What happened to Belle?

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Last season in Once Upon A Time, Belle seemed to become consumed by her status as "Rumplestiltskin's love interest." She was attacked and lost her memory to cause him angst. She gained a second personality (not her Storybrook personality, because she didn't have one, but a whole extra personality) to cause him more angst. She regained her memories when Rumplestiltskin needed her to, with no further explanation. And throughout the whole thing, it was always about "how will this affect Rumple?"

So I don't know whether it's good or bad that Once Upon A Time has done away with all pretence this season and completely eliminated Belle as a character in her own right. The actress still appears in the show, of course. She has several scenes, wears her Disney blue dress, . But she has been quite literally reduced to a character entirely for Rumplestiltskin's benefit.

Right now, it seems like she is a figment of his imagination, thrown into the mix so that Rumplestiltskin has someone to communicate with. She admonishes him, warns him, listens to his ranting, challenges his claims, and generally exists entirely as a sounding board for him. At most, she is his moral compass, but still not a character in her own right.

The other alternative is that Belle's appearance is a trick from Peter Pan, designed to somehow unsettle or manipulate Rumplestiltskin. But again, Belle's entire presence is for Rumplestiltskin's benefit. We can't even say that her plotline this season is Rumple-focused, because she literally does not have one. Her face and voice are present, but her character is not.

Of course, it could be worse. Belle technically hasn't been fridged. She didn't die back in Storybrook, with her ghost/memory now appearing in Rumplestiltskin's scenes. But as we know nothing about what is occurring back in Storybrook, and as she's pretty much the only major living character left behind, she might as well be. And as the show isn't showing scenes from Storybrook, and as Belle's likeness is appearing in every episode anyway, it makes absolutely no sense that Belle remained behind. The only explanation is that the writers thought having Belle as a fully-fledged character, with thoughts and motivations and emotions of her own, would add too many complications to the Rumplestiltskin angst plotline, and so they decided to leave the three-dimensional character behind and only use the vague idea of her instead. At least the actress is still employed, I suppose, although even she seems to be phoning it in... understandable, considering how her character has been reduced.

I know that, in general, Once Upon A Time is a badly written cheese-fest that always fails to meet expectations. But behind that terrible writing and even more terrible CGI, the show has managed to have some excellent female characters, and to even focus on the supportive and antagonistic relationships between very different women. Untraditional families, female power, bisexuality... the show has covered a lot of ground that is unexpected and really exciting in a Disney-inspired series. Which just makes me wonder even more why Belle has been reduced and misused so much. Belle is one of Disney's most popular princesses, much more so that Snow White. She has major viewer appeal, even without any further development. So why has she then been swallowed by Rumplestiltskin, instead of becoming a protagonist in her own right? Are the writers so in love with their antagonist/anti-hero, and with the romance, that they can't see what they're doing? Do they think that Belle's only appeal is in her relationship to her Beast?