If your tweenage daughters are going to idolise a female celebrity, I guess it’s better for them to adore Emma Watson than emulate Miley Cyrus or the Jenner/Kardashian clan. My birthday treat last weekend was to take the girls to see Beauty and the Beast, the new live action version of the 1991 Disney classic. The girls were desperate to watch it (although they’ve never seen the original cartoon) purely because of the star power of Emma Watson – they wanted to see Harry Potter‘s Hermione all grown up.
I also have a soft spot for Emma Watson; partly because my eldest daughter is a mini-Hermione, partly because Watson took time out of acting to study English Literature at my old Alma Mater, Worcester College, but mainly because in a world of shallowness and frivolity, she does at least try to bring something more thoughtful to her roles. She has a genuine commitment to gender equality, literacy and eco-friendly fashion, and though undeniably beautiful, seems ‘girl next door’ rather than overtly sexualised. The film itself was preceded by media hoopla about its positive feminist message and modernity – Belle is not your usual Disney princess, ran the publicity, because she reads books!
Well, yeah, not so much. Okay, this Belle isn’t permanently trussed into a boob-enhancing corset, but she still doesn’t get to wear the trousers. According to an interview in Vanity Fair magazine, “Watson worked with the costume designer… to incorporate pockets in her costume that are kind of like a tool belt,” and insisted that for horse riding scenes, Belle was given bloomers and riding boots, rather than ballet slippers. Hmm. Then there’s the implication that Belle has career aspirations – again according to that rather breathless Vanity Fair interview: “In the original Disney movie, Belle is an assistant to her inventor father, but here she’s a creator in her own right, developing a modern washing machine that allows her to sit and read.” They seem to have missed the subtle irony there… this Belle may be a brainy bookworm who doesn’t want to marry handsome/loathsome Gaston or be a slave to housework, but common-sense and a penchant for practical footwear do not make her an icon for women’s rights.
Emma Watson may have taken feminist writer Gloria Steinem to the film premiere, and gained her stamp of approval – but this Beauty and the Beast is not even the most ‘female-empowering’ Disney/Pixar production. Brave (2012) is all about Merida establishing a better relationship with her mother after refusing to be married off to dozy adolescent suitors who can’t shoot arrows as well as she can. The original draft for Frozen (2013) portrayed Elsa as an evil ice queen with an army of snow monsters – much less emotionally satisfying than the final version, in which Elsa is a scared and isolated teenager saved by the redemptive love of her pesky, perky little sister Anna. And while Anna is so desperate for romance she gets hoodwinked by social-climbing Prince Hans, Elsa seems quite content to wield her freezing powers and rule her kingdom without any male assistance (although she’s still, y’know, a proper girl, because she wears the bling-iest dresses).
Cartoons are more likely to pass the famous Bechdel test for feminism (see right) than most mainstream adult films, though I’d expand the Bechdel test to include the proviso that the conversations the female characters have shouldn’t revolve around food, sex, fashion or childcare arrangements. Belle, continually evading villainous Gaston or running off to save the Beast and/or her father, only has plot lines and conversations that revolve around the male characters and so fails the Bechdel test pretty spectacularly. Does it matter? I’m probably over-analysing, but when you have children, you become hyper-sensitive to the way the world shows them how things are and how things should be. If you’d ever heard your tiny daughter sobbing after someone told her she couldn’t be a princess because she wears glasses, then you’d know that yes, these things matter.
Tests have also been proposed for films to see if they can be similarly inclusive for other under-represented groups, by including BAME characters who talk to each other without mentioning their race and LGBTQ characters who are not solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation. Beauty and the Beast kind-of scores on this one, with plenty of BAME actors and a much heralded ‘first gay Disney character’. Mind you, despite the hissy-fits thrown by authorities in Russia, Malaysia and Alabama, it would be hard for even the most conservative of viewers to object to ‘mixed marriages’ when the actors spend most of the film transformed into a wardrobe and a harpsichord, a flamboyant candlestick and a coquettish feather duster, and the ‘big gay reveal’ is limited to a split second at the very end of the film.
The area where this fails most spectacularly as a ‘girl power’ film though, is the dark central heart of the story. Some critics have accused Belle of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological condition where kidnappers fall in love with their captors. Apparently the original tale was written (around 1740) to prepare young French girls for the idea of arranged marriage, being ‘sold’ by their fathers to life with a man they had never met. And although Watson’s Belle willingly offers herself as a hostage to protect her poorly father, that essential sense of powerlessness remains.
Separated from her home and her father, locked in a tower, shouted and growled at, Emma Watson’s Belle only starts to soften towards the demonic Beast who holds her hostage when she learns about his sad childhood and he shows her his gigantically well-endowed… library. Aww, he’s a just damaged little boy who has lots of books and can quote Shakespeare, which makes his appalling behaviour… somehow okay? Watching in the dark cinema, surrounded by excited small children, I gave a little shudder – it was suddenly, scarily reminiscent of that other supposedly ‘liberating’ modern fable, Fifty Shades of Grey. Like Christian Grey, the Beast is damaged by his parents, unable to express normal emotions, is controlling and self-centred, never apologises, but is, conveniently, filthy rich… As the internet meme goes, if Christian Grey lived on a trailer park, he’d just be a pervert. If this beast didn’t live in an enchanted castle, he’d just be a monster.
Still, I’m not sure how Beauty and the Beast could ever be an inspiringly feminist tale, unless they make a version where Belle punches the Beast on the snout in the very first scene, shows her hapless father how to make his own damn washing-machine, and then runs off to head-up a Fortune 500 company for the rest of the film. Maybe we need to accept the baby-steps Disney is taking towards inclusion; a multi-ethnic fairytale world where the heroine is not a princess, but a practical middle-class girl who wears sensible shoes, reads books and repeatedly saves the male characters from the consequences of their own foolishness.
And yes, taking it purely as an entertainment, I enjoyed the show, and the girls loved it. We were swept up by the beauty of the settings (it is a visually ravishing spectacle), were enthralled by the cleverness of the CGI and even shed a tear or two. The girls were robustly and reassuringly unimpressed by the Beast’s final transformation into the handsome Prince, however. ‘We preferred him when he was the beast,’ said my daughters sadly. ‘Yes,’ I admitted, ‘so did I.’ At least while he still looks scary, we know to be on our guard.