So, Disney Princess movies.
I know you have a range of feelings and thoughts conjured by the term. In our culture, whether it’s nostalgia, irritation, boredom, hatred, glee, adoration, or nausea, Disney Princess movies probably mean something to you.
And I’ve got to take down everyone’s favorite darling today, my friends. The one that people say, “Well, I don’t like Disney Princess movies much, except….” Especially to my smart, bookish female friends, I apologize. (Here’s David Tennant looking sad to make you feel a little better.)
We all know Snow White is creepily racist and Sleeping Beauty is a classic Damsel in Distress with no personal agency. We all know Cinderella’s Happily-Ever-After doesn’t deal with how creep-ass her baby crazy father-in-law is or what kind of a living hell her stepmother could make her life after marriage, much less how it’s a little weird to marry a dude you’ve met once.
But Disney became more enlightened later, I hear you cry. They started to have heroines that were active and intelligent and interesting. No beauties sleeping here!
Oh, yes. So it would seem.
But I’ve got to take down Beauty and the Beast. Because, ladies, for smart and bookish folk like us, it perpetrates a major lie.
First of, we all love Belle:
As a nerdy girl, I can connect to Belle. We’re introduced to Belle and her vague social awkwardness, bookish yearning, and awesome ability to outwit assholes with cunning. This is one likable, awesome girl.
Unfortunately, this movie is not about Belle, or what she wants, or her getting what she wants.
Belle says that “There must be more than this provincial life,” and doesn’t really know what that might mean for her. She’s reading a lot of adventure stories, and seems to like the ones that have a lot of swashing and buckling. She is entranced with the romance in one of the stories with the Prince in disguise, which sets up her romance with Beast. “She doesn’t know it’s him ’til Chapter Three!” But she’s reading Count of Monte Cristo type adventure-romances, not Jane Austen type domestic tales. Clearly, Belle wants adventure, travel, and maybe some love, too.
Let’s keep in mind that Belle is not an ordinary peasant in the French countryside. She’s an inventor’s daughter. Her father makes crazy interesting stuff all the time. He is actually “something more than this provincial life.” Like most Disney heroines, Belle does not have a mother, nor any apparent grieving for/ongoing connection with her presumably dead mother. She puts all her love and energy into her father, but doesn’t think that *she* could be inventing things too, or seeking out actively the types of adventure that she reads about in her books. She has always believed in her father’s dreams–she says as much. But has he believed in hers? Has she dared to seek support in her dreams, aside from her dream of having more books?
So who’s story is this, then?
From a storytelling perspective, it’s Beast’s. Allow me to go all Joseph Campbell* on your ass. (Actually, I’m going to go a bit Christopher Vogler on your ass, because he has adapted the monomyth to be a little more useful and less gendered. You can check out his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers if you want to know more.) The arrogant and unnamed Prince get a Call of Adventure in the form of a hideous old woman’s request for aid. He refuses the call, and with the Supernatural Aid of the enchantress, he is transformed into the Beast and thus over the threshold into the “special world” of his adventure.
Well, what about Belle? I hear you cry. Didn’t she get a call to adventure in the form of her father being abducted by the Beast? Yes, that happened more than a quarter of the way through the movie…and it wasn’t Belle’s call. Belle’s call was Gaston’s marriage proposal, which she refuses in order to pursue her dream of romantic adventure. The tragedy of the story is that Belle’s dream is ultimately tamed and made banal, much as Beast himself is made into a dull, Fabio-esque human prince at the end.
But let’s pause for a moment on Belle’s choice to save her father and enter the Beast’s servitude. This is one of the few active choices that Belle makes during the movie: she rides out to find her father (with an active, masculine horse that takes up a lot of screen time) and volunteers to take his place. Unlike the traditional fairy tale, in which her father comes back and tells her that he has bargained her away without her knowledge, Belle gets a choice in this version of the tale. We like that she gets a choice–she is active and a mistress of her own destiny, yes?
Well, it would be, if she was the one with the character arc and purpose for the rest of the film. The central section of the film is Beast campaigning strategically to win Belle’s affection.
Beast is the one making active choices throughout the section of the film when Belle is in the castle. He campaigns to win her love, and thus serve his own ends by breaking the curse. The Ordeal (or midpoint) of the film comes when Belle wanders up to Beast’s chambers, he scares her away, and then follows her and rescues her from the wolves. Had Beast not made the choice to rescue Belle, the movie would have ended about halfway through with a gory wolf-related death, since Belle was not a match for a pack of hungry wolves. Beast then was close enough to Belle to make connections with her via showing her things she enjoyed–books, mainly–and learning table manners.
Belle, in the meantime, is going more or less with the flow. She reacts to external circumstances in a logical way, but she is a reactive character rather than an active character. Heck, good ol’ Gaston has more of an active campaign to get what he wants than Belle does. I mean, who thinks sending his future father-in-law to the madhouse is the best way to win a woman’s affection? (…not that it’s unappealing, I’m sure, but the point is most men have more self-control.)
Gaston’s obnoxious pitchfork-and-torch mob forces Beast to make his ultimate choice that brings about his death and resurrection. Beast commits the ultimate act of selfless love: he lets Belle go even though he knows he may die. Beast is unquestionably heroic. Belle, on the other hand, gets saved by a damn teacup. Seriously. She and her father would have been screwed without a teacup with an axe.
So at the end of the movie, Beast has nicely completed his character arc, becoming the Master of Both Worlds. He can be a Prince, but also love and be loved in return. Also, he got to live again with sparkly lights. Yay for Beast. Belle, on the other hand, may or may not have found more than the provincial life she was seeking. Sure, she has a castle full of servants and a nice husband and a library. But adventure? Debatable. Did she get what she wanted, really? Maybe. Maybe not. In many Disney Princess movies, the heroine states a vague yet passionate wish at the beginning that they do not explicitly reveal. Let’s hope it was a man, ’cause that’s what they’re getting.
Still, the message here is disturbing. Smart, bookish women need only to find a monstrous man to tame, and all their dreams will come true. If there are no compatible men in your hometown, geek girl, simply go find a lonely guy with few social skills and change the crap out of him. It’ll work.
Fairy tale scholar Karen E. Rowe points out that “Romantic tales thus transmit to young women the rather alarming prophecy that marriage is an enchantment which will shield her from harsh realities outside the domestic realm and guarantee everlasting happiness.” I would like to think that we geeky ladies are beyond such and obvious trap, but how many of you wanted to be Belle?
I would be a bit remiss in my duty as an internet literate human if I didn’t include this gem as a finale (check out the whole series!):
Please, let me know what you think. Do you have hope for Belle, or these Disney stories? What reactions do you have to Disney Princesses?
*With whom I issues. At length. But that is, as they say, another tale for another time. Suffice it so say that he’s got a handle on Jungian male psychology and his monomyth is an appropriate vessel to pour the story out of.