Why Emma Watson’s Beauty and the Beast is the feminist flick we needed

It’s a tale as old as time – helpless damsel falls in love with powerful prince and they live happily ever after.

However, since the turn of the century, cinema-goers have grown tired of this narrative.

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Instead, we want films where the girl saves the day, and does so while having success of her own.

Beauty and the Beast has always stood out as one of the empowering Disney princess films, alongside Mulan and Frozen, in striking contrast between the likes of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

Belle didn’t want to just be adored for her looks, marry to become a trophy wife, or keep her mind as small as her town.

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She wanted to read. She wanted to learn. She wanted to travel.

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I say Belle would totally be a feminist.

When Disney announced it was turning the 1991 classic animated film into a live action version, with Emma Watson as Belle, I have to admit I did a mini fist bump*.

(*Read: massive jump for joy and squeal of excitement.)

Emma has made a name for herself as a feminist icon, with her involvement with the UN in her #HeForShe project, her feminist book club Our Shared Shelf, and the countless times she has spoken out in feminism’s favour.

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With all this, we knew Emma would do Belle justice, and then some.

And she did not disappoint.

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Although Disney wanted to honour the iconic animated version by preserving what we love about it, it got on board with the 21st century mind-set that our princess heroines need to have a little more substance to them.

With this, Belle was given a back story.

We were shown immediately that she was just as skilled as her father in inventing, helping him with his machines from the beginning of the film to the end. We were told how her mother died, turning her from merely the woman who gave birth to Belle but to someone who was just as clever and strong as her daughter.

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As well as this, Beauty and the Beast featured another new scene where Belle demonstrates her innovative thinking, making an ahead of her time washing apparatus using her horse. A little girl sees her doing this and wants to learn more, leading to Belle helping her learn how to read.

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In moments such as these, Belle is shown as a progressive character – someone who wants to achieve new things and help others do the same too. The little girl wanting to learn more from Belle shows the hope Disney has for the young viewers of Beauty and the Beast. They want them too to look up to Belle and want to expand their mind.

Another bold move Belle makes is by demonstrating her capacity for choice throughout the whole movie.

In the 1991 version, while it is her choice to take her father’s place as the beast’s prisoner, and to go back and rescue said beast at the end, the male characters around her are instrumental in these decisions. Her father agrees to her sacrifice, and Chip, the adorably alive tea cup, repowers her father’s machine to travel back to the castle. In the remake, Belle forces her father out of the prison cell using the strength of her words and her body, and also comes up with her own idea on how to get back to the castle using her knowledge of lock picking and fearless travelling.

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These little changes are instrumental in reworking Belle from a clever, strong and progressive character, to a full on badass.

We know how much little girls look up to Disney princesses – I mean how many of them wanted to be Elsa for Christmas 2013. But with the new Beauty and the Beast, instead of them growing up wanting to be the girl who gets locked away just to fall in love, they now want to be the girls interested in learning and doing the same jobs as their fathers.

While we can say that most Disney films were already heading towards a less traditional narrative – with sisterly, not romantic, love being the main storyline in Frozen – Beauty and the Beast’s bold moves against shying away from the fear of changing too much from the original, (including opening the conversation on LeFou’s sexuality), can teach our society that we must do the same.

The film and its characters are telling us to be bold and tell our stories, and not to live in the shadow of what is expected of you as a woman or as someone in love.

On that note, I thank Beauty and the Beast for giving us a new fairytale to aspire to – one based on choice, realising your potential, and strength to be yourself.

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