The Evolution of a Beauty, a Beast and Us

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast’s Belle is much evolved from Disney’s early wimpy maidens.

That evolution tells us something about us, too.

Unlike submissive and servile Cinderella, or a Sleeping Beauty who naps as others determine her fate, Belle has dreams and yearns for adventure. She develops her mind and wants to be appreciated for it — not just her looks. She acts and makes a difference in the world.

Provincial town folk say she’s odd that way.

But Belle has a strong sense of self. She may be different from everyone else, and others may look down on her, but she knows who she is and doesn’t care what they say.

Bell embodies today’s strong woman, and reflects feminists in this way: Some still think feminists are odd for the many ways we are like Belle. Luckily, standing up for ourselves and what we believe in strengthens and ennobles us.

Men who don’t like feminists

Friends and students alike talk of guys who have rejected them because they are feminist. More often, those women break up with these men.

Kind of like Belle who spurns Gaston, a narcissistic who (in the cartoon version) actually believed that Belle would enjoy pampering him and cooking for him when he, the hunter, returned home with his kill.

Oh yeah, charming.

And Belle knows that Gaston doesn’t really value her. He wants a trophy wife. So his interest in her is really all about him.

Instead, in Bell’s experience love comes from knowing one another, not surface stuff that brings only superficial relationship.

Power in transforming self and others

In the story, Belle’s father is caught and imprisoned in the castle of a beast. Belle finds him and insists on trading herself for her father. It’s the classic hero story: sacrifice oneself for another.

The beast accepts, hoping to break a curse.

The curse: Years earlier an enchantress disguised as an old hag knocked on the castle door. Repulsed by her looks the Prince turned her away. So the enchantress cast a spell making him resemble the beast he was. The spell also turned the entire household staff into inanimate objects like clocks, mops and cups. To break the curse the beast must learn to love someone and have that love returned.

As the story continues Belle teaches the beast and transforms him into the prince he eventually earns the right to become.

The capacity to transform is strong power.

Today’s Belle 

Like Belle, women today are still imprisoned. We do not yet have full rights and status equal to men. And reflecting the “Beauty” part of her title, society still too often judges women by their looks.

And yet we are not so submissive and servile as our mothers and grandmothers were. We have more power to develop our minds and bodies in ways that were once not possible. We have dreams and adventures, and we largely determine our own fates.

We act. And we make a difference in the world.

Women today are still in the process of transforming that patriarchal beast. But we have come a long way, baby.

Inspired by “Construction of the female self” by Jill Henke  

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on March 22, 2017, in body image, feminism, objectification and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 36 Comments.

  1. Disney princess attracts many girls in terms of pretty figures and strong will not to give up. Differences of each princess and the transition of them are interesting. In the early age of princesses like Snow White, they show beauty and modesty and just wait for a prince who protect her to come. On the other hand, Ariel desires to go out of the sea and away from her parent’s protection. Belle mentioned this blog faces the beast alone and influences him. Following them, later princesses look for and open up their happiness by themselves not to depend too much on men. However, these attitudes don’t mean they completely leave male protections. This is because they can’t accomplish their desires without men’s support. For example, Rapunzel couldn’t beat a witch and find her family if not her prince. Besides, marriage results in princesses’ happy ending. Even if they get into new world, they return under male control. I feel this idea dominant even in the real world. Many people still believe women become fortunate not by building up career at the work place but by getting married and having babies. Recently, this idea has slightly been changing. While the idea of gender equality, the number of women who work outside is increasing, but they have many difficulties and inequality.

