Sadly, I still haven’t gone to see the new live-action Beauty and the Beast yet, but since it seemed timely, I decided to go back and revisit the 1991 animated film first. Ever since it came out, Belle has been lauded as one of the more feminist Disney princesses, especially in comparison to other older Disney protagonists such as Cinderella or Ariel. Belle is book-smart, curious, and outgoing, and she defies societal conventions by being completely unapologetic about who she is. So of course we see her as feminist, and it’s through the use of magic that Disney attempts to capture a feminist message in her narrative. However, despite all of Belle’s potential feminist characteristics, Disney still creates a world in which the only possible option for Belle and the other princesses is to fall in love with and marry a man. The magic in these movies exist to subvert some patriarchal values, but in the end, they adhere to others by continuously rewarding its protagonists with unwanted love interests.
Beauty and the Beast has been the subject of criticism for quite some time. At its core, it’s about a woman in captivity who falls in love with her abusive jailer. We can argue about whether or not Belle suffers from Stockholm syndrome all day, and there’s certainly a lot of legitimacy to that argument, even if I don’t ascribe to it myself personally. That said, I full-heartedly believe that Beauty and the Beast’s message about changing an abuser through acts of kindness and love is a dangerous one to send. Yes, abusers can change and grow and be better people, but it’s not something a victim should count on.
If you’re like me and you also want to see more empowering messages for girls in your fiction, Beauty and the Beast can be an aggravating watch. Belle, Cinderella, and Ariel are all products of their time—earlier Disney animators were not concerned with feminism, and it’s that mindset that’s at the root of this problem.
This might mean that Beauty and the Beast won’t age well over time for many people in its audience, but that’s not to mean that the story has nothing to offer viewers or that everything in it is bad. Even as an adult, I do enjoy what empowering messages Beauty and the Beast and other Disney movies try to convey. Belle, like Ariel and Cinderella and many others, is trapped in a horrible situation. Society doesn’t like or appreciate her—they demand that she conform and Belle finds herself the target of unwanted advances by a man named Gaston who won’t take no for an answer. It’s only after Belle’s father goes missing and she tracks him down that we really get to see any kind of magic at work, and it’s that magic that sets Belle free. She’s thrown into a world that not only challenges her but accepts her for who she is. Initially, the Beast terrifies her, but in the end, it’s a place where she can find belonging. Beauty and the Beast certainly needed to pay more attention to how it went about telling its story, and its positives do not erase its negatives, but it’s the magic in their world that allows Beast and Belle to connect to each other. In order to fall in love, Belle has to look past Beast’s curse to see who he really is as a person, and in turn, Beast has to do the same for Belle. He cannot just treat her as a means to an end in order to break his curse. Unlike Gaston, Beast encourages Belle to be her own person—he even gives her a library and eventually puts her needs before his own, despite the curse hanging over his head.
Similarly, Ariel and Cinderella also find escapism from the horrors of life through magic. Cinderella is abused by her step-mother, but with her fairy godmother’s help, she escapes to a palace and catches the eye of the prince. Ariel lives under the controlling thumb of her father—he yells at her for being independent, destroys her things, and gets angry because she dared not sing a song about how wonderful he is to the entire merkingdom. Using magic, Ariel makes a deal to transform herself into a human and experience the wonders of our world, despite what her father says or does. There is something very empowering about being able to break free from societal chains through magic and getting that happy ending you deserve. This is one of the reasons why Disney princesses resonate so well with female audience goers.
Unfortunately, Disney often fails to truly deliver on its message—magic allows these protagonists to escape one problem, but in the end, it rewards them by shoving them into yet another patriarchal ideal. Cinderella, for instance, just wants to go to a ball and have a good time. She’s dealing with the physical and emotional abuse of her family, and the ball is the first place she gets to be free. Magic transforms her tattered dress into a gorgeous gown, she rides in a carriage made from a pumpkin, and all her horses used to be mice. Although it’s only her transformation that’s magical, the ball she goes to still has a fantastical feel to it. Normal societal life is magical to her, simply because it’s so new, and in it she is safe. Her goal is never to get a man, and yet the movie feels the need to shove a nameless prince at us for her to fall in love with.
This is the main problem with a lot of older Disney movies and I’m left to wonder why magic cannot help these girls in any other way. Why did Cinderella need a man while she’s still recovering from her abusive home life? Why is Ariel’s happy ending only complete because she got married and not because she finally became human? And why is it that it’s Belle’s kindness and love that breaks Beast’s curse and not her intelligence, the trait she’s most known for?
None of these movies had to lose anything by choosing not to conform to patriarchal standards, and we know from other movies that Disney is more than capable of realizing that, particularly in their more recent princess offerings. Rapunzel from Tangled is in a similar position to Cinderella—she’s abused, and in her journey to freedom she finds love along the way. It’s through Rapunzel’s magical hair that she escapes her life and finds herself on the adventure of her dreams. But in the end, while Rapunzel does fall in love with Flynn, her relationship to him is secondary to finding where she belongs and being reunited with her family. Elsa also finds herself set free through magic. Her journey is one of self-acceptance and learning to use her abilities the way she wants to. The end result is a stronger relationship with her sister and she’s rewarded with the support her parents never gave her.
Now that Beauty and the Beast has been remade and The Little Mermaid is sure to follow, I want the narratives to be more aware of their magic and take care to not continuously tell audience goers that women’s happiness lies only in marriages with men. It’s hard to say how they could go about doing that, since these unfeminist themes are at the heart of these stories, but that doesn’t make it impossible. Ariel can still end up with a man if need be, but her time with him shouldn’t be limited to just three days and absolutely no form of communication while establishing their relationship. Prince Eric should not be her end goal and there’s certainly no need for a marriage, especially since Ariel’s main driving personality trait is her desire for independence. As for the live-action Beauty and the Beast, I’ve heard good things about it, so I can only hope that the movie takes greater care with Beast’s curse and doesn’t just regulate Belle into a way to break it through love. I want to see her be intelligent and use that intelligence. Magic should never set girls “free” by throwing them back into traditional gender roles.