Growing up, we all had our favorite Disney Princesses (or Superheroes for the boys). Actually, I didn’t. I loved the art work of Sleeping Beauty and wanted to be naturally graceful like Aurora, but had no desire to be a princess who missed all the action because she was asleep. And yes, Ariel had some cool solos, but the whole not being able to talk thing is not appealing to someone who’s already shy. And who wouldn’t want to go on a magic carpet ride and have a tiger for a pet? But then again, it’s hard to identify with a princess who grew up in a palace and got whatever she wanted, rather than a princess who grew up in anonymity, not knowing she was special or would end up wooed by Prince Charming. (And maybe the reason I never wanted to be a certain Disney Princess is the same reason I never wanted to be anything specific when I grew up like an astronaut or a doctor.)
But I think my favorite Disney story was Beauty and the Beast. –Interesting, because the main character in this tale is actually the Beast, not Belle. I recently re-watched it (mostly for the music –I used to have the soundtrack on my computer but it got lost when my hard drive died. –What. You know you’ve had those hard core rock-outs to Disney soundtracks too.) and realized what I had missed as a kid, so caught up in the shiny Disney Princess romance: Belle is awesome. And totally worth holding up as a model for kids, unlike some of the other princesses.
Why, you ask? Well, here are eight good reasons why:
(1) Belle sees the inner character of a person, good and bad. Sounds trite, I know. But it’s an ability I’d want my daughter to have. She’s not fooled by Gaston’s conceited gallantry, but also, she is able to spot the good in the Beast while he is still growling in moody tempers and acting pretty beastly. The scene I’m thinking of is when Belle flees the castle after the Beast erupts at her for entering the West Wing and almost tampering with the enchanted rose: The Beast has just fought off a pack of wolves to save her, showcasing mannerisms far more wild animal-like than human, yet she marks his humanity in his concern for her well-being. There’s a moment when the Beast has just fallen to the ground in exhaustion and pain from his fight with the wolves and Belle has to decide whether she’s going to leave him and escape back to her father, or help the Beast back to the castle. It’s clear she’s thinking something along the lines of, “He just saved my life. I can’t just leave him here to die in the cold.” And so, moved by guilt and compassion, she brings him back to the castle and tends his wounds. From then on she gives the Beast more than the benefit of the doubt that he is trustworthy, though all outside appearances (the fact that he appears to be more animal than human, dangerous, and hot-tempered, and that he’s holding her hostage) would contradict this. But she’s seen that he does care about other people, so she deals with his other more undesirable character traits.
(2) Belle meets people where they are. There’s a deleted scene where Belle begins teaching the Beast how to read. When he admits that he doesn’t remember how to, she doesn’t question his lack of education or smile condescendingly that of course a beast wouldn’t know how to read, but instead offers her expertise and patiently listens as he stumbles through the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet. And when they finally do eat dinner together (in the regular scenes) and he embarrassingly slobbers his food and has trouble even grasping utensils, she sets her own aside and defies table etiquette, drinking from her bowl, to work with him in changing his acquired bad habits. She’s not afraid to lower herself to his level of skill in order to help him. These actions, in fact, are not demeaning at all, but rather make the audience respect her more for her grace towards the Beast.
(3) Belle challenges others to love and mercy. “You didn’t even let me say goodbye. I’ll never see him again,” Belle says to the terrifying beast. He has just thrown Maurice out of the castle after swapping him for Belle and is now her captor. The only thing she knows about Beast is that 1.) He appears to be a monster; and 2.) He cruelly locked up her father, a weak old man, simply for trespassing. Yet she strikes at his conscience, exposing his lack of feeling for human relationships. Maybe it’s because she didn’t think about whom she was talking to before the words came out of her mouth. But she doesn’t look that repentant about them. The fact that she doesn’t think twice about it tells the audience she is in the habit of calling others out on their lack of love. No one, in her mind, is above (or below) finding compassion within their hearts for others.
(4) Belle wants to do something with her life. She has ambitions and dreams. She might be living a humdrum existence on the edge of a little town, but that’s not what she wants. She wants to be challenged, to use all her capabilities. In an open field, she sings to the skies, “I want adventure in the great wide, somewhere. I want it more than I can tell. And for once it might be grand to have someone understand I want so much more than they’ve got planned.” She doesn’t just want to get through life, satisfying the expectations of others. She wants to thrive, to feel alive, to reach for something more.
And she may get her adventure when her father finds his way to the castle, but something tells me, once things settle down in her life and she gets used to being married to the Beast-who-is-now-a-human-again, she won’t let her life sink down into routine. She’ll strive to make a difference in her world with the freedom she’s found.
(5) Belle is courageous. She does not let fear play a part in her life. Even after beholding the Beast in his full grisly bearing, she agrees to play the part of prisoner for her father –for the rest of her life. She has no idea if the Beast was keeping her father alive just to have him for dinner, or if there’s any hope in escaping. Either way, she knows endless miserable days and the possibility of a painful death await her, yet she chooses it anyway.
