Before I post a study on the yellow ball gown from Beauty and the Beast, including some incredibly close photos that show startling detail, I want to air my thoughts on this movie so far. Yes, I’m aware that it’s not out yet, but enough information has come out that I’m bothered by some things that I can’t shake.
Like most fans of Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, I was excited to hear that a live-action version was being made, and like many, my excitement has dwindled into something akin to dread. The more I’ve heard about it, often through quotes from Emma Watson or others confirmed involved in the production, the less I’ve looked forward to it. While many images are stunning, I just can’t get over how they didn’t think that Belle being a bookworm was enough of a reason for her to be an outcast.
This is personal to me since I, as a child, was an outcast solely for having an insatiable hunger for reading anything and everything I could get my hands on, whether it was a medical textbook, the encyclopedias, Babysitters Club books, or the ingredients on shampoo bottles. When the animated movie came out and Belle was an outcast for her love of reading, I instantly identified with someone who was just like me, and suddenly, at least for a short time, a book in hand was an awesome accessory.
Belle’s insecurity also endeared her to me. Though she was very far from weak, she was still insecure, as I was. I could have been Belle. So many of us could have been Belle. Insecure bookworms. An insecure bookworm on the big screen whose ability to love and critically thing ultimately saved the day. How wonderful!
Well, in the new movie, Belle, instead of her father, is the inventor, and this is from Emma Watson herself, and Belle is nothing like the Belle we know and love.
“In the animated movie, it’s her father who is the inventor, and we actually co-opted that for Belle,” says Watson. “I was like, ‘Well, there was never very much information or detail at the beginning of the story as to why Belle didn’t fit in, other than she liked books. Also what is she doing with her time?’ So, we created a backstory for her, which was that she had invented a kind of washing machine, so that, instead of doing laundry, she could sit and use that time to read instead. So, yeah, we made Belle an inventor.”
Sorry, but no. Merely being a reader is plenty for people to not like you (not to mention the jealousy of the women in town that Belle was considered the supreme beauty who made their husbands drool), and making her the inventor of the washing machine would make her incredibly popular as everyone would want to be her friend to get their hands on one. She would be a desirable woman to have as a wife as she’d be a cash cow if she can invent something like that. So rather than answer the question of “why didn’t the town like her?”, which was already answered, we now have a reason for them to all love her, and for Gaston to have a reason, other than her appearance, to want to marry her.
So it should come as no surprise that Emma refused to wear corsets in this production, as she is personally opposed to them.
“Watson was determined to play a princess who had more agency and would be able to take action, and a corset just didn’t fit in with that story line. Watson worked closely with the film’s creators and costume designer Jacqueline Durran to create a new look and personality for Belle. She’ll star as a skilled inventor whose interests include horseback riding.”
This is actually problematic. How does wearing a corset prevent a woman from inventing or horseback riding? It doesn’t. Throughout history, women wore corsets for two primary reasons. One is to support the weight of heavy gowns by keeping them from digging into the hips and spreading the weight over the whole torso. The other is they provide back support for working-class women. You can bet those working-class women did more than horseback riding without being hindered by corsets, and even upper-class women enjoyed riding. Leisure rides, and even accompanying men on hunts, were popular activities. And as for hindering inventing, the last time I checked a corset wasn’t even worn on your head.
“Her decision to forgo the corset is a major deal for a few reasons. First, it sounds like this will be one of the first Disney princess movies where the woman is seen less though the male gaze, and more through a modern and realistic interpretation. Second, it shows women everywhere that the film is prioritizing personality, skills, movement, and actions over appearances—something we can definitely celebrate.”
Except that a problem Belle deals with is how beautiful she is, and how no one bothers to get to know her. Gaston’s sole reason for wanting to marry her is her looks, even though she hates that she reads. “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas, and thinking.” When Beast first meets her, he is intimidated by her, and doesn’t care to get to know her. He hardy cares about her other than as a way to break a spell. But he gets to know her as intelligent and interesting, and she teaches him to read. He learns that the real beauty in her is beneath her exterior. (This isn’t even touching on the lesson of seeing beneath the beastly exterior of a scared, angry young man, which is a whole other, controversial, topic.)
This is something to celebrate. Don’t stop at physical appearances. Get to know someone. It definitely sounds like this movie has the goal of putting it all out there up front. Animated Belle had personality and skills, movement, and took a lot of action, though the men in her town only saw her as beautiful and hot. Is it really going to be a good move to change that?
Emma wants to make this Belle into a role model. But…but…the original Belle IS a role model. She is that bullied, outcast, shy, insecure bookworm so so many of us connected and identified with, and she showed up that what mattered is who we are, and that we can be shy and love to read and to think and still be strong and independent. What is a Belle who is already strong and secure and confident right out the gate going to teach us? How is she going to connect with today’s children? Today’s adults may think she’s awesome through adult eyes (“Woman power, YEAH!”), but what if the Belle we all grew up with was made to appeal to adults more, to be what adults thought would be a good role model based on our adult experiences? Are today’s children really going to be able to see themselves as Belle the way we did?
I understand the desire to make women strong. This is part of why I also write books, two which are available on Amazon right now under my pen name. But why remove the challenges Belle would have faced? There were many women in the time of this story (and the era is indicated very clearly by the costumes of almost everyone else in the production…this is the mid-18th century), many scientists and inventors, who were what we may see as modern women, strong women who, despite the conventions of women being submissive to men, pushed against the challenges. That is a lot stronger, and a lot more empowering, than removing obstacles. If you think I’m overthinking this, then consider how overthinking the character of Belle led to some significant fundamental changes to Belle, and ultimately the story (if Belle is the inventor, what is Maurice for?).
Now you can say to wait and see the movie before having opinions on anything, but these are fundamental changes confirmed by Emma Watson herself. The very things that made me love Belle and feel better about myself as a bullied kid have been changed since she doesn’t see staying true to oneself as being a virtue worth celebrating. She doesn’t see that as a strength in itself. In changing Belle so fundamentally, we are being told that you need to change who you are to be okay, to alter everything about yourself to be accepted and to be a role model, that if you are shy or insecure, you’d better buck up and change or else you aren’t good enough, even when the story is entirely about that kind of person staying who she is and people learning to get to know someone.
I will be seeing this movie March 16th. It’s released on this coast the night before the official date. I took my daughter to see Cinderella when it opened, but I won’t take her to this until I see it first. My hope is that I will be pleasantly surprised and manage to see Emma Watson as Belle, though truth be told, all I’m seeing is Hermione.
The idea of Belle being a modern woman in a historical world is carried over to two important wardrobe pieces, which I will cover in my article about her yellow gown and her wedding/”celebration” gown.