An Exploration of Fairy Tales and Princesses
How does the Portrayal of Belle in the 2017 “Beauty and the Beast” Film Subvert the Gender Roles and Norms of Feminine Characters in other Traditional Fairy Tales?
The girl who falls for a beast is one of the most enchanting and revolutionary stories known. The story was one of the earliest written fairy tales, originating from France. The story is called La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast) written in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve. The Tale is about a young provisional girl named Belle from a small town in France. One day she comes across a castle belonging to a prince who is cursed for being self-centered and cold-hearted turning him into a beast. To break the curse he would have to find someone that falls in love with him. Eventually, Beauty meets the beast and they fall in love. The story teaches kids not to look at appearances but rather who they are on the inside. The story itself is a love story and shows how Belle becomes a real princess. Belle is a strong female character, not like any other traditional princesses as she doesn’t conform to societal expectations of the gender role and norms of a woman.
Societal Expectations of Gender
The media is very influential on the way society behaves and is supposed to behave. Particularly puts many constraints on women due to the existing inequality between men and women in society. Society has struggled with inequality for many years but was recognized as a real issue only in the late 1960s. Stereotypes developed among certain principles that were made to be acceptable to make the world live more peacefully. Such as men working all day while the women takes care of the kids at home. Stereotypes were never really accepted as they restricted people of different genders with what they were and who they had to be. Over time society has removed many stereotypes, however, they are still present in the present day. A lot of older films evidently show these stereotypes in action, but today society is becoming more inclusive and the films have become different. Many film companies started to produce films that show how female characters avoid or break these stereotypes.
Fairy Tales and Gender Roles
Fairy Tales evolved through oral storytelling many years ago. These stories were originally used to communicate different knowledge and experiences from one’s daily life to others. Sometimes they included magic, imagination, legends and people choose to believe them if they wanted to. People listened to these experiences and followed the same actions (Zipes 2). It was and still is form of art used today which helps make the world more beautiful and entertaining. Over the years the stories changed from dark or evil plots, to more pleasant ones. Many famous collectors, wrote down some of the these stories which are more commonly known today (McGee). The original stories became more imaginative and magically making them more popular among children. Despite the huge success of fairytales, certain stereotypes still exist for fairytales. Women are given the passive roles, cook, clean and wash, lack in heroism, are over emotional and wait for a prince to be saved. Men on the other hand are meant to be strong, powerful, active and look for princesses (Garduno-Jaramillo page 38). Overtime as technology started to develop many different film corporations decided to create film adaptations for the literature.
Gender in Film Adaptations for Fairy Tales
One of the most well-known film companies for its incredible but also controversial fairy tale retellings is Walt Disney Pictures (Disney). They are considered to be very controversial due to their representation of gender in their films. They adapted many fairytales to make them more pleasantly enjoyable, more appropriate for the younger generation and more relatable to society today. However, a lot of their features are exaggerated for both male and female (Lederer 8). It also teaches the younger generation about the good and the bad through the interaction between different characters, which are often very relative to the existing stereotypes. Therefore Disney can give many wrong impressions to their young audience. Nonetheless, the more recent fairy tales released by Disney today have been adapted to show a better picture of gender roles and represent females a lot differently than the traditional tales. A good example for this is the Beauty and the Beast film which shows princesses from a better perspective because she doesn’t conform to societal expectations. Therefore she is different than the usual princess.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast 2017 film
In 2017, Disney released a modern live-action adaptation based on the 1991 animated film for Beauty and the Beast which they previously released. The 2017 film was directed by Bill Condon (Disney Enterprises Inc). The film engages more with the viewer through the songs.
The films stars one of the most well known empowering female activist and actor Emma Watson. She is the protagonist of the story (Belle). Emma Watson is a female leader on the outside world just as in the film. She is a role model to many young girls that look up to her. She already has a high status due to all of her success from the Harry Potter series and the motivation to bring gender inequality. Therefore she shows a good representation of how women should be treated and how they can also stand up to themselves in the film. She was given the voice in the production of the film to make sure she was representing the best version of Belle. Most of the film is still really similar to the original plot but made more feminist. Emma Watson plays her role genuinely as she shares really similar characteristics to Belle. The film shows us many societal expectations from the 1770s and how Belle doesn’t conform to them.
Portrayal of Belle
Belle, the protagonist of the film is not an ordinary female character, her personality traits are not what one associates with a women. In the film we see that Belle grew up very independently in a poor provisional town as her mother past away due to the plaque when she was a newborn and her father (Maurice) was an inventor, who had to work. She is very similar to her mom she was fearless, ahead of her time and treated disrespectfully for doing good. Belle had to move to a safer town and now lives in the lower class community (00:10:56 – 00:13:16). The town has are certain traditional norms and we see how people who don’t meet these norms are treated.