  2. Women came a long way since the ad in the 1950s (here a glimpse, but still the Beast becomes a beautiful Prince, which is fine as romanticism is a good state; however, it is the same finale: the woman finds her prince reinforcing the Cinderella message . It is true that Belle has a strong sense of self that is shown by her desire to read, explore the world and by standing before the villagers whom see her “strange” just because she doesn’t bend to social constructs. The fact that she stays strong and seems to be lightly bothered by the narrow minded attitude of the villagers, sends a positive message to keep believe in ourselves even though there are adverse events or people who may try to let us down and feel unfit.
    Of course, it would be good to point out that Belle’s attitude was cherish by her father throughout the movie, which hints to the importance of the family environment in which a child grows up. It might be correct to say that, considering the era the movie takes place, Belle’s father is quite progressive; in fact, Belle can read and most likely write, unlike many villagers, who take this knowledge as something to be ashamed of, perhaps out of jealousy. The apex of the disapproval happens when Belle is teaching to read to another girl, instead of doing the laundry as expected. Moreover, she invented a laundry machine that could save her time to read more or in this case to teach another girl to write. Here there is the negation of women’s education and also the negation of the validation of the woman’s engineering skills. In a broader sense there is a negation of the right for women to have time to dedicate for the benefit of self. Unfortunately, in the movie there isn’t a direct discussion between Belle and the Headmaster; I wish Belle would have vomited her thoughts to the Headmaster when he sent few men to destroy the washing machine, just to make sure the movie audience (little girls and boys) would have better interiorized the message. Besides the importance for women to stand for their believes, another point is the concept of beauty. We all agree about the meaning of beauty, but culturally there are differences in depicting what beautiful is and what it is not. Western culture has a strong sense of what it is beautiful by “normal” standard of proportion, weight, specific somatic features, etc. which might not correspond with the standard notion of beauty in another country and, for instance, elongate women’s neck using rings, can be considered “unnatural” by the Western culture. In The Beauty and the Beast, Gaston, the most beautiful man in the village represents the social construct of the Western culture of being beautiful; the athletic body, rough-and-tumble behavior, which contrast with the beast look that is horrific and hence impossible to be attracted to. In fact, Gaston is in disbelief when he realizes that Belle cares more about the beast than him, hence revenge is planned. This part of the story underlying what the real beauty is; it is not a perfect body, but rather the kindness of the soul, intelligence, sense of humor, etc.
    We are in a society that constrains women into a small box, but lately, women started to nurture who they really are and show their strength, values, and interests with a grounded sense of self. Things are changing and Cinderella might still be around, but more Belle are finding their voices to fight to be respected and follow their dreams, not other people’s dreams.

  3. Patriarchal societies still domination the globe today. The United States seems to be one of the more progressive countries in trying to have true equality for both men and women. In the Bay Area, I feel that there is much equality for both genders. Growing up here, I have never thought of a girl to be less intelligent or lesser than me. But as I grew up and started to become more exposed to the media, my views on that definitely did change for a little bit. I feel that times are changing rapidly though as I can think of many women empowerment movements happening every few months across America, and the rest of the world. It is just the worldwide culture of women being oppressed in the past that made it so that they have a much harder time of navigating through life due to all the roadblocks in their way. I see a lot of these roadblocks being knocked down nowadays and find it pretty exciting for the future of humanity.

  4. I think feminism is making very slow progress. It’s not for a lack of trying, but the patriarchal machine is a hard brute to change I guess. Women are still prisoners in so many ways, trapped in cycles they wish they could break. Your post reminded me of a beautiful piece of pro feminist writing I adore:

    “If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves? as they must be if the being subjected to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of men be the perfect condition of slavery?” (Mary Astell)

    We may well have come a long way, but Disney and the remainder of the world have a ways to go. Not much has really changed since Mary Astell wrote these words…..311 years ago!

    • I’d like to think more about why so many men are against gender equality even though gender equality would help them. The last election seemed like a huge backlash against gender equality. Men didn’t seem to have been put off much bye trumps sexual harassment or the insulting things sad at his rallies: Trump that bitch, lock her up, trunk and grab my pussy…” One of my friends dads voted for Trump because he feels like things are changing too fast.

      You see in this a lot of internalized sexism among women who hated Hillary and chanted many of the misogynistic things above. The race even revealed internalized sexism from a lot of progressive women who just hated Hillary — for no good reason I might add. Every time I heard a complaint from them it was easily debunked. Still, the hatred toward her was quite a draw. And these were young women, too, who you would think would be more gender equal. But that election had the biggest gender gap in history.

