Like any 90s kid who grew up with a portion of their childhood spent glued to the TV, the Disney Renaissance played a pivotal role in my development. From my earliest memory – a cinema visit to see Aladdin – to my burgeoning pop culture critic days arguing in favour of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (still my favourite Disney film ever), that decade of cinematic genius remains embedded in my psyche in a way I can never fully convey in a mere think-piece. I’m 26 years old and I still find my most satisfying moments of comfort when I watch those films or extravagantly mime along to those classic songs in my bedroom (when everyone else is out of the house, of course). Disney isn’t just a studio, it’s a lifestyle. For better or worse, they are the only studio who market themselves as an arbiter of how to live your life. The way they established themselves as immensely powerful guides on how to be a person is a strange phenomenon that’s in many ways deeply insidious, and yet I cannot deny the influence they wield over me to this day.
Part of that is rooted in one character: Belle. The heroine of Beauty and the Beast, arguably Disney’s masterpiece, has inspired countless girls and women. Cinderella may get the castle but it’s Belle who stands as the studio’s defining character. The bookish protagonist who admires kindness and has no tolerance for arrogance; the hard worker who demands her autonomy even as she makes the biggest sacrifice; the aloof loner who finds true solace in another through the strangest of circumstances; and a fiercely dedicated daughter who still craves escape from the only life she’s ever known. In short, Belle stands as Disney’s pioneering feminist princess.
It seems as though every Disney heroine from Belle onwards has been decreed the studio’s “first feminist princess”: Since Disney’s most recent resurgence in critical and commercial power, the label has been applied liberally on every film, from Mulan to Moana. While it is encouraging that the most powerful behemoth in entertainment continues its progressive journey in regards to its portrayal of women, it seems odd to eschew the past in such a specific way. To deny Belle’s influence and importance within the canon of animation, children’s entertainment and pop culture at large is to deny a defining moment in their own history.
And yet that seems to be what’s at play with their upcoming live-action adaptation of the story. It is inevitable that Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast will make screeds of money, regardless of its quality. It’s a genius business tactic for Disney, who have always used their audience’s nostalgia for their creations to profitable effect through TV shows, sequels, theme park attractions and merchandise, to continue this trend with live-action remakes of their most iconic properties. Cinderella was surprisingly charming and The Jungle Book was entrancing in its visuals. Obviously, Beauty and the Beast was the next logical step, yet their own treatment of the heroine who sold a million polyester dress-up kits is surprising and disheartening.
Since its announcement, Disney and the new Belle Emma Watson, have been working overtime to ensure audiences that this version of Beauty and the Beast will “add a feminist touch” to the material. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Watson explained an added backstory to Belle, which she said would explain why the character is so ostracized by the village she lives in with her father:
“In the animated movie, it’s her father who is the inventor, and we actually co-opted that for Belle. I was like, ‘Well, 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?’ So, we created a backstory for her, which was that she had invented a kind of washing machine, so that, instead of doing laundry, she could sit and use that time to read instead. So, yeah, we made Belle an inventor.”
Putting aside Watson’s crediting of herself for this particular addition to Belle’s story, the information she gives is flat out wrong. She expanded upon this point in a later interview with the same publication, noting that the washing machine she invents is another suspicious sign of her intellect.
“They’re deeply suspicious of intelligence and at anyone who is going beyond that. Breaking the washing machine is symbolic of not just them breaking something she spent hours working on, they’re trying to break her spirit.”
Other than Watson’s dazzling understanding of metaphors, we see another clear problem with her take on the character and how Disney have diminished of their own creation. It is clear in the film why the villagers don’t like Belle. They distrust a woman who refuses to engage with the limiting roles forced upon women. A woman who reads books and seems utterly unconcerned with what people say about her is suspicious, more so when she refuses the attentions of the top bachelor in town and lives at home with a ‘kook’ professor. When Gaston comes to her house to propose to her, an array of villagers are outside waiting to ‘congratulate’ her, conveniently forgetting her obvious distaste for the man and the possibility she may not want to have a surprise wedding sprung upon her on her own doorstep. Even before the Mob Song – an entire song that reveals the easily encouraged paranoia and bullying of the town – it’s clear that the village are trapped by their own prejudices and ideas of how people, particularly women, should behave. Belle isn’t like them, so she must be corrected. She doesn’t need a washing machine metaphor to bash over the audience’s head.
The denial of the audience’s understanding of Belle’s journey by Watson as she continues her carefully manicured PR journey is something that Disney has quietly been doing for years. They deny the character’s influence and power even as they slap her face on every product possible. They fetishise the iconography surrounding her but never the icon herself. A character screenwriter Linda Woolverton fought tooth and nail to craft as deftly as she did is reduced to a mere stepping stone to promote the new effort. It’s not just a disheartening erasure of a cultural milestone; it’s lazy writing.
Disney’s upcoming slate is packed full of re-imaginings of their popular heroines as well as the crafting of new ones, and they’ll continue to influence and interrogate our culture for many generations to come (even more so now Star Wars and Marvel have joined the family). It is important to demand the most from our pop culture and refuse tired excuses, but history matters, as does the importance of the works that came before. Those stories and characters are more than just nostalgia bins to mine for new material, and Disney should treasure that with Belle beyond her capacity to sell plastic tiaras.