Beauty and the Beast: Belle is an inconsistent feminist in a potentially progressive film
Emma Watson called Belle, the female protagonist of the film Beauty and the Beast, the "first real feminist Disney princess". She took pride in her role and said that she considers the character one of her heroes. She even went to the extent of saying that she has modelled herself on the character and was keen to "push" Belle's position as a feminist.
The problem is that Belle is a feminist, but there are inconsistencies in her brand of feminism.
In the song 'Belle Reprise', we see Belle taking a tour of the village, talking about how fervently she wishes she could visit the world that lies outside it. She reiterates that she wants "more than this provincial life" and that she cannot imagine being Gaston's (the beast's antagonist) "little wife". She is the polar opposite of a set of three young women dolled up in excessive makeup, who keep falling at Gaston's feet every time they see him.
There is an instance where she uses a horse combined with a cleverly designed mechanism to do the laundry, instead of doing it with her hands like the other women in her village. She is an inventor, just like her father. For this, she is looked at with disdain. We see the villagers scorn at her for being different. Belle can also read; a trait that earns her the ill-will of the villagers, who even discourage her from teaching other children to read. But all this makes her more endearing to audience members such as me.
I like that she is so vocal about her dreams and that no amount of social pressure changes her way of thinking. She has a thinking brain and she loves reading, both of which contribute immensely to her character. But these characteristics are focused on to the extent of being excessive, and along with the constant comparison to the girls who wear excessive make up, it almost seems as though Beauty and the Beast feels that only women who read books and are capable of inventing machines can be feminists. That only women who want to see the world, who prefer to not wear loud makeup and who are ambitious must be looked up to.
But that's a flaw. Belle shouldn't be considered better than other women just because she is different.
Let's examine her relationship with the beast. There is a moment when he asks her if she would like to continue staying with him weeks after he locked her up, to which she responds by saying that she cannot be truly happy unless she is free. I saw this as one of the film's biggest victories; Belle acknowledged that even though she was happy around him and in his house, she was still a captive whose freedom of movement was controlled by the beast.
But, at the end of the story, Belle still ends up living with her captor. She may feel obligated towards him because he saved her life, and they may have developed a connection because she helped him to recover from the wolf attack, but that does not take away from the fact that Belle chose to stay with a man whose abusive nature she was aware of.
It can be argued that the beast changed after he met Belle. When the beast allows her to (key word: allows) to leave his castle to go rescue her father, she calls him kind. She holds this momentary kindness in such high regard that she tries to convince the villagers of it and later returns to the castle to save the beast. But can a healthy, loving relationship between two adults ever be born out of an abusive, controlling past?
It must also be noted that the Beast's change in behaviour towards Belle was partly motivated by the selfish need to turn back into a human being, and partly on the insistence of the supporting characters to treat her better. If it weren't for the supporting characters, Belle may have still been languishing in that cell the beast put her into.
Perhaps the makers of the film incorporated the happily-ever-after ending to stay true to the original. In this sense, I do think that the film is a good exercise in how to make an inherently patriarchal plot more progressive.
There is one part of Belle and the beast's relationship that I find positive — their love for books. They bond over Shakespeare's works, as well as other literature. It makes the romance more believable and relatable.
But then, there's a crucial problem with the choice of actor for this role. Emma Watson is a conventionally good looking, slim white woman. I mention this point specifically, because the one character who does not conform to the female beauty standard of thinness is Mrs. Potts, an overweight woman who provides comic relief through physical comedy.
Maybe Belle is a step in the right direction, but she is far from being a feminist I would look up to.