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Tale as old as time: unraveling the princess myth

After the kerfuffle over whether a topless photo disqualifies Emma Watson as feminist-in-chief, we’re now left to consider whether the movie her underboob was promoting in the first place lives up to its revolutionary promises. In advance of the release of the new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, Watson publicized that Belle’s story line had been tweaked to show a more independent heroine: “In the animated movie,” Watson said, “it’s her father who is the inventor, and we actually co-opted that for Belle.”

While some may take issue with the fact that Belle’s inventions involve automating laundry, I’m not too fussed about that detail. (Joy Mangaro became a millionaire selling her Miracle Mop, after all.) But while Emma Watson’s Belle demonstrates more agency than her animated predecessor, the much-hyped inventor identity stays stuck in the backstory. It’s 2017, people. Is it too much to ask for a happy ending in which Belle lands a patent, not just a Prince?

We are meant to be applauding Disney’s progressiveness for the depiction of mixed race couples and its first gay character. The gay subplot comes in the form of Le Fou, sidekick to Gaston, Belle’s pompous suitor. Le Fou’s sexual orientation is suggested only via a side comment by Mrs. Potts and in a moment in the ballroom scene in which he dances with a male villager. Blink—or get up for a popcorn refill—and you miss it, and it would take a particularly clued-in kid to pick up on it at all.

The heterosexual dynamics, in any case, remain firmly in place. The Beast, cursed by an enchantress because of that darned male inability to empathize, is redeemed by the tears of a pretty girl. Belle is bookish, yes, and the provincial villagers find her odd, but she gets her happy ending because her looks live up to her name. I’m with the Guardian‘s Peter BradshawShrek, in which both lead characters are ugly, is a lot more fun.

Young girls—and their parents—are drawn to princesses because they are “by definition, special, elevated creatures,” explains Peggy Orenstein in her excellent book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. The proliferation of princess paraphernalia was spawned in the year 2000, when Disney executive Andy Mooney noticed girls in the audience of a ‘Disney on Ice’ show sporting home-made princess costumes. The rest is branding history. In 2001,the Disney Princess franchise generated $300 million of sales; by 2012, that number was $3 billion.

In an uncertain world, in which girls grow up ever-more quickly, princess play provides a comforting aura of innocence. As Orenstein writes:

‘Princess’ is how we tell little girls that they are special, precious… ‘Princess’ is the wish that we could protect them from pain, that they would never know sorrow, that they will live happily ever after ensconced in lace and innocence.

But by enveloping our daughters in tulle and tiaras, we may be doing them more harm than good. Harvard professor of folklore and mythology Maria Tatar argues that by helping children work through their fears, the scary parts of the original fairytales served a psychological function, which is lost in the anesthetized Disney versions. Dan Stevens’ Beast isn’t remotely scary; well-mannered, he seems to share the actor’s Etonian pedigree. “I have an expensive education,” he tells Belle as he escorts her to his vast library. Tatar suggests that a declawed Beast may be a sign of the times: we’re more inclined to think of animals as endangered and in need of our protection than vice versa. Similarly, in an age of smart homes, even the talking coat racks and candlesticks don’t seem as startling as in the 1991 animation.

The moral of Beauty and the Beast is to look past appearances, a worthy message in an age of social media, app dating, and—sadly—rising xenophobia. But the film’s ending still features the damsel achieving happiness through (only) love. “I’m not a princess,” Belle insists, defiantly, when the wardrobe attires her in frou-frou finery upon her arrival. Yet she happily dons the yellow ballgown embellished with gold for her date with the Beast. Feminism may involve choices, but here Belle doesn’t even get to choose her own outfit.

Movies matter. Studies show that sitting in the dark, looking up at the flickering lights of a big screen, indelibly imprints the subconscious. We are so brainwashed that we continue to accept the spoon-fed princess narrative even as adults. (I had to hold myself back from hurling popcorn at the screen through the entirety of Bridget Jones’s Baby.) The rescue fantasy is insidious, and dangerous. It’s worth digging deep to unroot it in ourselves, and trying our best to limit its taking seed in our daughters. As Colette Dowling wrote in her 1981 New York Times bestseller The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independencea desire to be taken care of “keeps women in a kind of half-light, retreating from the full use of their minds and creativity.” In words that ring as true today:

We have only one real shot at ‘liberation’, and that is to emancipate ourselves from within.

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