      So going back to men, they were very drawn to Trump, Even though he will hurt their wives and daughters and there’re relationships. And as I have written before on this blog privilege even ends up hurting the privileged. So why vote for someone who is so hurtful to others?

      I wonder if it’s a status thing. Even if you are hurt you can feel better than half the population. But when you are hurt and relationships are hurt you may be winning, but are you happy?

  5. I think the actress Emma Watson herself is a feminist who’s also working hard for gender equality, and her way to interpret her character Belle is to shape Belle as an independent, beautiful, and brave woman, who is young but clearly knows what she wants. She is wise and kind, which suits for the “requirement” of women in society, but she is also odd in her small town because she’s literate and creative that she invented her own way to do the laundry in this movie, and she tried to teach a little girl to read which annoyed others, who reflects the authority of men and patriarchy; even in today’s society that many people still think that women are suppose to stay at home and be a good wife, who “knows her place” because people who believes patriarchy values think independent women who made her own decisions (like Belle) would be a threat for them, but it doesn’t matter because even though there will be cage and prison, there will be breakthrough, and we have come a long way, and we still have a long way to go.

  6. Or “women are beautiful and men are beasts”

  7. I think there’s still a long way to go, but I did appreciate the small changes they brought: making Belle the inventor instead of her father, putting her in more utilitarian boots instead of impractical ballet flats, even changing up her outfit and getting rid of the apron which suggests only domesticity.

    • Cool changes! Sometime I want to do a comparison of this version, the 1991 version, and the original tale to consider how the changes reflect how women in society are changing.

  8. I am very happy they did a remake of this movie and happy you posted a blog about it. You made very good true points. This just shows how even disney movies are evolving from this. Belle definitely wants more than just an attractive husband who brings home his kill while she takes care of their kids. Good for her! This is showing women and kids what we are capable of as well, as looking beyond beauty itself. Also, shows how smart she is because she is the only women in her village who can read and men didn’t like that. In the new movie it showed young boys going to school and the young girls were washing laundry. Belle ends up teaching a little girl how to read till they throw her out and told her they don’t need more women who know how to read. That to me made me think of everything I have been learning in your class. Women can and will have big dreams and make a difference 🙂

  9. This is an excellent post dear Georgia. It seems Disney has opened up to new kind of female heroines. I guess Frozen is a good example of eclecticims in this sense: The princess who seems quite shallow but who has a very strong sense of self and who even Scorn love in the classical sense and men. (“Family comes first”).
    I am sure that if we treid ti apply Campbell´s myth monolith, we´´ll find many if not all the stages of the hero journey in this movie: Here is a scheme:
    I am glad to see how Cinema Industry has moved to a more Emancipatory side, with quite rad takes on issues that questions the legitimacy of the patriarchal paradigm 😉
    (On a side note: I haven´t watch the newest version but I know the traditional fairy tale: Did you know that it was written by a French novelist Barbot de Villeneuve and first published in 1756?). Sending very best wishes! 😀

    • So interesting to see how the story has changed over time in small ways that say a lot. And I love Joseph Campbell and his discussion of the mono myth. Another good idea for exploring the story.

  10. Lerma Hernandez

    Yes, women have come a long way even with gender inequality slowing us down. I believe greater change can be made starting in the household, beginning with the children. What if we cut out Disney princess movies? Would that help little girls develop a change in mentality? That they don’t have to grow up and be a pretty girl in a dress or a trophy wife? I have a four year old sister who owns almost every princess dress and insists on wearing them to school everyday. She has your typical baby dolls and a full set kitchen play set. I grew up a tom-boy. I played with toy cars and mud. I think growing up with boys helped me think and feel as I am not inferior to men. Belle is seen as a strong female princess in her recent movie. Which is great because she’s not the typical innocent princess that need’s to be saved. She is the hero. I think it’s time Disney re-creates a new series of empowering, successful princesses. Help shine some light on feminism.

  11. I like the way beauty and the beast have been connected with the modern woman…If Belle was an imaginative character, kudos to the one who created her!

  12. Indeed, women have come a long way! I’ve seen ladies around (at workplace) who have made their mark and many men roam around them to just get a glance!