Belle is recognized as the most beautiful and kind girl in town. Therefore already praised as a princess yet to become. Also naming the character Belle is an epitome as that means beauty in French which she is. She was treated like a princess in her town not because of the ways she looked but because of her kind acts towards others. She also was different than any other women because she did things a lot different.
The flashback scene at the beginning of the film provides context to the plot of the story and leaves the audience questioning the outcome of the story “Who could ever learn to love a beast?” (00:04:26) as the title appears on screen. After a transition the viewer is given a wide angled shot of France with a castle in the distance that is long forgotten and we see the small village where Belle is from. The camera slowly focusing on a cottage, where Belle enters the scene through her front door (Koning 42). This is an important section of the story as we see who will guide the story and we know that her fate is already determined. It suggests that her fate lies towards learning to love a beast, as she is the first to appear immediately after the transition. Despite the audience knowing where her fate lies, she is still unaware of it which helps us see who she actually is as a person through her opening song (00:04:03 – 00:09:46).
Belle starts singing about her life as soon as she leaves her house with a book in her hand as the town awakens. The camera follows her around the town to give a better picture of what her life is like from her perspective. We can also make the assumption that she’s the one guiding the story.
Belle is seen as an independent women. She confidently knows where she’s going, what she needs (ex: bread) and where her devotion lies (horse riding, reading, greeting the town citizens, helping the citizens with their problems). She also has her own duties as a women, which is to do the washing. It’s clear that she is reliving the same routine every day. In her song she sings “Every morning just the same, from the moment that we came” (Watson 00:59-01:04). Showing that she is used to the lifestyle and wants more in life. We can tell her attention isn’t focused on the way she looks as she doesn’t put much effort but in how she looks and appears, yet still looks pretty.
Fig. 1 – Belle leaving her cottage to go into town Fig. 2 Belle looking into the distance at the clock.
Belle is dressed as a typical housewife putting her back into society’s stereotype. However, the garments are looser fitting compared to the really restrictive clothing worn in the 18th century by many women. Since Belle is in the lower class, her outfit looks very simplistic. She is wearing a cheap cotton blue and white apron dress with some boots and a washcloth (Fig.1). Her straps are also attached with string and she is covered. Part of her dress is also tucked into her dress on the left, making it easier to move around, showing us that the traditional domestic work is not all she does. We can also see that she’s wearing bloomers beneath the dress. This is a very different attire for a women at that time as they usually tend to wear something more decorative. Belle is considered to be the most beautiful girl in town significantly seen by how all the kids, adults looking at her whenever she passes by. Further confirming how she’s hard to miss and that she stands out (Fig.2).
She has more freedom than a typical traditional princess as she does more things which don’t conform to the norms and she’s not forced to do anything but meet social expectation in the town which she doesn’t want to. Belle moved to the provisional town with her father as it was the safest place to be back then. She was raised by Maurice as he was the only one left in her family and that’s why has many male attributes (such as intelligence, activeness, innovative mind) which she learned from her father. However, she still is quite feminine as she’s very gentle and soft with the things she touches, she’s kind, caring and loving to almost anyone. She is very loyal to her father and knows that she needs to take care of him as he’s aging and support him while he tries to provide for their family through his music boxes. Therefore she is stuck in that lifestyle.
Additionally, we learn that Belle is bookworm and barely catch a glimpse of Belle without a book in her hands whilst she is in her town. She sings about how she wants more than this provisional life and reading is a way for her to get away and see the world. The priests asks her “where did you run off to this week?” and she says “two cities in northern Italy, I didn’t want to come back”(Watson 01:57 – 02:05). She wasn’t literally there but she was reading Romeo and Juliet. So we find out that reading was a way for to get away from the world. We also learn that Belle dreams of a prince charming just like in the book she read. Showing us how Belle is simply just like any other princess. Belle has become very knowledgeable through her passion for reading.
During that time it was the males that went to get educated whilst the women were put to domestic roles, shown in the film. However, Belle is able to learn on her own by reading which has no restrictions. Also being smart was not a normal characteristic for a female at that time as they didn’t have time for that. Belle is very curious about the world beyond her little town and she decides to learn about it through books. Princesses in other fairy tales usually got punished for showing curiosity as it trespasses the norms and is too dangerous. For instance, in Sleeping Beauty film, the princess is put under a sleeping curse when she touches the spindle. However, Belle doesn’t get punished for showing curiosity in the 2017 film, showing us how the gender roles have changed.
