I’m going to start out this post by stating that it will be extremely biased. Biased in the fact that I LOVE Disney and Disney films, particularly the new Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson. So biased in fact, that I saw the movie twice in its opening weekend (I don’t care what you say!)
Now that I have prefaced my blog post with my bias, I would like to discuss the topic of Beauty and the Beast and feminism. Recently, I have read several articles knocking the new film for pretending to be feminist and then hopelessly failing to actually be feminist. One thing that came to mind right away was: well, how do they define feminism? Is feminism the belief that men and women should be equal in all respects? And does it include Emma Watson’s recent statements that women should be able to make their own choices (such as flashing some side boob on a magazine cover)?
If I take these common-held beliefs about feminism (women and men should be equal, and free to make their own choices), then I am actually starting to see more feminist qualities in Beauty and the Beast than before, even if it fails in other aspects. Sure, we have to remember that all media forms are a type of performance (feminism is the new “it” topic–Disney is going to follow suit), but let’s take a look at some of the complaints of those denouncing the film for its lackluster feminism.
Spoiler alerts for anyone who has not seen the movie!
- Many articles point out that Belle’s inventiveness is not feminist enough (I hate these words already) because the invention she creates is a washing machine. This harkens back to images of 1950s housewives and the rhetoric that the new fangled doodads will help women complete their housework in half the time. Back in the 1950s however, the new technology did free up time for housewives but only in the sense that it gave her more time to complete…more housework. In Beauty and the Beast (2017), Belle’s washing machine invention gives her free time to…teach another little girl how to read. If we are to assume that the time period in B&B is mid-eighteenth century, then we should also be cognizant of the fact that most women (especially working village girls) could not read or write. So already, Belle (in both film versions) is pretty progressive for her time period (and also the reason why the village finds her odd). The washing machine fits in with the time period of the movie, and also gives her time to pursue an education of sorts. Also, did anyone else notice that partly the reason the village finds her odd is because she’s not constantly doing chores like everyone else? Home-girl is doing her own thing.
- One of the things that most people
point out about B&B is that the message of the film is all wrong: we should not be teaching young girls to fall in love with abusive and quick-tempered men (especially ones who hold us captive), or that we can change these men into gentle princes. I wholeheartedly see how that narrative has potentially dangerous consequences. B&B, in my opinion, does have an odd story-line (what traditional fairy tale doesn’t?) but pretty much at every moment Belle has the option to leave (and takes that option twice). She rushes out of the castle after the Beast finds her in the West Wing, with little blocking her way, and is only stopped by wolves. The second time she leaves to check on her father. Both times it is by her own free will, and she isn’t forced to return–she still has that option. She returns solely because an angry mob is about to kill the Beast. This situation could have hazardous effects in our modern world, especially for women who have no other options but to stay with abusive men; however, Belle does have other options– she chooses to go back to the Beast because of her love for him. The difficult part of where this situation could apply to our lives appears to not be a problem with feminism, but rather an economic (and emotional) issue that has underlying problems tied to gendered rhetoric. Also, as scholars, we must be mindful of a few more things: 1) sometimes women are the abusers in a relationship 2) people with mental health issues should not be tossed aside as “beasts” unworthy of help or devotion.
- Belle refuses Gaston, an asshole but nevertheless suitable match for an 18th-century Belle, at every turn. What is more pro-feminist than that?
I realize that there are potentially hundreds more ways to tackle B&B and the underlying issues with the narrative itself–and that my own blog post is extremely biased because of my love for the film–but if we are to take the word feminism and its most common definitions, it appears that Disney didn’t do too shabby of a job. Clearly, there are other economic difficulties that we must address (Belle has other options because she has a loving father and home to return to), but at every moment she chooses what she wants and doesn’t allow her “place” as a woman to determine what she does.