Beauty and the Beast: A Defense of Belle

Last night, for the first time in many years, I watched one of my favorite childhood movies, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The timing seemed right, since the movie will soon be re-released in theaters and was recently reviewed at Bitch Flicks by Megan Kearns, aka The Opinioness of the World, another blogger I’ve recently become a fan of. Taking Megan’s concerns into consideration, I watched the movie for the first time with the eyes of an adult. While this movie does not completely overcome the problems endemic to many Disney Princess films, I think the Bitch Flicks review misses a few crucial points.

With regard to the argument about Belle’s merit being in her looks, I actually read this as an indictment of the society in which she lives. It is the villagers and the people around her who judge her merit on her looks; not Belle herself. In fact, she seems rather indifferent toward her appearance for much of the film. She doesn’t appear to wear makeup, keeps her hair in a ponytail (as opposed to the other village girls, who seem to have ample quantities of whatever passes for hair product in the 18th century), and wears the same outfit all. the. time. Do the villagers judge her on her looks? Sure, but throughout the film the villagers are shown to be small-minded assholes. Likewise, though her beautiful appearance is noted by others upon her arrival at the castle, what ultimately prompts the Beast to thaw towards her is not her looks, but her kindness toward him and, it seems, her willingness to put him in his place where appropriate.

Also, the Bitch Flicks review fails to mention the movie’s treatment of masculinity. I think that Gaston’s song is a particularly brilliant send-up of traditional masculine norms. Gaston’s embodiment of the masculine qualities so admired in the village are taken to such ridiculous extremes that there can be no confusing Gaston for a hero. He starts bar fights! He’s the size of a barge! He uses antlers in all of his decorating! At one point, when Gaston decides to kill the Beast, and tells Belle and her father “you’re either with us or you’re against us,” I couldn’t help but wonder if George W. Bush lifted his foreign policy directly from Gaston. Contrast this version of masculinity with the Beast, who ultimately becomes sympathetic when he learns to listen to Belle, puts her needs before his own, and refuses to strike the first blow at Gaston.

Beauty and the Beast

The "big and tall" men's shop did a great job with this one.

A final point, and one that I myself never noticed until now, is that we never actually see that Belle marries the Beast. I had to go back and watch this again, but in the final scene where we see them dancing, there’s no concrete indication that a wedding has taken place. Unlike The Little Mermaid and several other Disney Princess films, there is no wedding scene, she is not wearing a wedding dress, and there is no visible wedding ring (Belle is wearing gloves in the final scene). The castle is filled with flowers, but this may just be a sign of spring returning to the castle. While it’s declared that Belle and Prince Adam will live happily ever after, I like to think this scene leaves open the possibility that she has still chosen a life that is nontraditional in some ways. Her happy ending, unlike that of other Disney princesses, is not “marriage” per se, but that she has found a partner who understands her and that she has escaped the oppressive life and expectations of her village.*

There are certainly valid points to be made about the movie. Beast’s imprisonment of Belle is admittedly bothersome, but it raises the question of how far the movie could stray from source material. It seems clear to me that writers struggled with this issue, too. Efforts are made to imply that she’s “not really so much a prisoner… .” Look, she’s given nice accommodations! Invited to dinner! The flatware puts on a show for her and calls her a guest! This of course really doesn’t overcome the problematic aspect of Belle falling in love with her captor, but it at least complicates the original tale.

Maybe it’s just me being sentimental, but after many years, I still see praiseworthy points in this movie. On balance, I think Disney gets it right with Belle.

*I am aware that Disney’s post-production promotion of Belle as one of the Disney Princesses does imply that a marriage between her and the prince takes place at some point… but I stand by my assertion that nowhere in the film do we see that happening, which is a contrast to many of Disney’s other movies.

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