Beauty and the Beast is the ultimate “not like other girls” Disney movie.
Make no mistake, the animation and the music are gorgeous, Belle is a great character, and the dynamic between Belle and Gaston gives us some interesting scenes. But although Belle is intelligent and ambitious and wanting adventure, she’s explicitly set up as being different because of it. She doesn’t fit in, because nobody else she knows could possibly also like reading, or dreaming, or want their life to come to something.
Unless I missed something, Beauty and the Beast only features two named female characters: Belle and Mrs Potts. The only other female characters, apart from background faces in the town, are the triplets who swoon over Gaston, the wardrobe, and the feather duster who flirts with Lumiere.
So let’s look at the triplets. They are drawn entirely identical, except for the colors of their dresses. Their whole role in the movie is to swoon over Gaston, declaring Belle crazy for rejecting him. They represent the “provincial village girls” that Belle doesn’t fit in with, and they’re completely idiotic. They’re nameless, personality-less figures meant to show us that the normal girls swoon over Gaston, while Belle, our intelligent heroine, sees him as the jerk that he is.
Without this element, Gaston is a fantastic villain character, precisely because he’s so normal. Although his behavior escalates to kidnapping and murder, and his arrogance is played for laughs, he is initially presented as very realistic and believable predator — one who doesn’t even think that he’s doing anything wrong. He refuses to take Belle’s “no” as an answer, in fact doesn’t even think to ask her for her opinion before organizing a wedding. And when he talks to her, he crowds her, leaning over her, invading her space, interrupting her when she tries to speak, and not actually listening to a word she says. It’s such painfully common behavior, and I think it’s admirable that the movie insists that Belle is smart, that her opinions do matter, and that Gaston is villainous.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Belle and her father are the only people in the village to see the problems with his behavior. All the other young women are represented by the triplets, characters who, like Gaston, only judge based on beauty, while the beautiful Belle is able to care about deeper and more important things. As we’re told in the first song, Belle is “strange but special” — she doesn’t fit in, but because she’s smarter and more sensitive than everyone else.
Although Belle is capable and brave, she is also let down by her story. Her “I want” song is probably the vaguest of any Disney princess’s: she wants “adventure in the great wide somewhere” and someone who understands that she wants “so much more than they’ve got planned.” Which is fair enough. Not everyone needs precisely articulated dreams. But although the movie ends with a “happily ever after,” Belle never really achieves her dream. I suppose getting taken prisoner by a beast, falling in love with him, and fighting off Gaston count as something of an adventure, but it doesn’t feel like enough. An adventure in the “great wide somewhere” doesn’t mean finding a castle in the forest next to your village and agreeing to be a prisoner there for the rest of your life. Once she reaches the castle, she never goes anywhere except for a brief trip back to her village — her world is barely any less narrow than it is at the very beginning of the movie. Sure, she has a bigger library and an enchanted castle now, but it somehow feels lacking. It could have been so much more.
Of course, all this is ignoring the “Stockholme Syndrome” aspect of the relationship between Belle and the Beast. There are two sides to this argument, and I can see the validity of both. The Beast is a generally well-meaning person who doesn’t know how to express it, and the romance doesn’t start until he becomes a nice person. But on the other hand, are we saying that it’s ok to fall in love with the guy who locked up your father, made you his prisoner for eternity, raged at you until you fled in terror, and threatened to starve you if you don’t cater to his whims?And then there’s the fact that, while both Belle and the Beast have heroic roles in the movie, the Beast is heroic through strength, while Belle is heroic through her quiet bravery, her beauty, her self sacrifice, and her forgiving heart. Add it all together, and the movie has a lot of problems.
The movie has a good role model in Belle, and the animation and score are so wonderful that it’s painful for me to criticize it, but once we dig under the surface of the story, it all starts to fall apart.
And that’s really disappointing, considering how enjoyable the movie is to watch.