  13. BuT I’ll say Belle was actually the heroine in this movie with all that happened and the different ways, but also the twists and turns of the movie made more sense to the tweaks in this movie. While also modernizing like I said with small and big roles with minority castes and a gay character, which was very obvious to me right in the beginning ha (thought they said or claimed him to be gay). And some other acceptance parts of being “different” which were good and stood for someone like belle “feminist, Beast who had some bad ways, but was from having a mean father and learning those ways. But the lessons bestowed on him made him realize that inner beauty is what is important and how he actualled did have a good heart, but just jaded from how he was raised, but acceptance of being different like Belle, like Beast and different as in the flamboyant male character who was friends with Gaston, and showing people it’s ok to be different as examples with Belle, Beast and the gay character, ( don’t know his name or remember).

    • It would be interesting to do a comparison of the the 2017 version, the 1991 cartoon version and the 2017 live-action version. See what is suggested about how things have changed. What that tells us about ourselves today.

      There’s a reading in one of the textbooks I use which looks at the evolution of the Disney heroine: cinderella, sleeping beauty, the Little mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas. Looking at how she has changed and what that tells us about ourselves — which is why I reference the author at the end of the post. I haven’t actually seen this new film yet, I just checked Wikipedia to see if the basic plot was the same and it is. It looks like Gaston has a new job in this film as a retired soldier. But your comment makes it sound like he’s quite a developed character, himself. Suggesting a world that sees things with more compassion and much less in black-and-white as it once did. Interesting to make a comparison with this Gaston and Maleficent.

      As always, thanks for your thoughts.

      • I mean Gaston is a jerk and bad guy in the movie, but there is more to him, like all of the characters. There’s more to Belle, to the Beast as well. But I guess Gaston as bad as he was, he must have had more character development to be friends with his flamboyant male friend (gay character) in the movie and be fine with it. In the the end he kind of didn’t care for his supposed friend, but not because of his friend’s flamboyancy, but Gaston being the self centered, conceited character that he is, and would put himself ahead of anyone to help himself or throw his friend under the bus if it helps him. So it was not to do with the friend’s personality, but Gaston’s personality of really not caring about others but himself. The story isn’t black and white though. Gaston is bad, the developed aspect is the people around him and the whole cast around. I think you’d like the movie though. I think you’d like not just the strong female character that Belle portrayed (not surprised considering she’s played by Emma Watson), the, I think more layers to the Beast as well.

        But also like I said involvement of minority actors in the movie with small and major roles. And like I said like acceptance for the lgbt community with a gay character in it, but he was a main role to as he was the close friend to Gaston so in most of the movie as well as other symbolic parts later not with him, but that came from other characters and what was said and happened. Belle also was a hero in multiple ways too, a very strong independent character. You’ll have to watch the movie and then chime back in here so I can talk more, because there’s more to say, but then I’d be spoiling the movie.

  14. I’m glad you brought this movie up, I thought you might since it just came out. And I was going to bring it up, since I saw the movie with my niece and sister. It was a good movie and quite the visual spectacle. The graphics were great. But it was cool how they did a twist on the story, because people don’t think about the original cartoon or story because it’s disney and it supposedly ends happily ever after. But if you think through some of the stories, if you look back you would have to question the submissiveness and damsel in distress aspect in original stories and why these female characters were fine with things? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the cartoon movie or children’s book. But I remember seeing how people brought up how Belle basically was kidnapped, but in the original story there isn’t a trade off with her father but she’s just captured I think. And then, because women are simple minded she’s overcome by the beasts charm and extravagance that she sees the beauty inside him. Like it’s condescending of the implications of women if you think of it. But in this movie, her father was captured, and she made the choice to be taken captive and did it by tricking her father, because she knew her father would give himself up to free his daughter. And the beast never captured her, she found the castle and went to it as she knew her father was in trouble. There’s so much more but I don’t want to ruin or spoil the movie if you haven’t seen it or for posters who will comment who haven’t seen it. But she was an intellectual character which is why she was seen as strange, noting it’s good to challenge and fight for things as well as proving there’s more to your worth.

