Beauty & the Beast: The girl who reads

Belle is my favorite princess.  ‘Beauty and the Beast’ came out and she was perfect.  She loved to read (like me), longed for adventure in far away places (like me), and had brown hair (you guessed it!  Like me.)  She saves her dad, bewilders the bad guy, and saves the Beast.  In my exceedingly limited, and in no way representative of anyone but my friends poll she received the most votes for favorite Disney Princess.  She is great.  Unfortunately, she is in a world populated almost entirely by men.  The film is amazing on all fronts.  It was even the first animated feature to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture.  But when you look at it through the lens of women’s roles it falls very short.

Belle, as previously stated is amazing.  Like most of the Princesses who went before her, she is held up as a great beauty.  However, no matter how pretty she is, the people in her community define her, not be her looks, but by her reading habits and odd ideas.  She is strong.  She is smart.  She has ideas and goals and a backbone.  The only thing she needs to be saved from is a locked door.  She manages everything else herself.  She is all that and a bag of chips.  She is the light in very dark world.

The other other female characters are so stereotypical that one wonders if the writers even tried at all.  Only Mrs. Potts, the maternal housekeeper, even gets a name.  We have a wardrobe that talks about clothes, a sexy feather duster (because every children’s film needs a sexy character for the men to focus on), and my personal favorites, the identical, blonde, vapid Gaston fan club called the ‘Bimbettes’.  Seriously?  We really needed a group of women to swoon and tell us how much Gaston is loved in the town?  There was a whole song for that.  They are demeaning and horrible and saddled with an insulting label.  They behave no differently around Gaston than any other member of the community.  In fact, they are less fawning than Le Fou, yet they are bimbos.  Because they are female?  Bromance and hero worship in a man is fine, but if a woman feels the same she loses credibility.  She becomes a bimbo, ‘A physically attractive woman who lacks intelligence’ (Thank you, Wiktionary).  All the other people who worship Gaston are listed as villagers with no aspersions cast on their gender or intelligence.  In fact, the trio is not stupid enough to follow Gaston into the woods to attack the castle unlike most of the men, so where is the real intelligence here?

Increasingly, as I look at these films this is the trend.  The Princesses themselves are increasingly diverse and powerful while the women around them are left behind in the gendered role wasteland that the Princess has managed to escape.  Men do everything around the Princesses from selling bread to waging war.  Sometimes the women get to talk about it.

And now for the numbers.  They are disappointing.

Bechdel test*:  ‘Beauty and the Beast’ meets this requirement in the barest minimum way.  Belle and Mrs. Potts have exactly one conversation in the movie.  It lasts for about 30 seconds and Chip interrupts repeatedly.  Result:  PASS (grudgingly) 

Percent of words spoken by women**: 29%***.  This is bad.  Shockingly bad.  But what can we expect from a writing team that thinks that ‘Bimbettes’ is an appropriate name for a group of women?

*The Bechdel Test evaluates film based on whether there are at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

** The data comes from linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who have been working on a project to analyze all the dialogue from the Disney princess movies.  The project was reported in The Washington Post by Jeff Guo.

*** The orginal posting of this figure was for ‘Aladdin’ not ‘Beauty and the Beast’.  It is correct as of 11:40 am 2/25.

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