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 Watson’s 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 film’s release that Belle’s inventing is unpaid – so it’s not a job, it’s a hobby. I don’t 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 Belle’s 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 women’s 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. It’s unclear to me why anyone in this small family needs to know the time.
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: “I’m 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, there’s the drooling over the castle’s 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 Fowles’s 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. It’s 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 it’s possible to fall in love with someone who’s holding you prisoner. It’s not love, is it? It’s Stockholm syndrome.
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. It’s 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. I’m not sure it entirely holds for a person who’s 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 Belle’s ardent love for him – creepily illustrated by the anticipatory duties she performs, guessing what tools he needs for his timepiece-mending before he’s even realised he needs them – a bit uncritical and uncurious. They could have resolved this by making him 15-20% less useless.
4) The great lacuna where Belle’s character should be
So, you take a classic heroine and you strip her of her stereotypes: she is no longer weak and pliable, pleasing and emollient, cute and girly. But now you have to put some other stuff in there and – presto! – she is an adventurer and a bookworm, a dreamer, a nurturer, a person who may not be able to pick a lock on her own but can definitely put her hands on a tool for when a man wants to pick a lock. The problem is that all her new traits are pretty saccharine, so she still reads as a traditional heroine, just with bits missing. The opposite of a damsel in distress is not a damsel with a plan, it’s a damsel with a sense of humour.
5) Palpable fear of ugliness
It’s not an obvious feminist element, since it’s the beast who’s supposed to be grotesque. Nevertheless, I think we could all agree that the plot rather hinges on the idea that people can be ugly without and beautiful within, which idea has implications for womankind generally even if not for this particular woman, who is beautiful within and without. The problem is the Beast isn’t beastly. He’s actually fabulously handsome. He could quite easily, in another film, be the hero whose superpower is being furry. He is much better looking as a Beast than he is as a prince, which Belle explicitly references by asking him to grow a beard. Feminism aside, it rather misses the point.
Watching this film as a feminist fairytale is like listening to someone who claims to be able to speak German, then realising that they have only mastered one phrase. They can ask for directions, but if you actually told them the way to the Bahnhof, they’d be stumped. Still, hats off for trying. It’s better to speak a tiny bit of feminism than no feminism at all.