Fig. 3 The girls looking at belle walking by the shop Fig. 4 Belle in the markets with the other women
Belle is not like any of the other girl in her town “her looks have got no parallel” (Watson 03:11 – 03:15). The town citizens don’t understand why she is so liked and how she looks so much prettier than anyone. She has a natural appearance whereas the other girls put wigs, hats, bonnets, wear decorative dresses with a corset and a lot of makeup enhancing their appearance (Fig.3). She doesn’t need anything to make her pretty because she already is pretty. They are also wearing pink a very feminine color whilst Belle is wearing blue. Blue is a recurring color used for many female protagonists in films so that they stand out more and it is also gender neutral (Van Paris) (Fig.4). In other fairy tales such as Cinderella, we also see that many of the female characters also dress up and put on makeup in order to attract to men when they go to the ball.
Fig.5 Belle refuses to become Gaston’s wife
Belle is different than the others, which the citizens also believe “she’s nothing like the rest of us” (Watson 03:20 – 03:25). She spends her time doing other things and she doesn’t spend her time make herself pretty just to be liked by a man. Despite this, a man (Gaston), is still very keen on making her his wife. She is known as the prettiest girl in town and doesn’t need to change herself to be more beautiful. Her beauty is accentuated through the sunlight that falls onto her face. When Gaston asks Belle to become his wife she instantly denies him and shuts the door in front of his face. The girls in the town down seem to understand why she has denied such a handsome man further showing us how Belle isn’t focussed on appearances. The citizens in the town “wonder if she’s feeling well” (Watson 02:22 – 02:26). She also doesn’t want a man to control her life and doesn’t want to settle down (Fig 5). This scene shows us how Belle is a stronger female character as she’s able to powerfully deny the Gaston and she doesn’t let anyone take control of her life. She wants to decide upon her own future. During that time women commonly let men take control over their lives but Belle doesn’t let them take control.
Fig 6. Belle doing the laundry with an innovative method Fig. 7. Citizens dropping laundry on the floor
Furthermore, we see that she doesn’t want to conform to the norms of women, as she finds other ways to do her domestic tasks such as laundry without doing all the labor work. She sets up an innovative mechanism attached to a donkey so that she can do what she likes while the washing machine is running. As she has to do less manual work she is given more opportunity to read. That way she also has time to teach little kids how to read whilst the machine is up and running (Fig.6). Many of the town citizens are amazed at her abilities but most of them are also very confused at what she’s doing. The men disrupt her mechanism and drop all her freshly washed laundry on the floor (Fig.7) (00:14:00 – 00:15:20). They don’t appreciate her work because she is female and the village itself thinks small minded. The villagers also consider her to be “dazed and distracted”, “strange”, “peculiar” and “funny” as the things she does are not what typical girls do (00:05:03 – 00:10:02). She doesn’t seem to care what they think, doesn’t let them bring her down and carries on her day. Whereas in other fairy tales like Cinderella, her stepsisters mess up the cleaning jobs that she does, which brings Cinderella down and she ends up crying.
Fig. 8. Reenacts the typical women in her town. Fig. 9. Belle out in the fields, where she feels free the most
Unlike a lot of the traditional princess who play passive characters, Belle is completely opposite in the 2017 film as she drives the story. This characteristic is present in the previous versions but was enhanced by giving this role to Emma Watson. This was reassured by Gloria Steinem before the film was released “It was fascinating that her activism could be so well mirrored by the film” (Prakash). Belle doesn’t want to conform to her duties as she imitates a typical housewife with rage to try and shows that women can be more than that (Fig.8). She then runs out into the grass where she feels a lot happier since that’s where she has freedom (Fig.9). She’s active as she goes away from the town to get herself away from the traditional environment where people are telling her what she can and can’t do (00:17:12 – 00:18:09). Princesses like Cinderella or Rapunzel are passive and don’t do anything to get themselves out of their misery, they just patiently wait for a prince. They tend to remain in the same place for the entire story.
Belle is a strong character who is “absolutely a Disney princess, but she’s not a passive character—she’s in charge of her own destiny,” which is what Emma Watson told Vanity Fair (Ross). Nevertheless she is stuck in the town. One day when Belle realizes her father is in trouble she immediately sets off on his horse to find him. She doesn’t know where the horse will take her but she’s not afraid of the world beyond her town. This is what she wanted and is now given the opportunity to do so. Eventually her path leads her to the Beast’s castle. There she searches for her father and finds him locked up. She discovers that it was a beast holding him captive and deviously decides to take her fathers place knowing that the beast will have control over her. She doesn’t listen to what she’s told by her father. This shows how she wants to be in charge of her own future, by choosing to be stuck in the castle and by choosing to find her father not knowing where her path will lead her (00:25:30 – 00:29:58). We also see how Belle fearlessly approaches new situations. She is also braver than her father in this situation because when her father entered the castle in search for some water and food, the magical objects scared him and he decided to leave (00:21:05 – 00:24:15). Whereas when Belle enters the castle she decides to stay despite the strangeness.
