5 min read
By Emma Everett, MEDIAGIRLS editorial intern
The new Beauty and the Beast remake is out, and is already crushing box office records. After its opening weekend, the live-action version brought in box office sales of over $350 million worldwide. Adoring fans of the Disney classic and critics alike have delivered an outpour of support for the film. Updated versions of films can be risky for some, as many people often have fond nostalgia for the originals, but Disney has had great success in recent years with the remakes of their princess films, starting with Cinderella in 2015. And unlike most reboots, the updates and changes to the new Beauty and the Beast have been some of its more celebrated elements.
The live-action version adds new songs to the musical, as well as making the most of new technological advances to bring the castle objects to life. The most celebrated update, though, has been to Belle herself, in character renovations that give her more agency, fearlessness, and respect. Belle has always had a bit more depth than most Disney princesses to begin with. She cares deeply about education and helping others, as opposed to her looks or finding a man.
Belle has a refreshing, independent new spark, largely in part to the fact that she is now played by Hollywood’s strong champion of women’s rights, Emma Watson. With Watson’s advocacy background for girls and women around the world as a UN Ambassador and founder for HeForShe, she acts as a great role model for the millions of girls heading to the film in droves. Right from the beginning, she gives Belle more credit by making a statement about how she isn’t interested in the men from her village because she doesn’t feel any connection with any of them. By setting a standard for herself, Belle understands that she does not need a man to be fulfilled.
That being said, it’s worth taking a few moments to discuss the traditional elements. For starters, Belle does find love and fulfillment from a man, and this is what allows her to live “happily ever after.” There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but as in most Disney princess movies, acquiring the love and hand in marriage to a man is still portrayed as the peak in a young woman’s life. What does this teach young female filmgoers about what they should aspire to? In Belle’s case, this love has widely been seen as the results of Stockholm syndrome, as her relationship with the Beast begins with him kidnapping her.
It would be a reach to say the character portrayals in this film are revolutionary. For starters, the new Beauty and the Beast still lacks basically any diversity, although many people have been applauding Disney for promoting its first openly gay character, LeFou. Some are saying Disney should do better.
Many fans have also applauded Emma Watson for refusing to wear a corset in her gowns throughout the film. This is indeed a great statement from Watson, but it is important to consider that she already has our culture’s idealized body type. She may not be supporting the device, but by featuring an actress with this exact body as the protagonist of this film, Disney continues to remind us that their princesses have to be thin.
This new reboot of Beauty and the Beast does not do much for the fact that only 29% of Disney movie protagonists are girls or women. Instead of developing new, complex female characters for films, Disney has decided to play off people’s nostalgia and recreate their classic princesses with slightly modernized adjustments.
That said, it is a heartwarming story that many girls will absolutely love. As media consumers, we are here neither to applaud the film’s upgrades or condemn it completely, but to negotiate its positive and negative elements, what they say about women, and how we are still seen throughout modern media.
Take the girl(s) in your life to the film, and then use it as a springboard for conversation. Start by asking what she thought of the film? If she says she enjoyed it, share your favorite scenes and what you both liked most. Then, ask,
- “What do you think of the fact that Disney princesses always seem to find a happily-ever-after ending by falling in love with a man?”
- “Can you imagine a different kind of happy ending for a Disney princess?” [Great opportunity to bring up Moana, whose “happily ever after” is saving the environment rather than a royal wedding.]
You can tell her that love and romance are wonderful, and also fun to watch, but what does it say when almost every Disney story ends this way?
See where the conversation goes. If at some point she rolls her eyes or says “OK, quit running the film!” that’ll be a good clue it’s time to stop. You can close out with,
- “I hear you. Just remember that I liked the film too. It just got me wondering about these messages. I’m done now.”
In doing so, you are teaching her that it is okay to like a movie (or song, book, TV show, etc) and also disagree with some of the messaging being sent. If she didn’t like the reboot, remind her she has the power to send a message to distributors by not supporting the film through purchase of merchandise, and using social media (and face-to-face conversation) with her peers to speak up about her position.
Emma Everett is a junior at Boston University studying Advertising with a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She was a MEDIAGIRLS teacher, and ran the Boston Marathon.
Michelle Cove is the Executive Director of MEDIAGIRLS®, a nonprofit organization that teaches girls how to critique the way girls and women are portrayed in pop culture with an emphasis on creating empowering content.
She is also an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and author whose projects have been featured on numerous national platforms including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Katie Couric’s talk show “Katie,” “The Today Show,” The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
Visit www.mediagirls.org to learn more.