Animated Children’s Films: Despite an Intelligent Heroine, Sexism Taints Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’

This is a guest review by Megan Kearns.

–>An intelligent, strong-willed, female protagonist. Who reads books. And seeks adventure. With a heroine like Belle, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, must be a feminist-minded film. Right?? At first, I thought so too. But appearances can be deceiving…

Hailed by critics as a touching romance and one of the greatest animated films ever made, Beauty and the Beast became the first animated movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. When I watched it in the theatre years ago, I too fell under its spell, seduced by its lush animation, whimsical tunes and of course Belle.

It felt refreshing to see an intelligent, outspoken, animated heroine who loved to read. Outspoken and loved books? I was outspoken and loved books! I saw myself in Belle. She was a misunderstood misfit, wanting “more than this provincial life” to which she had been born. I too felt like an outcast, yearning for adventure and freedom. We were kindred spirits.

But it wasn’t until years later that I saw the crack in the veneer. As I got older and embraced myself as a feminist, I began to question things more diligently. Once you start to see sexism, you can’t NOT see it. Sadly, it’s everywhere, including children’s films. Actually it’s possibly most prevalent in children’s films, which often reinforce tired and oppressive gender roles and stereotypes.

–>Yes, Belle is intelligent, courageous, curious, opinionated…all the things I admire in female protagonists. Disney was painfully aware of the criticism against The Little Mermaid’s Ariel giving up her family, her life, hell even her voice all for a stupid prince. Linda Woolverton, Beauty and the Beast’s screenwriter, drew inspiration for Belle from tomboyish, book-loving, outspoken Jo in Little Women. Belle’s feisty independence heralded a new kind of Disney heroine, paving the way for Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan. And yes, we often see the world from her vantage point, another plus. Although the film begins and ends with the Beast, who also happens to go through the biggest transformation (literally and figuratively) in the film. Despite her awesomeness, there’s still a huge problem with Belle.

Even though Belle possesses admirable traits, her merit still comes down to her looks. The Beast, Gaston, the villagers and the enchanted servants all exclaim she’s beautiful, gorgeous, pretty and “her looks have no parallel.” Girls and women should be valued for their intellect, skills and kindness. But no one in the movie is raving about Belle’s inner beauty. Not only is Belle stunning, which of course all Disney “princesses” must be, and white and thin (god we need some diversity in films). It’s her name. Her fucking name is “BELLE,” which in French means “beautiful!” Despite her intelligence and bibliophile ways, even her fucking name revolves around her looks. Once again, women are subjugated and reduced to their appearances. Disney says sure, it’s okay to be smart, bookish, even a weird outcast…as long as you’re pretty. Ugh. 

–>In fact, the whole goddamn movie revolves around beauty. Symbols of beauty (mirrors and roses), permeate the film. Ironic since the intended moral of the fairy tale is looking past appearances to seek true inner beauty. But here’s the kicker. Beauty and the Beast would never have been made with a woman as a beast. Again reinforcing that yep, beauty is only skin deep…if you’re a dude. If you’re a woman, you’d best be gorgeous.

The only other female characters in the movie are Mrs. Potts (I heart Angela Lansbury!), the wardrobe (who has no personality) and the French maid feather duster. A grandmotherly type and a sexpot. Of course Disney does their notorious matricide in the form of the protagonist’s mother either dead or non-existent. They demonize stepmothers and solely focus on both daughters’ and sons’ relationships with their fathers. Seriously, Disney, what the hell have you got against mothers?? And yep, I’m aware Mrs. Potts is Chips’s mother. Doesn’t count. Not only is she not Belle’s mother, she’s a fucking teapot for most of the film. Belle has no female friends, no mother, no sister, no female role model. The importance of female camaraderie and sisterly bonding remain absent from the film.

Unlike many female characters in animated films (or annoying rom-coms for that matter), Belle isn’t looking to be rescued or waiting around for her prince. Two reasons that make Belle a feminist in Woolverton’s eyes. Belle rejects the sexist chauvinist Gaston and his numerous marriage proposals, finding him “boorish” and “brainless.” She wants more out of life than shining that jerk’s boots and popping out his babies. But Belle rebuffs one dysfunctional suitor for another.

