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The Hidden Truths Behind “Beauty & the Beast” Enchanting Disney Story

I am speechless. Dazzled. Enchanted. Astonished. I am indeed a feminist, who loves fairy tales. And Emma Watson. I love the fantasy, plot and romance of those stories. Mixing all those ingredients together, it might end up being quite difficult to be fair and sincere while talking about feminism in Disney movies. I’ve heard so many things about how Beauty and the Beast was breaking away from the gender bias, removing what’s been a very delicate subject in the animated movies industry (talking about its daring sexual inclusivity here) as well as finally empowering its female heroine, that I was both excited and intrigued to see its premiere, just to verify my beliefs and the many rumours.

After watching it, I admit going straight to bed, simply to keep the dream alive and find sleep on those enchanting tunes and wonderful pictures. The day after, trying to make a little research for this article, I came across things I’ve never thought I would come across. There was, among all the virtual ink that movie has gotten, so many criticism, deception and even hatred, aimed at the film Emma Watson herself portrayed as “feminist”, and at the actress herself. Not only was I shocked by what I was reading, but hurt somehow, cause those were not only negative point of views, but they were told as general truths, something I do not adhere to at all.

I’ll try to answer those critics by showing how this new version of the animated movie succeeded in creating, as the classic animated movie was recognised for, “a smart, independent young women, quite in contrast with the previous female leads (passive, pretty and permissive)”[1].

PS: Not only were all the clothes from Emma Watson’s world film tour made from ethical, sustainable or traditional products/materials, all verified by EcoAge (a company that address sustainable issues in clothing and fashion in general), so as her skin products and cosmetics, but I’ve just discovered that some of Beauty & The Beast‘s costumes were actually made from ethical and sustainable products/materials as well, just like her winter red coat! You’ll find all the information about Emma’s sustainable fashion on her Instagram account and on the account she created for her tour, The Press Tour. Enjoy reading those inspirational stories and make sure to check all those fantastic products/brands!

1. Why There’s No Such Thing As the Stockholm Syndrome

Indeed, I reckon the storyline itself is problematic, since it does not read quite well. A gorgeous but funny peasant girl trading her life for her father’s, then locked away (is she imprisoned really?) until she falls in love with him. Apart from a little fight and blood, they live happily ever after. Some people are concerned about the suggestion it makes that girls should stick with their abusive boyfriends, thinking they can fix them. It feels like “Stockholm syndrome”. For those who do not know it, Stockholm Syndrome is where the prisoner falls in love with its captor, in a very strange and complicated way, taking on its characteristics, developing some kind of psychological alliance with him/her, as an unconscious survival strategy. But Belle argues with the Beast constantly, she is in conflict with him and defies him; she finds a way to keep her independence, her independence of mind. As Emma Watson puts it, “she gives as good as she gets”, by banging on the door if he does it, by refusing to go to dinner with him. She does not have any characteristic of a person suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

And she is not staying because she is in love, or fascinated; indeed, she could have escaped. We can see the hesitation in her eyes when seeing the light at the end of the woods, after being attacked by the wolves. She stays because he saved her life. It’s not a normal love story, but a story that builds up slowly. They start really hating each other; then their relationship moves on to friendship, and builds up from that. They end up falling in love, but at the very end only. Nothing “cheesy” or “over-the-top” to that; on the contrary, a much more authentic story.

2. Belle – A New Version of The Well-known “Disney Princess”

Firstly, after the movie, my friend told me “I can get why you would define this movie as feminist, but still, the fact that Belle is always talking about her prince charming makes me feel like there’s still that picture where the girl is waiting for her prince to arrive – that dependant relationship –, which troubles me quite a lot”. I grappled with that reflection. But thinking about it now, I think differently. Not only is the dependence the other way round (cause the beast’s depending on Belle to transform back into human), but the definition of “prince charming” actually is different for her. The sense I’ve got from it is that she’s waiting for someone that uplifts her, who makes her feel understood, who could interest her at least as much as books (which is why she resists Gaston’s romantic approaches).

Secondly, there are many new characteristics about Belle, physically and mentally speaking. She is not an inventor’s daughter anymore, but an inventor herself. Belle’s invention is a washing machine that helps her doing her chores while she can teach a little girl how to read. I can feel my ears burning, you thinking that it actually reinforce the thought that laundry is a woman’s work. Well no! She could have used her intellect to question the reason why she had to do those chores, but hey, we’re not in the 21st century here, she cannot possibly break away from that century’s “traditions” without questioning the reality of the plot itself. What’s more, being the only girl able to read is quite an achievement, in a society/village where boys only could attend school.

Thirdly, Emma has made significant efforts to introduce a stronger and more independent Belle from the one that is developed in the classic 1991 animated film. For instance, she insisted on dropping the corset on her character’s mesmerizing yellow ball gown. As she says in her Vanity Fair interview, Watson tried to redesign Belle’s functional fashion, by ditching ballet shoes for riding boots (“The original sketches had her in her ballet shoes, which are lovely—don’t get me wrong—but she’s not going to be able to do anything terribly useful in ballet shoes in the middle of a French provincial village” she explains), or adding pockets in her outfits.

And finally, Belle is “not a passive character – she is in charge of her own destiny” as the actress puts it. This version of Belle is all about action, not docility (as well portrayed by many other princesses). She holds on to her ideas, makes her own choices and decisions. The grumpy, stormy and rough beast is the passive one here. She never does as she’s told, she is fearless and ventures into parts of the castle she’s forbidden to visit. She is smart, kind, curious and witty, refusing to be a “princess” and replying to the beast’s inquiry of whether she would be happy here with him, “Can anyone be truly happy if they aren’t free?”.

