Feminism – A Tale as Old as Time

Premiere of live action Beauty and the Beast sparks conversation over symbolism in the film

By Olivia Levesque, Arts and Culture Editor

Animated Disney classics that boys and girls grew up watching are often scrutinized for their sexist trajectories and tendency to portray females as victims of the male gaze. Many will argue that they are just stories and fairy tales, and don’t need to be taken literally. So no, you probably won’t fly around on a magic carpet with a boy you don’t know that well in the near future, or most popular as of late, wind up in a forbidden castle with a hairy beast pinning for your love.

But the way Hollywood and large corporations like Disney portray women in films has a huge impact on the way society and consumers of media see women in the real world. Most old age princesses are portrayed as helpless, meek, and in between the stages of being owned by her family, primarily a father figure, and a charming prince.

Beauty and the Beast, the Disney classic known and loved by many, is a whimsical tale of a French girl named Belle who winds up being held captive in a castle against her will. Her captor, who is a prince under a spell that makes him appear as a beast, ultimately wins her over and they fall in love, and the story, like most fairy tales, ends in a happily ever after. So romantic.

Like many Disney movies before, the idea of the plot derives from 16th century literature. La Belle et la Bête is a traditional fairy tale written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740. Having been adapted from the historic piece of literature, there are many problems with the original movie having overwhelming misogynistic and sexist ideologies attached to it.

Most interestingly, in the 2017 remake that opened on March 17th, actress Emma Watson plays the role of Belle. Watson is known for her work in the fight for women’s rights and equality. Watson has campaigned for this around the world as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and as the face of the HeForShe campaign.  Many have argued that if Watson wanted to help women, she wouldn’t have taken on the role of Belle, or any Disney princess for that matter. However, through adjustments to the story, Watson makes it abundantly clear that like herself, Belle has the option of making choices for herself throughout the film.

It is important to note that Belle made the choice to trade places with her father, who had been imprisoned in the castle before her. It was also her choice to return after making an escape, but decided stay to tend to the injured Beast. These adjustments are known, and important in the journey of cleaning the iconic film of its aspect of male gaze.

Another interesting aspect of the film is that Belle is not only portrayed as an intelligent bookworm, but she is also an inventor, just like her father. In the original, Belle’s father is an inventor, but the remake has included Belle in that profession. This certainly proves that the next step was taken in Belle’s character renewal of adding the dimension of an avid reader to an avid doer. However an invention of Belle’s that is shown in the film is a washing machine type contraption, which is receiving some criticism for the unnerving idea that the only invention she is capable coming up with is in a domestic realm.

One thing that can be affirmed is that Gaston hasn’t changed much. The character of Gaston is extremely sexist and misogynistic. This is so outwardly done that it provides a contrast between characters such as Maurice (Belle’s father), who has a pretty good grip on the idea that his daughter is not a piece of property to him or anyone for that matter. The influence of fatherly figures is noted in the film, as the Beast himself is also a victim of inequality. As young prince he was taught by his father to be cold-hearted and selfish, and it is this focus on masculinity and arrogance that led to his cruel ways. It becomes clear in the first scenes of the movie that Prince Adam, before being placed under the curse was somewhat of a womanizer, hosting elegant parties with countless ladies at his disposal.

Though Watson and the Vanity Fair cover scandal where the actress is seen baring a glimpse of her breasts stirred a frenzy of criticism – people seemed to believe that Watson was somehow not a feminist or deserving of praise for her humanitarian work. Moments like these display how much work we have actually have cut out for us. Just as the Vanity Fair cover doesn’t make Watson any less of a Feminist, nor does playing the decision of playing role of Belle. Watson’s own personal touches are abundantly clear throughout the film. At no point is Belle overly glamourous, and it’s true she doesn’t wear a corset. But, are these aspects enough for this film to be labeled under feminist genre? Hardly. If we are going to credit Watson for partaking in a film that smashes the patriarchy, this probably isn’t it.