Belle is able to stand up for herself and save others who need it. This is clear when the beast accuses the father of wanting to steal his rose and therefore wants to lock him up. She steps in admits that it was her idea to ask for the rose. This also shows bravery, as the beast is more powerful and was also very angry about. So she know what to expect but she decided to take the risk anyway. So she ends up being locked up in the Beast’s Castle. Belle is a heroine because she saves her father life. Fairy tales usually have male heroes of the story, who save women but in this story the gender roles have changed.
Whilst Belle is locked up she decides to find a way out of the Castle and creates a rope out of fabrics to get down the tower (00:45:03). Although she doesn’t end up escaping, the thought of that creating that shows her intelligence and that she is an active character. In the Castle she is able to develop feelings towards the beast over time and also changes him to a better man. By showing curiosity towards different areas in the castle such as the library and west wing the two lovers end up learning that they actually have a lot of similarities (reading, family backgrounds) despite their differences in class and appearances.
Belle is actually given a voice of her opinion in the film, which traditional princess and woman don’t usually have. This is achieved effectively through Emma Watson. Therefore Belle comes across very talkative in the film. While the Beast and Beauty have dinner the Beast thinks that she’s just a domestic women, insulting her. Belle doesn’t let him bring her down and tells him she is more than that.
In other fairy tales, princesses are very passive. They are put under a sleeping curse or locked up in a tower and wait until the prince comes and saves them. As they are physically incapable due to being afraid. Belle isn’t afraid of anything, takes risks benefiting her and others. She does more than just sit around. She is very kind-hearted and chooses to help the cursed castle. This shows us how she cares about others and helps break the Beast’s curse. This is another heroine act of hers because without her falling in love with the beast, the castle would have remained forever forgotten.
Limitations of the Film
Although Belle trespasses many societal expectations and stereotypes she ends up falling back into societal expectation by the end of the tale once she finds a man that she always dreamed off. She breaks the beast’s curse and they fall in love making her a princess by royalty, as he was actually a prince. During the ball dance Belle wears the classic yellow dress.
Fig.9 The famous ball dance between Belle and the Beast
Emma Watson actually helped design the famous yellow dress making it less restrictive and didn’t include a corset (Fig.9). This was to done because she wanted to give Belle more of an identity, more freedom and make it more appropriate this day and age (Bateman). Also the corset didn’t fit into the story, as Belle herself never wanted to dress like all the other girls in her town. The corset is used in the costume for many of the traditional princess, which accentuates the figure making women simply just an object and this was not the goal in the 2017 film. The dress was worn with her boots instead of dainty shoes which allowed for more movement along with the lighter dress.
When Belle first entered the castle she said she wasn’t a princes (00:33:03) and she didn’t like being forced into a princess outfit. But as her feelings started to develop, when she was asked to go to the ball it didn’t matter to her what she wore, she was happy with any dress but more importantly she was happy just to be with the beast.
As soon as she starts to feel closer feelings to the beast she slowly forgets about the other activities she’s interested in like reading or horse riding. This shows us that even when woman want to decide upon their own destiny it often leads back to wanting a future with a man. Belle stumbled upon the beast because her father was captured in his castle for stealing a rose. She choose to remain with the beast instead of his place and over time as she starts to develop feelings she admits that ” he’s not prince charming but there is something in him that I didn’t see” (1:10:56).
Overall, it is evident that Belle subverts the gender roles and norms of traditional princesses in many ways making her a true heroine. She has learned to become very independent as she was only raised by her father who traveled away a lot. She doesn’t conform to the norms in the provisional town of women such as washing, marriage, raising a family. She enjoys reading instead and other activities that teach her about the world. It is clear that Belle is able to achieve happiness without a man, but ends up falling in love by the end of story, ending the fairytale with a happily ever after just like any other tale.
Despite this, the princess Belle in the 2017 film is a better role model for younger children as she empowers women to stand up for themselves and be more independent. This is mainly achieved through Emma Watson mirroring her feminist activism through Belle’s personality. The story also teaches girls to not be deceived by appearances and that it is who you are on the inside that is important rather than how you look. Just how Belle chose to fall for a man that looked ugly rather than handsome. The tale shows that true love is inevitable and therefore Belle’s tale remains as old as time.