Sumptuous, grand and spectacular — all of these are words that can be used to describe Disney’s new live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast.
Many questions are answered by this remake, which provides us a glimpse of the prince prior to his curse, offers a compelling backstory to Gaston, explains where the beautiful enchantress was during the years of the curse, and why the castle denizens were punished because of their master’s sin. In a nod to the original fairy tale, Belle asks her father for a single red rose on his way back from market. This is because of a painting he has done of her and her deceased mother, who holds the flower.
The Beast and Gaston are set up as literary foils, as elaborately plotted as Hamlet and Laertes. Where the Beast originally locks Belle in but lets her go, Gaston locks both Belle and her father into a cart headed for the madhouse. While the Beast comes to Belle’s rescue when she faces off against the wolves that inhabit the forest surrounding his castle, Gaston leaves Maurice to die and be eaten by those very wolves. The Beast thinks of what is best for Belle, allowing her to leave to see her father. Meanwhile, Gaston thinks of what is best for him, happily consigning Maurice to death or life in a madhouse if he will not permit the marriage between Gaston and Belle.
The flaw in the remake lies in the characterization of Belle
In an article in Vanity Fair, Emma Watson is credited with creating a “new Belle.” She deliberately ensures that Belle is “a creator in her own right,” developing “a modern washing machine that allows her to sit and read.” She is dressed in “bloomers” and “riding boots” because, in Watson’s words, “she’s not going to be able to do anything terribly useful in ballet shoes in the middle of a French provincial village.” In Watson’s mind, “Belle is absolutely a Disney princess, but she’s not a passive character — she’s in charge of her own destiny.”
Many of these edits are cosmetic. However, an important change to Belle’s character in the 2017 adaptation is her desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps, whom her father describes as “absolutely fearless.” To that end, Belle does not follow the path of the original Disney movie. In the original film, Belle wants more than her provincial life, but she is a dreamer. She is thoughtful, sweet-natured and touchingly vulnerable. She pleads with the Beast, begging him to let her father out. She is willing to sacrifice for the sake of her father, making a vow that ensures she will not be able to escape.
“Wait! Take me instead” cries the Belle of the original film. The Beast agrees to let her father go if she remains, but cautions that she must promise to stay in the castle forever. She says, “You have my word” — and does her best to keep it.
In contrast, the Belle of 2017 does not vow. When the Beast won’t come into the light, she swings a candlestick at him, catching him in its glow so as to reveal him against his will. Similarly, she forces her father from his prison, locking herself into his cage after whispering into his ear that she is not afraid and that she will find a way to escape. When Lumiere unlocks her cell door, she hits him with her dungeon stool. As soon as she is in her room, rather than sobbing on her bed, as the Belle of the original film does, she starts tying sheets and ribbons together in an effort to escape from the castle. At first, she has only disdain and hatred for the beast, spitting defiant words at him through her locked bedroom door and standing up to him rather than retreating into herself.
The message is that the original Belle is not sufficiently heroic. She reads Jack and the Beanstalk, loving magical tales, instead of being familiar with Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet. She blows dandelion spores into the wind. She uses words, not violence, to save her father. She cries as the Beast leads her through the castle to her room. She sobs on her bed after losing her father and her freedom in one day. In short, she is vulnerable. And it is that vulnerability that the 21st century heroine version of Belle — Emma Watson’s Belle — does away with. 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. The Belle that inspired so many of us in the ’90s was a Belle we could relate to because of her kindness, her sweetness, her vulnerability and her compassion. We liked her facility with words, the fact that she tried to be gentle with Gaston even when she refused him as opposed to the blunt way in which Watson’s Belle informs him she will never marry him. We related to her tears. We appreciated the fact that even when she ran away, she said, “Promise or no promise, I can’t stay here another minute” — acknowledging that breaking a promise, even one made under such complicated circumstances, was problematic. And in the iconic scene after the dance where the Beast lets her go, we loved the fact that she told him she was happy with him but wished to see her father again because she missed him so much. This allows the Beast to do the right thing on his own. This, as opposed to the 2017 version where, when asked if she is happy, Belle prompts the Beast, asking, “Can anybody be happy if they aren’t free?”
We live in the world of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, where women are told they can achieve success in their careers, simultaneously be mothers and somehow manage the balance. The idea that women must be active and must achieve in something outside of the domestic sphere is constantly promoted.
What set Belle apart in 1991 was that she was a dreamer. Yes, she wanted more than her provincial life, but living happily with a man she loved, respected and who understood her was sufficient. She was an idealist, someone lost in books and fairytales — not an inventor, or someone logically sorting through how to break the curse, or consistently fearless. She valued the Beast’s being gentle and kind because that’s who she was.
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.
Imagine how much more empowering Beauty and the Beast would be if it offered a nuanced, complicated portrayal of 21st century womanhood. It would be profoundly moving if we could understand that not every heroine must be a Katniss Everdeen or Tris Prior. We should be able to acknowledge that it is enough for women to dream, enough for women to be brave in spite of fear, acceptable for women to cry or show emotion. We say we are feminists — and yet our vision of feminism has not gone far enough. Currently, we are feminists only when our heroines adopt stereotypically masculine modes of behavior. We need to get to a point where feminism can also celebrate nurturing, vulnerable heroines whose main weapon is words.