known for creating strong female role models. In part, that’s been down to the era their movies have been made in; films such as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, reflect the attitudes toward women at the time - which is to say that the girl stays at home, happy to perform chores while waiting for a Prince to come and sweep her off her feet.
Later movies, such as Princess and the Frog, or Rapunzel, have certainly made an effort to deliver more strength to the central female role, but since essentially, they are retelling classic fairytales, it’s hard to really make them a true reflection of modern women. Perhaps the closest Disney have come in recent years of truly delivering great female protagonists, is with Frozen and Moana.
Frozen is a tale of sisterhood - of Elsa learning to battle fear and anxiety, and of Anna being willing to sacrifice herself to save her sister - but there is also a more conventional love story woven into the narrative. With Moana, there is no love story at all, and a sixteen-year-old girl faces her fears to do battle with the ocean. She is strong, fierce, and relatable for young girls - perhaps a sign that Disney is heading in the right direction?
Well, maybe. This week sees the release of Disney’s newest movie - a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, from director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn). A close retelling of the original, animated classic from 1991, Beauty and the Beast stars Emma Watson in the central role of Belle. Watson has, in recent years, become a huge voice in the fight for equality for women. Using her celebrity status, she has even addressed the UN on the subject of gender equality as part of their ‘He For She’ campaign; encouraging men to stand proud as feminists and view gender equality as their issue, too.
It was perhaps a surprise, then, that she took a role where her character is held against her will by a brutal man/beast, and eventually falls in love with him despite his cruel treatment of her and her father. Of course, that’s not how we’ve necessarily been conditioned to view the story of Beauty and the Beast, but that is the bare bones of the plot.
In Disney’s 1991 version, it’s all wrapped up in beautiful animation, unforgettable characters, and delivered via a stunning musical score. It’s only natural, having been raised on Disney fairytales, that audiences fell in love with this movie and that we can (for the most part) overlook the less appealing aspects of the plot, because a singing candelabrum is juggling plates on screen.
In the new live-action version, Watson has assured fans, repeatedly, that while the movie might be a pretty faithful retelling, this is a brand new, modern take on Belle. Originally, there were undeniable aspects of strength to the character; Belle loved books while other girls in the village only focused on their appearances in order to land a man. She fought back hard against Gaston’s advances, and wasn’t afraid to tell the Beast that he was rude. However, many have said that Belle suffered from Stockholm Syndrome (falling in love with her captor/ abuser), and just seemed to give it all up too easily to someone who treated her so appallingly.
This time, Watson says all of Belle’s strength remains, but has also been built upon, and she’s far more defiant and independent than she was originally. Watson’s Belle is an inventor, and has invented a washing machine that cleans the clothes for women, giving them more time to do other stuff - in Belle’s case, read books. Is a little more background and a little more intelligence enough to make Belle into a strong female character, though?
Unsurprisingly, Watson has been asked outright whether Belle is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, and she explained that she thinks Belle’s argumentative side proves that isn’t the case:
“It’s such a good question and it’s something I really grappled with at the beginning; the kind of Stockholm Syndrome question about this story… Belle actively argues and disagrees with [Beast] constantly. She has none of the characteristics of someone with Stockholm Syndrome because she keeps her independence, she keeps that freedom of thought.”
Ultimately, it will be for each individual audience member to decide whether they hold with Watson’s view or not. Just as many boycott the Fifty Shades movies because they feel they glorify abuse, so many others flock to the theater to see Jamie Dornan in what they see as a sexy character role. With Beauty and the Beast, though, there is also the argument that this is a fairytale, and a Disney one at that. Whether the movie is live-action or animation doesn’t necessarily matter; Disney movies are meant to be about escapism and entertainment, and have been ever since the birth of the House of Mouse.
Young girls today still love and enjoy the whole range of Disney Princess movies - Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, to name but a few. Each and every one has its flaws, some more than others, but the fact remains that young children don’t necessarily need to identify with a character to love and appreciate a movie. Adults look for far more in a film, and rightly so, but Beauty and the Beast isn’t painting Belle as a lowly, meek and feeble woman. Both the original and the remake at least try to convey that she is bright, intelligent and can showcase some strength, even if she doesn’t necessarily fall in love with someone that we, as adults, would approve of.
Watson has said often that Belle has always been her favorite Disney character because she’s not afraid to show her love of books and learning, and that is most likely the reason why that part of her story has been expanded upon in this new version. For that, we must be thankful; it can never be a bad thing to highlight how great it is to be well-read and informed.
So is Belle really a strong female character? For the most part, yes. Sure, the storyline to Beauty and the Beast might not stand up to much scrutiny, but what classic fairytale does? They are of their time and Disney has done an admirable job, twice over, of making Beauty and the Beast more relevant and relatable for modern day audiences. Disney are also busy making and releasing new, original features and it is perhaps there where the company can make real advancements in their portrayal of women on screen.
As for Watson, rest assured that she continues to fight long and hard for gender equality. It’s just that she, like most of us, enjoys a bit of Disney magic every now and then.
- Beauty and the Beast (2017) release date: Mar 17, 2017