In the opening scene of Disney’s new live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, we find out why the prince was cursed to become a beast. He’s materialistic and selfish, and he taxes citizens so he can fill his castle with beautiful golden objects. When he refuses to help an indigent, elderly woman (who’s actually a powerful sorceress), she punishes him for his greed.
Amid the surge of anti-Trump, “Women’s March” feminism of 2017, it’s tough to understand why Disney is reviving a story that’s so disempowering for its central female character. Or maybe it’s right in line with reality: The film came out the same week President Donald Trump released his heartless budget proposal, making it impossible not to see the parallels between the greedy prince and Trump, the gilded castle and the golden halls of Mar-a-Lago, Belle and Melania. Given the choice to perhaps update Belle—to make her someone young girls, tweens, and teens could admire—Disney instead opted to make her almost as compliant as she is in its popular and beloved 1991 animated version. And she was hardly an improvement over the character depicted in the pages of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s Magasin des enfans in 1756.
Belle (Emma Watson) remains uncommonly beautiful, but her neighbors think she’s “odd” because she loves to read and because she wants a life beyond their French village. Through the usual series of unfortunate events, Belle winds up imprisoned in the Beast’s castle. From the get-go, he is frightening and cruel, both to Belle and to her father (Kevin Kline). It’s notable that in the 18th-century version, the Beast is kind from the start, perhaps to offset his monstrous appearance. Somewhere along the way, however, the fairy tale became one not of seeing beyond a man’s looks, but seeing beyond a man’s abusive behavior and somehow falling in love with the tender-hearted guy supposedly trapped within. That Belle—an ostensibly smart, self-confident girl—would soften toward a vain and greedy prince who was transformed into a brutal demon is almost laughably implausible. It also sends a dangerous message to the girls who look up to her.
Beauty and the Beast is part of a family of folk tales in which “an almost supernaturally beautiful girl [marries] a hideous monster,” Iona and Peter Opie write in their book The Classic Fairy Tales. There are stories of girls married to rams, pigs, goats, monkeys, wolves, bears, and crocodiles. Viewed this way, one can almost hear the self-proclaimed “nice guys” of antiquity writing these pre-Beauty tales to badmouth women who marry someone they don’t approve of. (The character Gaston would be their patron saint.) In its first versions, Beauty and the Beast isn’t really about seeing past the surface and falling in love with the person underneath. If it were, the protagonist’s name wouldn’t literally be Beauty.
In just about every version of Beauty and the Beast, Belle is the one who decides to become the Beast’s captive. On the surface this looks like free will, but she’s martyring herself to save her father. Her feelings of imprisonment soften in the presence of good food, a gorgeous bedroom, and a vast library, as though that were enough to make a woman accept captivity. She makes a couple of attempts to escape, but the household items—the prince’s servants, transformed through the sorceress’ curse—begin scheming to make Belle fall in love with the Beast so they can be freed. “Master’s not as bad as he appears,” chirps the talking teapot (Emma Thompson), urging Belle to give him a chance. Oddly, Belle isn’t disturbed by this pressure; she’s charmed. It doesn’t strike Belle as problematic that the servants want their freedom at the expense of her own.
Belle is firmly part of what Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, calls the “princess-industrial complex”; princess-related merch earned Disney more than $4 billion between 2000 and 2009. Disney has spent much of the past two decades hawking Belle princess gowns, flip-flops, swimsuits, lunchboxes, backpacks, dolls, wands, tiaras, and so very much more. Disney is poised to cash in on a new generation of girls who’ll want to be just like Belle.
I’m the mom of an 8-year-old girl. There are a variety of reasons I don’t like Disney, and high on the list is the fact that it provides such awful role models. Many of Disney’s most famous films tell girls they should strive to be princesses, to be beautiful, to marry into royalty, or all of the above. I wasn’t impressed with its recent attempts at stronger female characters in Frozen or Pixar’s Brave, let alone its older films, so I haven’t shown my daughter any of them. The Beauty and the Beast remake gives me zero hope that Disney’s likely to change its tune anytime soon. We know that women around the world remain trapped in brutal marriages, hoping their husbands will one day turn kind. We need to stop giving them reasons to think that’s likely and start giving girls better fairytales. I want my daughter to embrace her strength, her wits, her kindness, and her right to equality. It’s time for Disney to take its cues from the young heroines in Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli movies and stop force-feeding girls the princess paradigm.