She’s not the type to fall apart in dangerous situations. Evidenced by the fact that when she and her horse are attacked by wolves, and her horse’s reigns get caught in the branches of the trees, she doesn’t run, but grabs the nearest hefty stick and goes after the wolves to defend herself and her horse. And lastly, she knows a crowd of bloodthirsty townsmen have just left to storm the castle and kill the Beast, and she rides after them to warn the Beast anyway. All of these actions might seem foolhardy, but they only reveal to the audience another worthwhile character trait of Belle:
(6) Belle fights for those she loves. She’s not a victim, under any circumstance. The first thing she asks her father when she finds him in the dungeon is, “Who’s done this to you?” followed quickly by the reassurance, “I won’t leave you.” If you’re her friend (or horse) she’s got your back and won’t leave you in order to save her own skin, but will do everything within her power to dig you out of the mess you’re in. Even if it’s your own doing. Perhaps the most loyal thing Belle does in the movie is to ride after the crew of angry townsmen in order to warn the Beast. It’s a testament to the belief that he is worth fighting for, that there is something in him that’s been redeemed. She’s tried convincing them that he’s not an evil creature, but they didn’t listen. But that, and her small stature, don’t stop her from physically coming to his aid. She’s strong enough to risk everything to save those she loves.
(7) Maybe this falls under the category of courage, but I think it deserves its own point: Belle is not afraid to love. Everyone loves the song “Something There,” but hidden within the feathery and endearing lyrics is perhaps, the most important decision Belle makes within the story: to love the Beast. Understandably, she finds her romantic feelings for the Beast alarming. She’s already vaguely worried that she’s odd compared to the other townspeople, a point she brings up with her father at the beginning of the movie. And I’m sure, even in the universe that she lives in, it’s not normal to have those kinds of feelings for a ‘beast.’ And then there’s the fact that he’s holding her there against her will. (And suddenly this sounds like the plot line of a bad romance novel. Except there’s no erotica, because she’s not attracted to him physically. Obviously. And it’s a children’s movie.) These worries give her pause, but they don’t stop her from making the decision to let herself fall in love. She could close up her heart and say, “No this situation is too risky. I’d have to be an idiot to let myself fall in love here. How could I trust my heart to this guy?” And she doesn’t let the fear that things might move out of her control if she lets her heart go overpower her reasoning.
Sometimes you get to choose if you fall in love with someone, and sometimes you don’t. In this circumstance Belle recognized that her feelings could lead her down that path, and she could have chosen to close herself off from those feelings in self-defense. But she doesn’t. She chooses to let herself fall in love and see what happens with this new twist in her life.
(8) And finally, Belle’s beauty invites others to change their lives for the better. The whole crux of the movie, when the Beast decides to spare Gaston, comes about because the Beast has come to know and love who Belle is. Holding the whimpering and groveling man out over the edge of the castle, the Beast recognizes himself, or at least who he used to be, in Gaston. In his mind’s eye is this very same scene of the arrogant man begging in fear for his life, except it is himself before the enchantress. So he gives Gaston a chance to save his life from the mess he’s made of it. But does this ability to see himself and others more clearly come if Belle had never entered his life? My guess is no. Because it all stems from learning to love.
The curse specifies, “If he could learn to love another and earn her love in return, then the spell would be broken” with the caveat that “beauty is found within.” Now, it’s true that any girl could waltz into the castle and the staff (and I’m sure the Beast too) would do everything possible to make her fall in love with the Beast. It doesn’t matter who she is, she’s female and that means she could break the spell. Because, hey, who wants to spend the rest of their life as an inanimate object when there’s a chance that you could be human again? But the catch is that the Beast has to fall in love with her too. I can’t see many women putting up with Beast’s behavior, much less feeling all warm and fuzzy inside around him. And if she’s not interested or even open to the idea of anything more than tolerating coexisting with this beast, chances are, he’s not having a good time either. Commence overgrown temper tantrums and shredded furniture.
It’s a good thing Belle comes along then, with her beauty that comes from within. Yes, she’s pretty. All the Disney princesses are. But is that really why the Beast comes to love her? Why do we love someone? Is it because of how they look? Or because of who they are? Or a combination of the two?
The first time they meet, Belle’s act of courage to take her father’s place makes the Beast pause in surprise and respect, asking, “You would take his place?” And later when Belle is tending his wounds after her escape attempt and she thanks him, he wonders at her and [grudgingly –it’s a new thing for him] says you’re welcome and then proceeds to stare at her closely like he can’t figure her out, but he likes what he sees. And then Belle is treating him like any other human being, not tiptoeing around his pride, or meeting his glances with disgust, but in fact, being more kind and encouraging than any other person he’s encountered in his life. And lo and behold, suddenly the audience is seeing a softer side of the beast, one that wants to do something nice for Belle in appreciation for what she’s done for him and to bring her a happiness while she is away from familiar comforts. –An indication that he’s actually thinking about other people and their wants and needs.
The Beast’s affection and desire for Belle might grow as he looks on her appearance every day, but her physical beauty isn’t the cause for his change in heart. It’s the beauty that he sees in her character that prompts him to adjust his own behavior. Her beauty emanates from within and encompasses her every action. It’s not just how she looks, but who she is. And that’s something worth celebrating and imitating.