Recently it’s been announced that Emma Watson has been cast as Belle for the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. It’s great casting, though my only concern is why we need a live-action remake at all. I then read a newspaper article a few weeks ago about the news, and it brought up a subject which got on my nerves. I tend to be very defensive over the Disney Princesses since I feel they’re usually under represented, and here is no different.
I couldn’t find the article anywhere online, but the article begins with how the original French fairy tale was essentially a story about Stockholm Syndrome, which other people use that same argument against the Disney film…. which makes absolutely no sense, since Belle never gave in to the Beast’s aggressive behaviour. Stockholm Syndrome means that she would be submissive to his anger and violence, but in the Disney film she never is: even in one scene she ends up showing more dominance over him when she tends his wound, telling him that he “should learn to control his temper”. Now that takes guts. She only gets to trust the Beast when he makes an effort to change for good. And as they keep learning from each other, true love begins to blossom. So how so many people use this argument against this film is beyond my comprehension.
The article thankfully doesn’t use that argument against the Disney film, and admits that Belle was written as a much more independent character. However, what really irritated me was when she claimed that Belle is nonetheless a weak character because “she still marries the prince in the end” and that the casting of feminist Emma Watson means that “this time Belle can save the prince from the dragon and not get together with him”.
Really? Just… REALLY?
First off, Belle is already a feminist character! Dare I say it, she is perhaps the strongest and most independent Disney character, and even one of the strongest and most independent fictional characters ever! She wants to live a life of her own and not to conform to the expectations of society. If she ever does marry, it will be on her own terms and when she feels she’s ready: not what society, and least of all Gaston, tells her she should be. It’s one of her greatest strengths: she won’t allow anyone to push her away from her identity.
Besides, she did save the Beast! The Beast had only really saved her once in the wolf attack as an attempt to be forgiven for his mistake (though not to undermine his character). Belle had saved the Beast by helping him change into a better person and helping him earn back his humanity. And let’s not forget that at the beginning she sacrificed her freedom to save her father from his imprisonment.
But if saving more than one person’s life, and standing up against authority, against the norms of society, against Gaston who pressures her to marry him, and the Beast when he’s being forceful and aggressive, means nothing if she falls in love, then what does that mean? It’s okay for her not to want to marry Gaston, and yet it’s not okay for her to marry someone she’s learned to love and who truly loves her back. The answer… it’s because she got married at all.
This is an argument which I’ve seen people use over and over against the Disney Princesses. In The Princess and the Frog, for example, Tiana was a career-orientated woman who dreamed of opening up her own restaurant, but people who criticised the character made it seem like her falling for Prince Naveen was a bad message for young women, EVEN IF she does get her restaurant in the end. But it doesn’t just apply to them: this argument has been used against other female characters. I haven’t seen the show Alias, but in the WatchMojo.com video of the “Top 10 Disappointing TV Show Finales”, they mentioned that the character Sydney Bristow had quit her job “to live a quiet life as a wife and mother, which is fine, except it betrayed the badass icon of feminism Sydney had become.” People are making it seem like marriage is the worst thing ever. That a woman can only be strong and independent if she stays single. If a woman wants to stay single and never get married, that’s fine, but why does that automatically make her stronger than a married woman?
And I’m not just talking about marriage. I’m talking about love. As if to say “if a woman falls in love, it enforces the idea that women only care about getting a man.” Yes, to assume that women only care about love and only care about getting a man is a stupid and old-fashioned stereotype. But can’t we say that a woman is allowed to have a job and fall in love? Just because a woman does fall in love doesn’t mean that the stereotype can be applied to them. Take me for example: I dream of becoming a successful filmmaker, but I also dream of finding my true love someday. Does that make me weaker than anyone else or pull me back from my ambitions? No. If anything, I think I become stronger when I believe in love. Maybe love is not perfect, but I believe that it’s worthwhile. People have many dreams, but there’s always room for love.
In fact, why isn’t a guy criticised for falling in love? If the same circumstances are set on them, it really won’t matter. No one ever criticised Hercules in the Disney film for giving up his God-like status and choosing to be a mortal to stay with Meg. If Meg were in his place, people would probably criticise her because she refused a position of power for a man.
In old fairy tales, princesses were normally depicted as the helpless characters who had to be rescued, and as a prize or reward for the man who rescues her (and some people make it seem like all Disney Princesses fit this trope, which couldn’t be further from the truth, least of all Belle). Over time, female characters have gone against the trope, princess or not. And usually a “strong female character” is used to describe a woman who “doesn’t need a man to save her”. It’s obviously very forward thinking because it presents strong and independent female characters and encourages women to take on those qualities. And of course, it’s awesome to see women who are smart and capable in their own rights, and also be involved in the action for once. However, in today’s context, the phrase “she doesn’t need a man” has taken a different meaning: as if women can only truly be independent if they stay single, have a career and don’t fall for a man, and quitting their job to become a full-time mother means that they’re giving a bad name to women. Now being a housewife is not a bad thing if that’s your choice, but women shouldn’t be forced to pick between one or the other: women should have the freedom to have either option, and even choose both. Because if men are allowed to get a job and be married at the same time, why not women?
I’m not saying that the term “strong female character” is wrong. I’m saying that people are looking at it the wrong way. Love is not a weakness. No one is wrong to fall in love. No one becomes helpless or stupid if they’re in love, and there are many examples to prove so. Zoe Washburne from Firefly is a very strong and capable woman, and second-in-command of the ship, but she’s happily married to one of the crew members. The reason why Once Upon a Time and Sailor Moon are among my favourite shows is because, on top of having a wide range of female characters you can look up to, it shows that a woman can be strong and in a high position of power, but also fall in love and want to have a family, and nobody is looked down upon for doing so. If anything, being a parent is both valuable and respectable. In both of these shows’ mythos, love is the strongest force there is, which is a very inspiring message for anyone, whether you’re a man or a woman.
Yes, we should have more female characters who are leaders and are more independent and have their own unique strengths, and we should encourage writers to have more female protagonists, since the sad truth is that there really isn’t enough of them. But whether they are warriors or princesses or both, working women or mothers or both, we shouldn’t shame a female character for falling in love (unless that’s their only trait, characteristic or purpose in the narrative). Belle was not just there to fall in love or do what the story told her to do. She was her own character with her own journey, and she inspired women to be strong and whatever else they chose to be. Emma Watson being cast in this role is like a no-brainer.
But if people are going to keep complaining so much about it, then Beauty and the Beast might as well not be a love story, and the Beast find another way to break the curse outside of dumb emotions. Because to them, love is some stupid fairy tale nonsense which gives women a bad name.