When Emma Watson was cast as Belle for the live-action adaptation of Beauty And The Beast, it was pretty much confirmed that this new version of the well-loved story was going to have an underlying feminist message beneath it — and it certainly hasn’t failed to deliver just that. Amidst the controversies of the discussions about Stockholm syndrome, Emma Watson’s Vanity Fair shoot, and the introduction of Disney’s first openly gay character, another, particularly significant theme in the film was overlooked: the topic of education for girls.
Wait, Where Is Education For Girls Discussed In ‘Beauty And The Beast’?
Firstly, if you hadn’t noticed before, Belle loves to read. A lot. There’s a whole song about it and everything. Because of this, people view her as peculiar, and although to her face they seem pleasant enough, people tend to gossip and talk about how weird she is behind her back (ha! Typical). They believe, like the other girls in the village, that she should focus more energy on maintaining her beauty in search of a husband instead of spending time expanding her knowledge and improving her sense of self.
But Belle’s reading gives her access to different perspectives of life, giving her a greater understanding of the world around her. Because of this, all she wants is to get out and explore the world — and she wants other girls to experience that too (did you spot the little bit where she’s teaching a young girl how to read? I loved it). Eventually, her relationship with the Beast allows her to do that, depicting to us that being well-read is what gives us the potential to find new opportunities and explore the world.
OK, But What Makes Belle Particularly Interesting Though?
So the other young female characters we see living in Belle’s village don’t actually have names; they’re pretty much just Gaston’s groupies. Their main aspiration in life is to become someone’s – ideally, Gaston’s – wife. And this isn’t something to be ashamed about, because being a wife and a mother is a pretty cool thing to be, but the fact that they look down on Belle for wanting to live her life differently is the bad part.
What this idea reinforces is the societal expectation for women to be beautiful and maintain their role within the home — this is exactly what Belle doesn’t want. Again, there’s a song about it. In 18th century France, this expectation was a particularly strong for young noblewomen, who at around 16 years old would be married off to older men by their fathers for the purpose of political and financial gain.
An article in TIME highlights how Belle defies this, as she makes her own choices that aren’t dictated by others in the film. She decides to defend her father and stay with the Beast, she wants to return to the Beast and rescue him, and she chooses to be with the Beast at the end of the film.
Isn’t This Still Relevant Now?
Absolutely. According to the Malala Fund, there are 38 million girls across the world still not in primary school education, and 98 million girls missing out on secondary school education. This may be due to cost, violence in or around school, or forced marriage at a young age. Countries in which girls struggle to receive schooling include: Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya and others.
So, having the release of Beauty and the Beast at this particular point in history brings the focus back onto the subject, particularly at a time where there are calls to make mainstream feminism more intersectional and address issues that women in minority groups face. It infers to us, the audience, that the disapproving glances Belle receives on her daily trips to the library can manifest in far more aggressive ways for many girls across the world who don’t have access to primary or secondary education. This could be through violence or an arranged marriage. But, this can be changed if they are sent to school, and consequently given the opportunity to decide what they want to do with their own future.
If we dig a little deeper into this new live-action remake of a Disney classic, we can see that beyond the magical realism of singing candelabras and the enchanting romance, there’s an underlying advocacy encouraging girls to pick up their books and expand their knowledge, while simultaneously informing us to help other girls be able to do the same, too.