On opening night of Beauty and the Beast, I rushed to the theatre with my best girl friends, ready to sing, laugh, cry, and feel all the nostalgia that a 90s kid like me has for a beloved classic brought to fresh life. I was not disappointed. As a bookish, romantic-type, I’ve long identified with Belle, but Emma Watson’s modern Belle has — if you’ll pardon my bursting into song — something there that wasn’t there before. Watson’s Belle is a Disney Princess for 2017 — and a great female role model for any girl in any time. Here are 5 reasons why:
She’s book smart
We already knew Belle was a bookworm from the 1991 Oscar-nominated cartoon. But today’s version shows Belle not only escaping into books, but sharing her love of reading with others through intelligent conversation and teaching.
…and street smart
Belle knows her way around her father’s shop. She helps him with his repair work — and not just by holding the flashlight. When dad’s away, Belle whips up labor-saving devices to help her spend more time reading and less time on household chores. And when she’s trapped in the enchanted castle, she puts her crafty skills to work on an escape plan. 2017 Belle would fit right in with all the DIY-ers of the internet
She’s an independent thinker and doer
2017’s Belle clearly knows her own mind. She rejects Gaston firmly (yet kindly) despite his brawn and dreamy singing voice. She styles her dress with comfortable flats and a tucked-up-skirt, the better to run and work and ride horses in. Staying in the castle in exchange for her father is every bit her decision — even more so in the updated version than in the original — and as soon as she has the chance, she starts work on a concrete plan of escape. Even when she chooses to stay in the castle, Watson’s Belle is no Patty Hearst. Belle stays with the Beast because she wants to, and her strong personality remains constant.
Most Disney Princesses are marked by kindness. Birds and woodland creatures flock to them. They give to the needy. They befriend the poor. So it’s no surprise that Belle is kind, too. But this Belle doesn’t merely demonstrate a sort of passive “feminine” virtue; instead, she actively helps others by giving her time, attention, and care. She stops her own reading to teach a young girl. She pursues her father through treacherous forests to make sure he comes home safely. She nurses the Beast back to health at great personal cost. Modern Belle is a model care-giver, who loves sacrificially — yet with dignity and self-respect.
She’s in a healthy relationship
As I mentioned before, Belle knows her own mind, so one of my favorite updates to the 2017 version of this story is how well the writers avoid any hint of Stockholm Syndrome or abuse in Belle and the Beast’s relationship. Belle leaves the Beast as soon as he offends her, she only comes back to save his life (because let’s face it — anthropomorphic household objects don’t make great nurses), and she stays because she and the Beast develop a genuine friendship. Belle and the Beast discuss literature, bond over shared past tragedy, and have fun with one another. They are friends first and foremost, and that foundation in friendship is a welcome change from the fairy-tale tradition of love at first sight. (Of course, he’s a hideous Beast, so love-at-first-sight is kind of out of the question — but you get the picture.) The 2017 film takes the time to develop Belle and the Beast’s relationship, making her final declaration of love believable and showing that the Beast is interested in Belle for much more than the fact that she was the first attractive female to wander into his castle.
I could go on about reasons I loved the film — the beautiful sets and costumes, the brand-new songs, the excellent casting choices, the themes of sacrifice and grace and redemption — but this updated Belle, at once feminine and feminist, is worth the ticket price.