By N.M. Praska
I recently came across an opinion piece on Hypable titled, How Emma Watson’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is Ruining Belle, wondering what this person could possibly mean by that since I, like many others, have seen the movie and had the opposite reaction. Our modern Belle is different than her animated predecessor, but these differences certainly don’t ruin the original, in fact they add to her depth as a character. The piece baffles and upsets me so much, that I feel the need to present the opposing viewpoint.
Belle holds a special place in my heart; Beauty and the Beast (1991) was the first film I watched in theaters and I always saw more of myself in Belle than in any other Disney heroine. So naturally, I was very much looking forward to the live-action remake starring Emma Watson. In addition to that, I fully embrace identifying myself as a feminist. The author who wrote the Hypable post attempts to define what modern feminism is and completely misses the point, boxing it inside a narrow definition to suit the argument they chose to make. That’s the kind of feminism we don’t need.
The opinion of the author seems to be that what ruins the live-action Belle is her more assertive nature and that she enjoys freedom. Apparently a female character is no longer inspiring if she stands up for herself and isn’t vulnerable:
To be a 21st century heroine, we are taught, means to stand up for oneself, always choosing to be active rather than reflective, to be defiant rather than vulnerable, privileging logic over emotion. To be a 21st century heroine means that it is not enough to be afraid and still choose to be brave — no, one must be fearless. This is what ruins Belle.
Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know those were all mutually exclusive things! Can a woman not be active in her own destiny at times, and then reflective in other moments? Can she not have times where she is defiant to injustice, and at another time feel vulnerable? Oh yeah, she can actually experience any and all of these things at different points of her story. And she can still be an admirable heroine and a feminist.
Besides presenting this dichotomy of personality traits as the basis for differentiating between the two Belles, what really annoys me is that the author of the post cherry-picked precise scenes and lines to highlight their viewpoint. They ignored some key scenes that do highlight 2017’s Belle in her moments of fear and vulnerability. The scene where the villagers destroyed her washing machine, for instance. Belle doesn’t lash out at them verbally or physically, she quietly picks up the pieces of her broken creation. She doesn’t cry, but that isn’t necessary to feel vulnerable. She asks her father if she really is odd, like all the villagers seem to think, showing her insecurity. Though she may strive to be, Belle is not always fearless. At multiple points throughout the film, she is afraid of losing her father, her only family member. And in the end, as the Beast is dying, she’s afraid once more of losing someone she loves. I could go on.
Likewise, when she does respond aggressively or assertively, it is entirely warranted. Promoting the gentle letting-down of Gaston’s advances is not ideal anymore. It does not demonstrate sweetness and pity; rather it shows girls that when some jerk gets in her face, grabs her skirt and demands she marry him, it is expected she will smile and kindly refuse him. Uh, hell no. Gaston in 2017 is lucky he gets the brusque rejection that Emma Watson’s Belle serves him. He basically stalks her, and admits the primary reason he is interested in her is because she doesn’t return that sentiment – he seeks the thrill of her submission to him. Women know now that we don’t have to put up with
that kind of behavior harassment. No means no and it does not have to be delivered with a smile.
But even 1991’s Belle gets short-changed too. She does raise her voice a few times, arguing with the Beast when he demands she eat dinner with him the first night. After the encounter with the wolves, she scolds him for losing his temper. In the end, she calls Gaston a monster to his face. She’s not as meek as the Hypable post would have you believe.
Ultimately, what the author of the Hypable post argues is that a nicer Belle (the animated version) is a better Belle.
The Belle of 2017, with her strong, defiant, stoic attitude — choosing anger over sadness — sets us back. It says that a woman of today is not impressive if she does not do something, such as become an inventor, or if she feels too much — crying rather than creating escape routes. It takes much of the Boy Code that makes our culture of masculinity so toxic and applies it to women, arguing that heroism is linked to toughness and stoicism.
Right. The problem with this oversimplified analysis is that it makes each Belle more one-dimensional. They are both complex characters in many ways, and perhaps Belle in 2017 a little more so. As I have pointed out, she does have moments of sadness, among a wide range of other emotions. Feminism in 2017 is not aiming to make women more unfeeling, or masculine. Rather, it invites us to celebrate all women and all aspects of our individual personalities, giving us the freedom to be ourselves. A woman can be inspiring whether or not she chooses to invent, to marry, to smile, to cry, to be angry, to dream, to read, to think. I cherish both portrayals of Belle and while I agree that they are not equivalent, the differences between them serve to make her a stronger, better character. Not a ruined one.
N.M. Praska is a feminist and scientist in Minneapolis, MN. Among other things, her interests include solving puzzles, fighting the patriarchy and drinking tea.