The problem of Belle, in "Beauty and the Beast"
I think there are two key moments in the movie when Emma Watson offers us the pleasure in seeing what the latest, most self-empowered female Disney character, is capable of. Early in the film she is assisting her father, whose trade is as a clockmaker, and presents him, twice, with exactly the part he next requires... but ahead of him realizing that this is the exact piece he is searching for. She, at this point, is leading him... and could presumably just as well be doing what he is doing, if such was her foremost interest. Basically this is a doctor-nurse situation where the routine, "nurse -- scalpel!," is played out to invert the patriarchal paradigm and presume genuine authority to the "nurse," but without the labour strife or mean gotcha: here, the father couldn't care less is his daughter was one hundred years ahead of him in ability and he, mostly put in the position of assisting her. He knows she's got him beat in many, many ways, and is just delighted to see her grow and glow in exercise of her abilities. He's a sublimely great dad.
The second is when she's met the literate Beast, many times ahead in terms of awareness than the people she's grown amongst, but is always serving as a respectful therapist to him. We note her two challenges to him. First, when he is struggling to admit he has feelings for her, she motions him to consider that the book he is concerned just now to devote time to isn't just about battles but about romance too. Second, she gently reminds him that you can't love someone while you remain someone's captive -- when you're not free. The inner struggle is mostly on him to work through. She's apparently, mostly been there done that.
It may be that it is tough to determine how exactly we actually think of a character when she's put out there as some sort of pinnacle of moral perfection, when through supporting her, we too partake in her moral elevation. As William Deresiewicz argues, we become in danger of using her, our support of her, as moral cover for everything we're doing in our day-to-day lives. She's part of a formula -- we love her and despise the patriarch Gaston, and now can go about oblivious and non-self-reflective about everything in our lives, as we're clearly with the forces of good and against all forces of evil.
I'm suspicious, that is, that what we're experiencing with films like this, films that look and seem as if they've integrated and represent the most advanced feminist sensibilities, is something already of a betrayal. A feminist sensibility is about respect and love, above all, and I'm not sure how much genuine respect and love you're showing for someone if your thoughts are mostly on how she can be portrayed to show how self-enlightened you are. If you were instead mostly feminist for wanting to see everyone -- boy or girl -- grow to their full potential, this needn't and probably wouldn't mean that you'd want to place her in situation after situation where she's morally ahead of everyone around her. You wouldn't make the one thing she does learn -- that the disagreeable Beast was a victim of abuse -- about a situation which involves no emotional or intellectual stretch on her part to take in, because it belongs to a paradigm she's abundantly familiar with: namely, everyone's mothers are wonderful, but fathers so often can be abusive and controlling monsters -- through their influence, later male tyrants are made, alas. Yes, we all know this… indeed it is apparently the only formula for the making of human monsters when it doesn’t just all lay on him.
There's an "emperor has no clothes situation" to how we're being instructed to enjoy this film where if somehow Belle did something which was a bit retrograde for a progressive, and Gaston did something a bit surprisingly advanced for a pompous bumpkin, we wouldn't let ourselves see it even as it played out before our eyes. No, neither of them could possibly be doing that, we'd judge, because she represents our current situation where we have evolved to the highest place of moral certitude, and he represents those whom we have passed by and who deserve to succumb to foul fates. It could all be for the purpose of her own growth -- a fit of regression she had to deal with after making one of her climbs in self-awareness; or her doing something which is genuinely about self-growth, but which comes across a bit clothed as something else: perhaps having a love affair with Gaston, even if already knowing it not something she'd much want to commit too, but just to see what that was like -- early-adult, healthy, experimentation with relationships and sex.
That's an interesting thought. What would it have played out like if the film had made Gaston and Belle former lovers -- or former boyfriend and girlfriend -- and she had in fact admitted that there was fun in it, of a sort, even as it didn't afford her much towards what she was ultimately hoping for... Gaston, at least, isn't afraid of her and can be marvelously, surprisingly, toward in his intentions: he meets her at this level here, something the shy-boy Beast can't manage at all. Indeed, the Beast is someone who pretends that his defending her from a pack of wolves means he's past being someone who's afraid to ask a girl out, even though this is who he remains, as it is clearly something he uses to prejudice her -- in this vulnerable-flesh-into-sheath-of-protection situation -- into being someone who must logically seek him out (earlier, the enveloping maternal wardrobe who spun around her an awful cocoon of indifferently selected luxurious clothes, failed to long entrap her, but being lured within a protective male carapace of strength, was a key to success). Here's my guess: it would be throwing tomatoes at the screen time (the crowd would cheer the Beast as he attacked: "Are you f*cking kidding me! All this time when you were ostensibly better than me, being so tolerant of me, teaching me and developing empathy in me, learning to love me regardless of my appearance, you were yourself the hussy who let neanderthal Gaston ball her for kicks!") And too bad for it, as it would be a plot artifice that remains fully within the thematic context of "beauty and the beast."
But you can't redeem every beast because we need vehicles of hate, even as one day we'll grow past it; and you can't be true in your support of every heroine, because we need to keep her in only such and such a form to demonstrate our virtue through our support of them, even as one day we'll grow past this as well. I feel I'm writing this essay a bit for Emma Watson, whose feminism I mostly trust. You let yourself get co-opted here. Remedy it by writing a fan-fiction take, involving you and Gaston. This is what we need, not your exposing your breast in "Vanity Fair," which allows us but another avenue to enjoin a fight which gives moral cover over how else we're going about our lives. The thing wrong about that wasn't the nudity (which we should be comfortable with), but that it elides that there are other things more daring for the feminist to undertake than pouring themselves more into already opened venues of demonstration. It was fine and all, but it wasn't what true feminism was looking for, for that, true feminism, has to be built away from the pull of the tolerant-cosmopolitan-vs.-restricting-pleb narrative, which draws us away from focusing on an individual's expression -- on what “you” were expressing there, in going partly nude -- towards using this, the societal stir it incurs, to retool our own certitude. You let yourself be incorporated as nothing more than another circumferent part to keep the chimes of our "morally pure" clocks going, which isn’t about avant-garde reach but about keeping the hounds of doubt from rocking our stasis.