–>A cursed spoiled prince, the Beast imprisons Belle’s father, Maurice, for trespassing. When Belle comes to his rescue, she sacrifices her cherished freedom, for his release. As a “guest” prisoner in the castle, the Beast demands Belle attend dinner with him and forbids her from the West Wing. He screams and throws things at her, his selfish temper raging out of control. Oh, I forgot…the Beast is a romanticized tortured soul. So it’s okay if he’s an abrasive douchebag!

Sure, the sympathetic Beast eventually becomes nicer, giving Belle access to his library and letting birds treat him like a bird feeder. And I do like that Belle and the Beast become friends first before falling in love, which rarely happens in fairy tales. Except for one teeny tiny thing. He’s her captor. Falling in love with the guy who imprisons you, holds you hostage, tells you when to eat, where to go and doesn’t let you see your family?! That’s not love. That’s Stockholm Syndrome, sweetie.

 

–>Poisonous messages about love and relationships plague Beauty and the Beast. Don’t worry, ladies…if you suffer and stick by him long enough, your man will change. Just be patient with a guy who’s controlling or abusive. In her lifetime, 1 in 4 women will suffer domestic violence. More and more teenage girls contend with dating violence. Love should not hurt. Ever. But this movie (and sooooo many others) insidiously tells girls that when they grow up, they should stand by their man. Even if he treats you like shit.

I’ll admit Belle as a female character is a step in the right direction. She’s smart, stubborn, kind and ambitious. But Belle gives up her entire life to live forever in a castle with an asshat prince. What about her goals? Her dreams?? Oh that’s right. She becomes a princess! Yet another princess in the pantheon of princesses clogging up girlie-girl media.

Films and books reinforce gender roles and with a lack of female characters, imply that girls and women don’t count. Out of Disney’s 51 theatrically-released animated movies, only 13 feature a female character as a protagonist (16 if you count co-protagonists), most of them princesses. Princesses only care about their clothes and hair. Their looks matter more than their personalities. It seems society would rather teach girls to obsess over their appearance and how to snag a man.

Couldn’t Belle have opened up a bookshop/café or started a book drive or something?? When Belle sang about wanting “more than this provincial life,” I simply refuse to believe twirling around a ballroom in a pretty gown is what she had in mind.

–>People might think I’m being silly or overreacting about a Disney movie. Fair enough. But I call bullshit. Listen, when we’re young, books, music, movies, TV shows, advertisements and even toys teach us gender roles and identity. Little boys pretend they’re kings or aspire to be president while little girls yearn not to lead like queens, but to be passive princesses. One film probably won’t have much impact. But when the same sexist messages repeat over and over and over and over…well, then it seeps in.

I’m not going to lie. I still watch Beauty and the Beast, singing along to the songs. When I discovered Disney World was building a Beauty and the Beast themed restaurant and attraction, I admit I felt giddy with excitement. But look beyond the gorgeous animation, catchy show tunes and unique heroine.

Sadly, you’ll see yet another fabulous film tainted by sexism, spreading toxic messages that reinforce damaging beauty norms, violence against women and suffocating gender stereotypes.

Not all that glitters is gold. Unwrapping the beautiful package can sometimes yield an ugly core.

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Megan Kearns is a feminist vegan blogger, freelance writer and activist. She blogs at The Opinioness of the World, where she shares her opinions on gender equality, living cruelty-free, Ellen Ripley and delish vegan cupcakes. Her work has also appeared at Arts & Opinion, Fem2pt0, Italianieuropei, Open Letters Monthly, and A Safe World for Women. She earned a B.A. in Anthropology and Sociology and a Graduate Certificate in Women and Politics and Public Policy. Megan lives in Boston with more books than she will probably ever read in her lifetime.

Megan contributed reviews of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Something Borrowed, !Women Art Revolution, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Kids Are All Right (for our 2011 Best Picture Nominee Review Series), The Reader (for our 2009 Best Picture Nominee Review Series), Mad Men (for our Mad Men Week), Game of Thrones and The Killing (for our Emmy Week 2011), Alien/Aliens (for our Women in Horror Week 2011), and I Came to Testify, Pray the Devil Back to Hell and Peace Unveiled in Women, War & Peace series. She was the first writer featured as a Monthly Guest Contributor. 

  • http://gynostar.wordpress.com/ Rebecca

    Lovely job uncovering the deeply sexist problems in a film which, on the surface, seems to be progressive and girl-positive.

