For those of you that don’t know, Belle is the main character of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Released in 1991, the film is an animated re-telling of the traditional French fairy tale, which tells the story of a young girl who agrees to be the prisoner of a beast in a castle in exchange for her father’s life. Disney’s version was a smash hit, winning a couple of Oscars, and Belle herself was hailed as a role model for young girls everywhere.
But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
When Belle is given a chance to take control of her own life, she takes it. She offers to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner (with absolutely no coercion from any other characters), stops him from dying of hypothermia in that terrifying wolf scene, and braves a mob to go back to his castle and save him. What’s more, she actively resists any other characters’ attempts to take that control away from her: when both Gaston and the Beast try to force her to do something she doesn’t want to do, she won’t have any of it.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Belle’s hobbies are very well-established from the beginning of the film – it’s shown straight away that she enjoys reading, even though it ostracises her from the rest of the town. Her goals are a little more difficult to pin down. She sings a song about wanting more from her life and feeling trapped in her provincial hometown, but the song doesn’t go into any specific detail: she just wants “more”.
Her beliefs are much easier to identify. She believes in doing the right thing even when it’s difficult and not hiding her true self – but these are all fairly typical Disney princess credos. Crucially, one of her main beliefs is not judging a book by its cover, and this goes on to have a real impact on the way she interacts with other characters (namely, Gaston and the Beast). Two out of three ain’t bad – I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Belle’s character is pretty consistent throughout the plot. She remains kind, curious and intelligent all throughout the film. Her skills are a little more difficult to account for – where she learned ballroom dancing in a French peasant village, I’ll never know – but it’s established early on that she doesn’t act like a typical French peasant, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A young woman who trades her freedom in exchange for her father’s life is compelled to break a powerful spell.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Beauty and the Beast is a love story, so it follows that the bulk of the main characters’ decisions are going to be influenced by their love lives. Belle is no exception – once she starts falling for the Beast, her feelings do influence a lot of her decisions.
However, they do not influence all of her decisions. In the first half of the film, she is actively avoiding having a love life at all, repeatedly turning down Gaston’s advances. Her two most important decisions – to stay with the Beast, and then to leave him – are influenced by her love for her father, and her concern for his well-being. With that in mind, I’m giving it a half-point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Actually, Belle doesn’t really develop over the course of the movie at all. At the beginning of the film, it’s established that she knows not to judge a book by its cover and that she’s not afraid to go against popular opinion: both of these beliefs are fully-formed by the time she rejects Gaston. While she teaches other characters a lot about themselves, she doesn’t really learn anything new at all.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she have a weakness?
It’s pretty difficult to pin down weaknesses for any of the older Disney princesses, as so many of them were designed without flaws at all. It’s only in the more recent Disney movies that any real character flaws get established, and they are rarely ones that hold the character back for long.
Belle fits into this pattern pretty well. She’s basically perfect. She’s endlessly patient, never goes too far when she’s calling people out, and even the bad decisions she makes (such as snooping around the West Wing) rarely stem from a negative character trait – they are frequently the products of too much of a positive character trait, usually curiosity. You could make a case that she’s given to making impulsive decisions (such as running away, or showing the mob the Beast in the magic mirror) but once again, these rarely stem from a negative character trait: they are either the product of an instinctive response (such as fear) or a desire to protect her loved ones. Neither of these can really be called a flaw.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Belle’s decisions drive the plot forward, and actually end up providing the motivation for much of the supporting cast. She decides to reject Gaston, which makes pursuing her his primary goal. She decides to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner, and he spends a large part of the film trying to rescue her. She decides to come back to the Beast’s castle, giving him the will to keep fighting. She drives the plot in almost every scene – and she doesn’t have to get captured or killed to do it.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
In some ways Belle resists a lot of gender stereotypes. She’s very intelligent, she wants to see the world, and at the start of the film, she doesn’t have any real desire to settle down and start a family – all traits that are rarely associated with young women.
But when you get down to it, she is one of the older Disney princesses, and she’s always going to be hemmed in by those limitations. She’s always graceful, she’s always ladylike, and what’s more, her entire storyline is geared around her love life. Her story ends when she marries her prince, and it’s clear that her previous desire to have adventures has long been forgotten. This ties into a lot of stereotypes about women – namely, that all women want is to find a good man. Furthermore, she’s pretty much responsible for the Beast’s personality transformation – through her love and patience, he goes from being aggressive and frightening to gentle and kind. This carries a whole bunch of unfortunate implications: namely, that women can “fix” a man just by loving him enough, giving them a degree of responsibility for their partner’s more aggressive behaviour. Obviously, this stereotype is hugely detrimental to everyone involved, as some people use beliefs like this to blame abusive relationships on the victim’s behaviour, rather than the abuser’s.
This is a real shame, because in some ways she’s a very progressive character, but she’s trapped in a storyline with much more traditional values, and this has its roots in the original fairy tale. With that in mind, I’m giving her half the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Belle really only has any kind of relationship with two female characters, both of whom spend most of the film as pieces of furniture: Mrs Potts and the wardrobe. These are very generic relationships: the characters are there to comfort her when she is sad, and to shepherd her towards the Beast – there’s no real substance to them. The fact that one of these characters doesn’t even have a name should give you a clue: she’s not going to pass this round.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10
Beauty and the Beast is one of my favourite films, but Belle hasn’t passed my test. While she is firmly in control of her own destiny and is a pretty consistent character, she falls into the typical Disney princess pitfalls. She doesn’t have a weakness, she’s hemmed in by traditional gender roles in story-telling (and all the unfortunate implications about gender relations that accompany them), and she’s so perfect that she doesn’t learn a thing.
But I have to say, this doesn’t hamper my enjoyment of the movie. While I can’t honestly say that I stand behind everything this movie endorses – particularly some of the more Stockholm Syndrome-y elements – I still find it very engaging. I’m perfectly happy to say that I can still enjoy something while acknowledging its flaws.
Next week, I’ll be looking at Doctor Who. Clara Oswald, I’m coming for you.