The 'Beauty And The Beast' Love Story Doesn't Hold Up To Emma Watson's Feminism
Disney's live-action reboot of "Beauty and the Beast" is a pretty good movie.
I know this to be true, as a film lover who saw a press screening of it, and as someone who trusts A.O. Scott's film reviews.
But as I sat in the theater, very much enjoying the uplifting music, the magical, immersive set and the lovable, well-acted characters, I just couldn't let go of one constant, nagging thought in my mind:
I am watching, and celebrating, an abusive love story.
This is not new information.
That's hardly an original thought that I had in the theater — people have been writing their gender studies and film theses on this subject since the animated film's debut in 1991.
And for good reason, too: Belle and the Beast are a glorified, romanticized, near textbook example of an abusive relationship.
Some even go so far to say Belle is a victim of Stockholm syndrome — a mental condition in which prisoners become emotionally attached to their captors.
I'm not a doctor, and therefore I don't feel comfortable diagnosing people (even fictional ones) with psychological conditions. But I do feel the original "Beauty and the Beast" quite clearly represents an abusive relationship.
In the cartoon, the Beast controls Belle in the most literal way possible — he makes her prisoner, forbids her from leaving his house. He manipulates her into spending time with him, by starving her until she dines with him.
He gives her morsels of confusing kindness — such as the library — that in theory, make it seem like he's treating her right, but maintains total control over her freedom.
He eventually gets physically violent with Belle when she attempts to touch the rose.
When the Beast finally does set Belle free, it is presented as a gift to her, for which she thanks him fervently before she leaves, with every intention of returning.
With all this evidence, I find it hard to deny what so many gender scholars before me have said: This is an abusive relationship.
As I watched the 2017 film, it was clear the filmmakers tried, somewhat, to update the story to be less sexist.
Director Bill Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos were obviously aware of this long-standing criticism of the film.
There were several changes made to the live-action version that I recognized as an attempt to "make up" for the abusive nature of the story, so to speak.
The majority of these changes were to Belle's character.
(Another interesting note: Belle is the one who must change in the name of feminism, rather than her abuser.)
She has apparently invented an automatic washing machine for the laundry, though, to be honest, this fact is rather unclear in the final cut of the film.
Still, there are other things, too. She is much more frank about rejecting Gaston's proposal — in the animated movie she cagily avoids him by exclaiming she could never deserve him, in the live-action she bluntly tells him, "No."
At one point Belle actually teaches a young girl to read, much to the dismay of the villagers, who feel women should remain illiterate. What could be more feminist than education for young girls, right?
Unlike animated Belle, when she offers herself up to the Beast as a prisoner, she promises her father she'll escape. And, to the film's credit, she does at least try.
In one of the film's funnier moments, Mrs. Potts knocks on Belle's door to welcome her, certain she must be terrified out of her mind, but Belle is busy tying sheets together to escape down the window. (It's never made clear why Belle abandons this project, however.)
And, by request of Watson herself, when Belle runs off to save the Beast from Gaston and the angry mob, she ditches her long, golden ballroom dress and reveals she's wearing practical riding boots.
(It's a nice, feminist gesture in theory, but in practice this brief moment is confusing and odd on screen.)
There are a few changes for the Beast, too, though not as many.
In the live-action version, the Beast is an intellectual and a lover of Shakespeare, which makes much more sense than being illiterate, as he is in the cartoon.
Now, at least, Belle and the Beast's budding romance can be born out of their shared love of literature, rather than Belle teaching the Beast how to read, which, in the original, is in its cringeworthy mother-to-toddler parallels.
In a completely new scene, the Beast actually uses a magical book to transport Belle to the home where her mother died in Paris.
In addition to giving Belle a meatier backstory, this scene provides a reason for Belle to want to be with the Beast — because he can fulfill the wish she professes in the opening number, to escape this provincial life. (Sort of.)
It is at least better than in the original, where Belle's dream of adventure is seemingly thrown to the wayside once she meets a prince who lives a mere horse ride away from her hometown.
And finally the Beast is, in general, less overtly manipulative of Belle. In the original, it seems his plan from the get-go is to woo Belle and break the curse. In the live-action, he is initially not even going to try — until his enchanted servants convince him otherwise.
All of these changes were positive ones, and I'm glad Condon made them. But it was not enough.
"Beauty and the Beast" will always be a film about abuse.
Belle riding to the castle to rescue the Beast in practical footwear does not change the fact that she is riding to the castle to rescue her captor and abuser.
Belle trying harder to escape does not change the fact that when she does have a clear window to run — when the Beast is bed-ridden and injured, obviously in no shape to chase her — she instead chooses to nurse her captor back to health.
In fact, all of the changes to Belle's character only make this decision more confusing. The love story in Condon's film simply doesn't make any sense. In fact, it makes even less sense than the animated film.
It doesn't make sense because Belle's character was changed to be so much more feminist.
It doesn't make sense because it's no longer a children's cartoon, and therefore loses the excuse of a simplified story that children won't question.
It doesn't make sense because it's 2017, and audiences have higher expectations for feminism in films than we did in the '90s.
But most of all, it doesn't make sense because Emma Watson is playing Belle.
I want to be clear: I very much respect Emma Watson. She is, undoubtedly, one of the highest-profile celebrity feminists right now.
She's a Global Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women, the United Nations global champion for gender equality. She took a year off acting just to study feminism. She started a feminist bookclub, Our Shared Shelf, where she delves into feminist theories. She's like, BFFs with Gloria Steinem.
And that is, undoubtedly, a pretty great thing, most of the time.
It's also exactly why it's so hard to reconcile Emma Watson, committed and outspoken feminist, with her role as Belle in this abusive love story.
This is not to say that independent, feminist woman do not find themselves in abusive relationships, or that films depicting such relationships cannot be "feminist films."
But the Beast's treatment of Belle is never once painted as wrong. He never apologizes for imprisoning her, or hurting her or manipulating her.
In fact, the only thing he actually does apologize for in the movie is for calling Belle's father a thief — because heaven forbid the reputation of a fellow man be tarnished.
It's very tricky indeed to skew this representation of abuse into feminism — but Watson has tried.
According to her recent profile in Variety, she specifically asked Gloria Steinem for approval that the film "didn't conflict with the ideals of a feminist" before she took the role. (Steinem gave it to her.)
Watson also told Entertainment Weekly she did consider the Stockholm syndrome issue, but eventually dismissed it on the grounds that Belle "has none of the characteristics of someone with Stockholm syndrome."
She has not yet commented on the abusive nature of the Beast.
Perhaps Watson has convinced herself the abuse isn't that bad. Or perhaps she believes the feminist changes she implemented rectify the abuse.
Or maybe she just couldn't say no to a killer lead role in a huge blockbuster film when it was offered to her. (And who can blame her?)
But one fact remains: Belle's tale truly is as old as time — the tale of a woman abused. And Emma Watson was a part of it.