In the second of a three-part feature, Jackson Ball discusses the evolving Disney Princess, next up is Beauty and the Beast…
If Feminist Theory can be used to read Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a straight-forward reflection of society at that time, then it stands to reason that future representations of female characters will grow more complex as women’s roles in society do so. This certainly seems to be the case with 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. The film was a massive success for Disney and, at least on the surface, appeared to usher in a new era of female characters with its central protagonist: Belle.
For Belle is, for all intents and purposes, a Disney Feminist. And Gaston is a Male Chauvinist Pig, the kind that would turn the women of any prime-time talk show audience into beasts themselves… The Beast is The New Man, the one who can transform himself from the hardened, muscle-bound, domineering man of the 80’s into the considerate, loving and self-sacrificing man of the 90’s. (Jefferds, S. 1995)
Jefferds describes Belle as a ‘Disney Feminist’, and in many ways this can be argued as true. Belle is well-read, thinks for herself and is discontented with the simple village life; in this way she could almost be seen as the opposite to Snow White. Belle differs even more from the stereotype when she repeatedly rejects the romantic advances of Gaston, who is clearly infatuated with her. Gaston is handsome, overtly-macho and becomes obsessed with Belle for her looks; all of which are traits he shares with Snow White’s ‘heroic’ Prince. Perhaps then, it is not a huge stretch of the imagination to speculate that Gaston could have hypothetically won the heart of Snow White had their paths crossed, and too the heart of Belle had she reflected the society of 1937, rather than 1991.
The differences between Belle and Snow White show a kind of progression in Disney’s animated heroines, which in turn reflects the progression of women’s roles in society. However, it appears that Disney’s ‘progression’ is only superficial, as further study reveals that the film retains Snow White’s ‘sexist’ core.
It is true that Belle does in fact reject a lot of the standard ’submissive princess’ traits: she is intelligent, assertive and she is not waiting around for her prince to rescue her. Despite this though, she still upholds one of the most prominent paradigms of the stereotype: physical beauty. Despite her many positive attributes, it is her beauty that the films other characters are drawn to. Gaston, the other villagers and the Beast are all drawn to her appearance first and foremost, showing that her beauty is what truly sets her apart from other characters. The importance placed on beauty shows that, in at least one way, no ‘progression’ has been made since Disney’s premier animated feature.
The studio attempted to respond to these [sexism] complaints when working on the character Belle in Beauty and the Beast, taking care to show her intelligence and independence, although the narrative still focuses on which man she will marry. (Griffin, S. 2000)
In addition to the emphasis on physical beauty, Griffin also argues that Beauty and the Beast’s basic narrative remains distinctively unchanged to that of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For all her assertiveness and independence, Belle’s story is ultimately about how she meets her ideal man. This is precisely the issue raised by Zipes: a female characters narrative is being framed by a male discourse. There is clear evidence of this within the films plot. It may be that Belle is unlike her predecessors in that she is never waiting to be rescued by a man, but it later transpires that she is rescued all the same. Belle’s major goal at the film’s opening is to escape the repetitive life of the village and find adventure elsewhere, a goal that she finally reaches upon meeting (and eventually marrying) the Beast.
Check back tomorrow for part three…
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