Kats Forsyth, a researcher and author of “The Beauty’s Garden”, a retelling of the original Beauty and the Beast, frame the debate perfectly: “Fairy tales are not stagnant; they are a natural living and evolving aspect of human society, and in this case, I think that this latest version of Beauty and the Beast is much more reflective of where many women are at today”.

3. Fighting Beauty Stereotypes

It is quite obvious that this movie is hinging on the idea that people’s beauty does not define them as a whole; that people can be ugly without and beautiful within. And this is a topic many women (and men of course) struggle with. However, this topic does not apply to our Beauty in this case (cause again, producers could not, and would not, destroy the whole tale by casting a woman who was not completely opposed to the Beast, or at least fit in the tale’s beauty criteria), which is something that has been criticised as well (as if beautiful women could not be as feminist as others…!). Some also say that the Beast is not “beastly” enough; in fact, “he is much better looking as a Beast than he is as a prince”. Okay there, first, I do agree that the grumpy yet tender and strong beast is kind of sexy (do not use that against me please haha!), but the prince (aka. Dan Stevens) is just as juicy! Secondly, I believe we’ve got to see the metaphor behind those physical representations. It’s about a girl falling in love with an appearing beast, who’s just as beasty in his manners and characters.

What’s more, if this movie was not fulfilling its main objective, meaning rejecting those beauty stereotypes, I sincerely do not know why Belle would have rejected Gaston, other that because he did not make her feel understood…just a thought.

And here’s just for you, a thought that Dan expressed to The Daily Beast, on Beauty and the Beast and Emma Watson’s critics: “You need to engage masculine energy, and grapple with what that balance is, what that entails, what are the elements of the patriarchy that need walking down and which are just elements of masculinity that need to be balanced with femininity … All of these ideas are very much at play in Beauty and the Beast and they’re also very much at play in Emma Watson’s mind”.

4. A Great Step Towards Sexual Inclusivity

Last but not least, a very debatable question. Is Disney’s “first official gay character” legitimate? I don’t think I’ve been the only one shocked by the fact that American States and other countries refused to screen the new Disney blockbuster because its offensive “gay scene” could hurt children’s sensitivity, and so on. Well, well, what an inclusive, open-minded and loving society! Many newspapers called LeFou’s imbroglio “an immense wasted opportunity”[2]; but I call it daring inclusivity. The beauty of this subplot actually is hidden in its subtle delicateness. If watching the movie without really thinking, and without reading anything about it in the medias, I do not think anyone could really differentiate LeFou’s fascination and love for Gaston. However, what is less hidden but still very delicate, and that I absolutely love about this plot is – SPOILER ALERT – the “blink-and-you-will-miss-it” moment where LeFou unexpectedly starts dancing with another of Gaston’s men, at the very end. There’s no need to elaborate – their eyes do have a voice of their own (END OF SPOILER ALERT).

I reckon this movie is not the greatest gay emancipatory move of the century, but it is still nice to see that even the world of Disney can open up to portray what our society really looks like: full of heterogeneity, a mix of black and white people, homosexuals and heterosexuals, “beasts” and beauties.

5. The Various Morals that you might relate to/be inspired by

The first and most essential lesson this movie has taught me is to embrace your differences. At some point, Belle asks her father if he “finds her odd”. And his answer is gold. He tells her that those who are different, “funny”, and that usually are subject to mockery, end up being followed by those who harassed them. They set the example, their freedom inspires. Individuality is beautiful, strong and courageous; if you believe you are, you can be sure that it is a power, not a weakness. Be ambitious and bold enough to shine within your own individuality.

Second, a moral I’ve been actually digging for quite deep (and that’s maybe my subconscious talking), is that no matter where you are, who you are and what you look like, you will find love (or it will find you), someone that makes you shine, that rises you up, that understands you, respects you and that equals your own worth. No matter your age, no matter your look, there’s someone waiting for you, that I am sure of. Belle might be beautiful, and young, but she was waiting for the one, when she could easily have another. And look how she found it…unexpectedly, spontaneously and against all odds. (I know, it’s a man made story, but still, it’s quite reassuring, isn’t it?).

Never be fooled by people’s appearances. In some case, what you see from the outside reflects what’s on the inside (which was the case for the beast at the beginning); and if you ever face that situation, please give those people the benefit of the doubt, cause they could surprise you in the most beautiful way. If it is not the case, well accept those people as they truly are, meaning what they look like on this inside (Belle fell in love with a Beast in the end, didn’t she?!). Don’t judge a book by its cover. Walk, live and breathe with an open-heart, and you’ll feel much happier.

To finish off today’s article that would be better defined by the word “dissertation” (sorry for that, if you’re still reading it now, it means you’re a faithful reader and I thank you/love you for that!), let me just inform you about its purpose. I am not trying to make you fall in love with this Disney (well, a little), or make you love Emma Watson and its definition of feminism (well, again, a little haha!). What I would like you to take from this is inspiration; realise that films and arts in general can provide so much more than a simple entertainment, that feminism is essential, that activism may appear in very diverse forms (just like this article) and that you, as your individual self, are beautiful, waiting to be inspired. Embrace the Beauty, or the Beast within you; and if we were all to do that, self-love could become a tale as old as time.

[1] Hunt Shevonne, How Emma Watson Pulled OFF a Feminist Disney In Beauty & the Beast, in “The Sydney Morning Herald”, March 9 2017, http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/news-and-views/is-beauty-and-the-beast-the-first-feminist-disney-movie-20170308-gutequ.html

[2] Robinson Tasha, The Beauty & the Beast Remake is a Long Series of Wasted Opportunities, in “The Verge”, March 17 2017, http://www.theverge.com/2017/3/17/14962212/beauty-and-the-beast-review-remake-gay-lefou-bill-condon-controversy

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