Beauty and the Beast: feminist or fraud?

Has Disney really turned Beauty and the Beast into a feminist fairytale? Or is it all just posh frocks and womens work with a slice of Stockholm syndrome thrown in? We delve beneath the furry facade

Beauty and the Beast was billed as a great feminist retelling of a fundamentally regressive fairytale. It was so feminist that Emma Watson, its eponymous Beauty, has been pilloried on social media for the hypocrisy of such unfeminist acts as having breasts and being attractive. This, naturally, rallies the right-thinking sister to Watsons defence, and thence to defend and applaud the entire film. But is this a trap? How feminist is it really? I dunked it in some water to see if it would drown (this witchcraft analogy does not stand up to close scrutiny, move on).

1) Incomplete subversion of the genre

The main indeed the only stated piece of feminism is that Belle has a job, so escapes the passivity and helplessness that has defined heroines since Disney and beyond. Eagle eyed feminist-checkers noted even before the films release that Belles inventing is unpaid so its not a job, its a hobby. I dont mind that. The future of work is automation, and even feminists will have to get used to finding a purpose outside the world of money.

I do, however, feel bound to point out that Belles invention is a washing machine, a contraption she rigs up to a horse, to do her domestic work while she teaches another, miniature feminist how to read. The underlying message baked into this pie is that laundry is womens work, which the superbly clever woman will delegate to a horse while she spreads literacy. It would be better if she had used her considerable intellect to question why she had to wash anything at all, while her father did nothing more useful than mend clocks. Its unclear to me why anyone in this small family needs to know the time.

Tech pioneer Emma Watson as Belle in the workshop with her father, played by Kevin Kline. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/AP

Later, the trope of transformation girl in rags trussed up in finery by supernatural cupboards or birds or whatnot is subverted, as Belle finds herself encased in silks, only to liberate herself immediately after a defiant: Im not a princess. However, for the climactic ballroom scene, she is transformed with a pretty dress. So it smacks of that tinny, 1990s inconsistency: rebelliously rejecting frilly conformity one minute, wallowing in it the next. I did, however, like the accent on her bravery, even if her only weapon of any efficacy was a kiss.

2) Glorification of male domination

There is more than a whiff of Fifty Shades about this film, though not in the savagery of the Beast, who locking people in cages aside is more cantankerous than violent. Instead, theres the drooling over the castles opulence, the visual caress of every chandelier and gold-leaf dado rail. This is very zeitgeisty, the sense that wealth has an erotic charge of its own and, furthermore, that nobody that rich can possibly be bad.

However, the book that kept coming back to me was not Fifty Shades but John Fowless hideous novella The Collector, in which a butterfly enthusiast turned sexual predator kidnaps an art student and keeps her in a cellar until spoiler alert she dies of pneumonia. Its actually incredibly hard to turn this story into an equality morality tale: the Beast can release her, she can come back of her own accord, all kinds of agency for the heroine can be filleted in at key moments, but the core proposition is that its possible to fall in love with someone whos holding you prisoner. Its not love, is it? Its Stockholm syndrome.

Stockholm syndrome it may be a fancy castle, but shes still a prisoner. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/AP

The teapot, played by Emma Thompson on a one-woman mission to start a class war with her magnificently weird cockney accent, announces, apparently sagely: People say a lot of things in anger. Its up to us whether or not to listen. This is a CBT reading of domination, where you take back your own power by choosing whether or not to respond to it. Im not sure it entirely holds for a person whos trapped in a castle.

3) Surrendered filial relationship

The father is meant to be a bit useless. We knew that. He is descended from a long line of fairytale fathers placing their daughters in dire jeopardy because they simply had to steal a lettuce or a flower or some stupid spoon. Yet this makes Belles ardent love for him creepily illustrated by the anticipatory duties she performs, guessing what tools he needs for his timepiece-mending before hes even realised he needs them a bit uncritical and uncurious. They could have resolved this by making him 15-20% less useless.

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