Yes, I know a Disney movie with a princess might not appeal to all of the usual readers, but bear with me – if ever a Disney film shaped the geek I was and who I would become, this one is it. And if we’re going to talk about a Disney princess, why not talk about the nerdiest one, eh?
In terms of Disney films, I was born at the perfect time. I was six years old when The Little Mermaid hit theaters, in elementary school for the Big Four of the Second Golden Age of Disney Animation: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. However, while I still find The Lion King to be an absolutely amazing film, none of them affected me quite like Beauty and the Beast.
Back in the days of the early 90s, Disney wasn’t quite the merchandising giant it is today. Impressive, yes; monstrous, no. Thus, it was pretty easy to judge a film based on the content, and not the merchandise. I saw The Little Mermaid in theaters, and I got the video when it came out later, but that was pretty much the extent of it. While other girls I knew loved to pretend to be Ariel and pout and sulk prettily, I didn’t.
I just didn’t feel an affinity with Ariel; didn’t identify with her. Though I’ve often liked countercultural things and gone my own way, I’m really a pretty laid-back, girly girl. Words like headstrong, tomboy, bold, and impetuous really don’t apply to me and never have. In some ways, Ariel gave a Disney voice to the strong personalities (and later, Mulan would do it even better), but her voice wasn’t mine.
Two years later, I was in the third grade and a well-known bookworm. I’d already flown through my mother’s Nancy Drew collection and was devouring everything I could lay my hands on, from The Babysitters’ Club books to secretly reading my sister’s Vampire Diaries series (yep, they were around back then). My stepfather took me to see the big Thanksgiving movie of the year: Beauty and the Beast.
In Beauty and the Beast, Belle is a voracious reader who dreams of seeing the world, and who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of her small town. They acknowledge that she’s beautiful, but find her interests and dreams strange. When Belle’s quirky inventor father takes a wrong turn in the woods, he stumbles into the castle of the Beast, who will be turned into a monster forever unless he can get his act together and find someone to love him. Belle finds her sickly father captive, and offers to trade places with him. Will the Beast manage to find his inner gentleman before he’s doomed to his beastly form forever?
It’s probably pretty obvious that I identified with Belle. For one thing, she was a brunette! More than that, she was the sort of person I wanted to be when I “grew up.”
Sure, she was “the most beautiful girl in town,” an idealized image. But that wasn’t who she was. She was a reader, a dreamer. Other people looked at her sideways because she didn’t fit precisely into her pre-determined box – except her lovable, kooky and even more nerdy father. She was caring, compassionate, and could see right through BS from people like the boorish and obsessive Gaston. If anything, her looks were a hindrance, attracting oafs and small-minded expectations.
There are tons of jokes about this film and Stockholm Syndrome, and even I cringe from time to time, wondering if I’m feeding into the reform-the-bad-guy message that I loathe in most vampire fiction. Still, I’d like to think that this film isn’t as simple as that. Belle wasn’t captured; she voluntarily agreed to the switch to save her father. Though she has ample opportunity to leave, even from the first night, she stays out of a (perhaps misguided, but then there wouldn’t be a film) sense of duty.
The Beast’s outbursts and bad behavior aren’t tolerated; she doesn’t form any affection for the Beast until he begins to change his behavior. Belle’s barely afraid of the Beast; she yells at him, disregards his rules, and appears to be more interested in the fact that she’s in an enchanted castle. She doesn’t change him with sticky sweetness; rather, they begin to bond over her basic compassion. And rather than simply being able to show Belle his “good side,” the Beast literally brings it to the forefront until that’s all that’s left.
Am I making excuses for a film because I like it? Maybe. In truth, I could probably make a case that the movie is not about an angry abuser and his captive, but rather the inherent danger and physical inequality between man and woman… but that’s a little too much media studies for either me or this post!
Anyway, none of this was on my mind when I was eight years old. This movie sent enough messages that I did absorb: that small-mindedness and a lack of imagination can lead to trouble, that things aren’t always what they seem… and that even if you’re a bookworm or a little different, there’s someone in that “great, wide world” that will understand you , even if those immediately around you don’t.
Not bad, for a cartoon fairy tale.