    I always thought it was strange that Belle sings, “I want adventure in the great wide open… I want so much more than they’ve got planned.” But then her happy ending is falling in love and getting married. What happened to her dreams of adventure?

    Maybe she really meant that marrying a prince instead of a village proletarian would be a huge adventure. Or maybe, the line in the song that really counts is when she sings, “And for once it might be grand/To have someone understand.” In the end, it’s really just love that Belle wants after all. As long as her beloved understands that she wants adventure, then the matter of adventure itself becomes incidental. Beast understands her need for excitement, and that’s just as good as actually experiencing the excitement..?

    Also, it occurs to me that the rivalry between Beast and Gaston is a charming little illustration of classic patriarchy, in the Kate Millet Sexual Politics mold. Gaston is a sexual predator, pretty clearly. He wants to marry Belle and he won’t take “no” for an answer. In that sense Belle has to turn to Beast for protection. Yes, the movie goes to pains to show you that Belle can take care of herself… but in the end, Gaston turns out to be murderous. Would there be anything Belle could have done to stop him? No. She needs the Beast to eliminate the sexual threat Gaston poses. Classic patriarchy — women forced to depend upon men to protect them from other men!

    How amazing would it have been if the movie ended with Belle saying, “You know, I don’t want to get married yet. I want to have those adventures I was talking about.” Instead, she gets married to kindly strong and overpowering man instead of brutish strong and overpowering man, and calls it a big victory for freedom of choice.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17749716002585851998 Jaimi-Lee

    The story of beauty and the beast is the story La belle et la bête by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve written in 1740 to help young girls who had arranged marriages find beauty in a beast. And in 1991 when it was released it was a modern twist on the original story which without having those particular gender and “captive” portrayals, defeats the purpose of trying to help young girls in those situations, they wouldn’t be able to relate. And it wouldn’t be the original fairy tale.

    Just a thought, but maybe Disney only had father figures because he was one. And having a step mother, in ancient times was always associated with loss and so it had negative connotations, leading to the ‘evil’ stepmother stereotype.

    And in the end she ends up with a man that shares his library with her, etc rather than Gaston who thinks she would look forward to having dinner ready for him when he gets home and then she can rub his feet. At the end Belle is an equal to Beast/ Prince not his slave as most women were during the time of the original fairy tale.

    These fairy tales aren’t relevant in todays society and should be put into context before being critiqued.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11429492075481360516 Hermione20

    I have to disagree that its “Stockholm Syndrome” with Belle& the beast. Its actually the opposite Syndrome. Did Belle, in anyway change herself? No since this is what I guess would happen if she had married Gaston. Gaston would prevent her from reading, and have her be a baby-making machine and also be in the kitchen all the time.

    If he’s anything like the Gaston from the musical those three girls who are crying at the almost wedding the ones who say this in the “Belle” song:
    “Look there he goes
    Isn’t he dreamy?
    Monsieur Gaston
    Oh he’s so cute
    Be still my heart
    I’m hardly breathing
    He’s such a tall, dark, strong and handsome brute”

    Gaston would have cheated on Belle with them anyway.

    Belle is the first person to have told off the Beast for his temper. Also helped me after he helped her.

    She could have left him to die as a Beast in the snow, but she didn’t.

    http://www.musicorld.com/libretto/beautynbeast/libretto1.html

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03681036497063084494 Megan "The Opinioness" Kearns

    @Rebecca, thank you so much for your kind words :) I could not agree with you more, particularly your mention of the rivalry of the Beast and Gaston illustrating patriarchy.

    If Belle had stayed single, refused to settle for someone with control issues and a violent temper, opened a book shop or traveled around the world — now THAT would have been a fantastic message for little girls everywhere.

    @Jaimi-Lee, fairy tales might not be relevant in today’s society. Yet they continually provide a backdrop for a plethora of modern films. The media keeps churning out and perpetuating fairy tales’ lessons and warnings. So we certainly can critique and analyze them with a modern lens.

    @Hermione20, I know not everyone sees the film as possessing Stockholm Syndrome. But Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t mean Belle would change herself. It means that a prisoner becomes acutely sympathetic to their captor, going so far as defending them and their oppressive behavior. This is exactly what happened here.

    And why must Belle either marry the Beast or marry Gaston? Why couldn’t she stay single and have adventures?

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