The day I met Belle, I became a princess. Beauty and the Beast introduced a different kind of heroine. Unlike her predecessors, Belle didn’t have talking animal companions, didn’t grow up in a castle, didn’t have fairies to help her, and she wasn’t a mythical creature. No, Belle came from a small town, lived with a loving parent, and was quirky, sassy, and smart. Suddenly every average Jane (or Megan) with her nose in a book, who didn’t fit in, and who felt she was meant for something more had a Disney princess that represented her. What’s more, she inspired every girl to look beyond the surface to see true inner beauty. Did Disney finally create the perfect princess?
Not quite. Remember what “Belle” means? You got it— beautiful. It would be wonderful if the name triggered our awareness of inner beauty. Unfortunately, if the general media’s definition of beauty didn’t already prevent us from doing this, the film’s opening song directs thought to outer appearance. The townspeople sing in bouncing melody their admiration for Belle’s physical attractiveness and their judgment of her personality. Lines like “[she’s] a beauty but a funny girl,” “her looks have got no parallel,” and “but behind that fair façade, I’m afraid she’s rather odd” all indicate that her societal acceptance depends entirely on her appearance… and if she only had her personality? She’d be an outcast like her “crazy” inventor father. After all, she’s a woman who reads and thinks. How odd indeed.
It looks like Belle isn’t the perfect princess, but perhaps she could be Disney’s “people’s princess.” In addition to having a relatively normal upbringing, she’s unique and quirky, and struggles to fit society’s expectations for women. Ultimately, she illustrates a universal desire to be judged by character rather than appearance (or gender). Her dream to leave the “poor provincial town” of her birth represents a longing to be understood for her kindness, imagination, and intelligence. She’s looking for freedom outside dated, closed-minded thinking. Aren’t we all?
If we needed more proof of her rejection of skin-deep social norms, Belle boldly refuses the proposal of the town’s hero, Gaston—the embodiment of narrow, grossly patriarchal, and superficial values. When Belle seems at her wit’s end with society’s shallowness, her father’s horse returns home without him, and she must journey into the woods to save him somehow.
Queue Disney magic.
As she flees her town, she enters an enchanted castle full of talking clocks, feather dusters, and a temperamental Beast. To save her father, Belle bravely offers to take his place as the Beast’s prisoner. Let’s pause to celebrate a Disney first—a woman saving a man in distress. Refreshingly unlike previous Disney princesses, Belle does most of the saving in this story.
What else is refreshing about this story? We actually get to see a real relationship unfold. We watch a gradual (healthy) development of love. After Belle stands up to the Beast’s bark, the two discover how similar they actually are and how they can bring out the best in each other. Belle brings out the Beast’s unselfishness and humanity (literally and figuratively) while the Beast celebrates Belle’s love of books, her playfulness (see snowball fight), and her strength. They both become better people—and isn’t that the kind of relationship we want (and should encourage young people to want)?
As the movie nears its end, the Beast releases Belle from prison, representing Belle’s final step in becoming completely free. She goes to save her father once again. And, just when the Beast loses all hope of being free from his own form of imprisonment, Belle returns to break the spell. Let’s pause again to celebrate another Disney first—a spell that can only be broken by a woman! In fact, Belle arguably controls the fate of all the characters in the movie. How cool is that?
It could be argued that Belle leaves one “glass coffin”* to enter another. After all, she’s still dependent on marriage for some sense of self-actualization, right? Wrong. Belle’s active defiance against becoming a “little wife,” her resistance to aggressive societal expectations, and the way she continually exerts her freedom to choose her own fate (let’s not forget that she actually chooses to leave the Beast’s castle at one point) shows that not only does she know herself, but that she respects herself first and foremost. In the end, it’s her choice to return to and remain in the castle—a place where people respect and admire her for who she is on the inside. In fact, they consult with her as a leader!
So while Beauty and the Beast is packed with ugly issues—from bullying and peer pressure to obsession with physical beauty—Belle shows each of us that we can overcome these obstacles. Unlike any Disney princess before her, she represents us—our uniqueness, our intelligence, our fierceness, our struggle to fit into ridiculous social molds—and should inspire us to dream big and never settle for less than we’re worth!
* Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. N.p.: Yale University, 1979. 3-44. Print.
* Image from fanpop.com