In the new Disney remake of “Beauty and the Beast,” Belle is played by one of the most famous modern day feminists, Emma Watson. But is the character merely a throwback from a sexist fairytale, or has she modernized as a powerful heroine in the latest iteration of the film?
Written by a female French novelist, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and published in 1740, this tale was cemented in American popular culture with the animated 1991 Disney version. Watson idolized the character as a child.
So in the 2017 version, is Belle is a strong woman leader or just another princess waiting for rescue? Is she truly “so ahead of her time,” as her father Maurice claims, or is she just just another pretty face in a yellow party dress?
In Emma Watson’s portrayal of the character, Belle is an inventor, tech innovator and startup entrepreneur -- one who creates a washing machine so she can spend more time reading.
Watson, who works for causes such as literacy and ending sexual assaults on campus, claims she plays the role because she is “this feisty young woman who spoke her mind,” and director Bill Condon heralds Belle as a “21st century heroine.” Still, many criticize the premise of the relationship between Belle and Beast as abusive.
In ReelRunDown, Melissa Smith writes that Beast kidnaps Belle and she is his victim. “He is even allowed to commit villainous acts without us holding it against him, because we know he’s an ‘enchanted prince’ and the prison is an enormous and luxurious castle. Had a non-prince kept Belle prisoner in his cottage, it might not have gone over too well.”
The kidnapping and falling for your captor is also a tale as old as time.
In Uproxx, Dan Macrae writes of Watson’s response to that twist: “‘It’s such a good question and it’s something I really grappled with at the beginning; the kind of Stockholm Syndrome question about this story,’ she told EW. ‘Belle actively argues and disagrees with [Beast] constantly. She has none of the characteristics of someone with Stockholm Syndrome because she keeps her independence, she keeps that freedom of thought.’”
And then there are those who say that Belle is a classic victim of domestic violence.
“Oh the other hand, if you think Belle’s love for the beast was merely a coping mechanism or she was stuck in an abusive relationship where she wasn’t valued for anything but her looks, you’re missing some key points of Belle’s character,” according to Hollywood.com. “She related to the beast on a deeply emotional level because he was also misunderstood.”
With those considerations firmly in place, and understanding that this is fiction, here are the 11 positive takeaways for working women from the new and improved fictional Belle:
She's not afraid to be smart. She is not offended by her outsider persona as a bookworm. Belle is someone in the workplace who works hard, delivers on time, does the research necessary and is not distracted from her goals.
She persists. Belle sets off to rescue her father, taking his fate into her hands, knowing the danger. In modern life, she is a leader who embarks on projects with confidence and mission. Active, not passive, she takes decisive action on her present and future to change her life.
Back off, wolves. Maybe it’s too obvious a metaphor, but Belle has to fight the wolves in the forest—can they be seen as men defending their turf in business and the boardroom? Perhaps the snarls and hisses are sexist comments and harassment that so many women endure on the way to gender parity.
Beyonce is Ok with Belle. Queen Bey
accompanied her daughter to the premiere. So she must be OK as a strong female role model.
She’s non-judgmental and deep. Belle doesn’t judge a beast by his hooves, so she comes off as a role model for a leader who will look to the performance, intelligence and insight from her co-workers, not what they look like.
Give Beast a chance. Updating her character to 2017 workplace circumstances, Belle might be the one person at work who talks to everyone, is never dismissive, and allows for people to grow, develop and change into who they truly are.
Damn the corsets. The new Belle character is not confined by the 18th century practice of wearing corsets and high heels. Dressing for comfort, utility and horseback riding in an emergency, she models the need to stray from fashion victim to fashion utility.
Performing the Second Shift. As caretaker for Beast as he is recuperating, Belle models the modern working woman’s multi-tasking efforts of caring for family and partners, children, parents, spouses. The good news is he gets better and can take care of himself.
She’s kind to everyone in the office. Accepting of the servant characters who are certainly odd as animated versions of inanimate objects, Belle accepts them at face value, giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Entrepreneurial spirit reigns. This is more on Disney, but Belle’s character has inspired a line of clothing available at Kohl’s, according to Hello Giggles. Rachel Paige writes, “It’s exactly what you need to wear cozying up in the West Wing reading all day, or fighting the patriarchy of your small town.”
L’Oreal introduced a line of make-up, apparently what Belle would wear. HSN is selling a collection of “fashion, accessories, beauty, home and garden, with retail prices ranging from $15 to $800,” according to Footwear News. The shoes from Vince Camuto are gorgeous, but nothing you can stand in all day at work. The affordable purses are adorable.
Grasping the power to change your life. Belle embodies Leadership Power Tool #2, to define your own terms. Developed by Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead, the 9 Leadership Power Tools are rooted in a sophisticated concept of power. Embraced with intention, women shift from the outdated, oppressive “power over” (or what Beast engages) in at first, to the expansive, positive and innovative “power to.”
Belle is a fairy tale character created three centuries ago, but if we are going to watch the movie that opens March 17 like millions of others, we want to look for something we can relate to in her and a way to interpret her star status as a lesson in women’s leadership.
Our best takeaway is that Belle shares co-star status with Beast in the title and in the script. As we all know, that does not always happen 100 percent of the time in movies or real life. So Belle has achieved gender parity. Voila.
Michele Weldon is the editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project.
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