    As what was implied is that it wasn’t women’s priority to be educated and a scene in it where she’s scoffed at because she’s teaching a girl to read. It plays to the time or points to history or to the time period of people’s views during creation of the beauty and the beast story. While also giving the modern view of acceptance by the cast as you saw some top characters and smaller role characters that are black, which in such movies in previous times you wouldn’t see. Or if you did it was in a very negative role. And I’m sure you heard, which was stupid, much ado about nothing. This big deal about a “gay character and gay scene”. I know if there was, it would be something subtle, but some people hear “gay’ and are automatically offended. Did people really think there was going to be something blatantly gay in a disney film that kids watch? Come on, if they did something it would be subtle and something that goes over kids heads or they don’t care. My niece watched the movie and nothing stood out to her. I noticed as an adult the subtle joke or hint, but it’s one of those things like in many disney films where there are adult hints, but adults get but kids don’t usually get or care.

  15. Hmm, rich prince fat shames repulsive enchantress. Later, beautiful female makes herself completely servile to him because of patriachy. I’m surprised you aren’t protesting at the theatre with placards.

    • I’m interested in how popular culture reflects real life. It’s not like we are out of patriarchy yet. Yes, today’s Belle has dreams and acts. She has power in transforming the Beast. But she is also limited. Although not as limited as you suggest. The beast needs her to fall in love with him so she is not really servile to him. But as I say in the post:

      Like Belle, women today are still imprisoned. We do not yet have full rights and status equal to men. And reflecting the “Beauty” part of her title, society still too often judges women by their looks.

      And yet we are not so submissive and servile as our mothers and grandmothers were. We have more power to develop our minds and bodies in ways that were once not possible. We have dreams and adventures, and we largely determine our own fates. We act. And we make a difference in the world.

      Women today are still in the process of transforming that patriarchal beast.

      • She really wasn’t servile, I don’t know if he actually saw the movie. I guess there was some aspect, but if I’ve seen the movie and I didn’t get that. You can see my response to him to see what I’m talking about as I explain the movie and why she wasn’t. She had agency and independence in it. It wasn’t like original stories where the female character didn’t have worth or the male character is what she needed or drove her or the male character is what made her do things. She made choices not because of his charm or why she stayed or stuck around, because of the compassion she had for the other characters, and she was imprisoned not because of being captured but like a hero, she found out her father was captured and came to the castle and tricked her dad so she would be captured.

        Like the Beast didn’t find her and capture her, her doing was to rescue her father. Much of her work was not from being spell bound by a male characters charm, but her own selflessness and “saving and having the strength, and bravery to make choices to put others ahead of herself to help them and save them. To me, that’s not weakness, but actually strength. The strongest people I know make sacrifices and choices that may not be fun for themselves, but they maybe see a bigger picture or compassionate to help others.

      • Yeah, even in the cartoon she stands up for herself. It’s part of the way she teaches him to be a decent human being.

      • Bob, sounds like the plot is that female sells herself into sex slavery (sex not shown because its Disney) to save the male father character (the patriarch of the family). Weak female is saved from wolves by strong brave slave master. Female acquires Stockholm syndrome for phychopath beast, and decides she can reform the alpha male. I can’t see the feminists liking it, buts it’s got all the architypes to appeal to regular women, which is why its an eternal favourite.

      • Nope. Not what happened.

    • I don’t think you’ve seen the movie. The original story she was servile. This movie there were changes and much of what she did was for her father. She wasn’t captured, she came to the castle because her father was captured. She could have left multiple times, but chose to stay, not because she was easily charmed or all it took was some charm and a nice place. But because she wanted to help the other characters and them asking her to stick around. She did leave but decided to come back because she had a good heart and the Beast who saved her life was injured.

      Even though she left because of his temper she realized, he wasn’t as bad and her caring part took over to help him and not leave him to die. So back she took him to the castle. Unlike the original story she had choice and was independent and the Beast let her leave and they talked about it and she actually visited a part of her childhood through a magical map. And like I said she did leave and he let her. So she had agency in this movie. And if you saw the movie you’d see she was anything but servile, unlike the original story. There were tweaks to this and Belle was a strong character and actually was a hero many times in the movie.

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