Tuesday, March 21, 2017

for once it might be grand to have someone understand

It's time to dust off this old thing again.  And by "this old thing," I mean any ability I've ever had to write a blog post.  Many brain muscles I used to use constantly are now sadly atrophied.  I used to have almost an eidetic memory, and now I struggle to remember much of what used to come naturally.  I used to be able to memorize things (particularly passages of Scripture!) almost at a glance or a listen, and now my brain actually hurts after trying to memorize more than about three sentences.  And I used to write nearly every day, whether it was journaling, or stories, or blog posts...and now the last post I wrote here was a year and a half ago.  It's sad, really, how little I write these days.  This is an attempt to begin to revive my love for writing, I suppose, however misguided an attempt it might turn out!

So, in the most recent news possible, I just went to see the new Beauty and the Beast!  I had many doubts about it when I first heard it would be remade.  My doubts were greatly intensified upon learning that Emma Watson had been cast as Belle.  I did not think she could possibly play the character well.  And while her performance was better than I feared, still I think the biggest flaw in the 2017 remake is in its main character.

Belle, or at least the animated 1991 rendition of the character, had always been my favorite Disney princess, because I shared her love for books, and because I could see that there was "something there," as the song went: Belle was different, and it wasn't merely her love of books that made her so.  She was good.  She was kind.  She was smart, she was loving, and she was brave.  She didn't care what others thought of her, but not because she was better than them - she only wanted more than they did, because her mind had been opened to the idea of more.  Belle selflessly gave herself up for her father, and yet she had the kindness and grace to treat the Beast with respect (and she had the courage to talk to him on his own level: see the scene where she treats his wound and thanks him for saving her life).  Belle is unlike any Disney princess that came before her, and unlike any that followed her, and I believe it is her grace and kindness coupled with her education that make her so.

Yet, as played by the admittedly well-suited Ms. Watson, Belle is not much like her animated counterpart.  Watson's Belle is the outcast of her village, a woman ahead of her time.  Belle is an inventor, and one of (if not the only) few females in her village who are literate.  Belle invents a washing machine, and while it washes her clothes, she assists a little girl with some reading.  The village schoolmaster sees this, and is outraged that she would be teaching "ANOTHER girl to read!"  And the rest of the villagers actually agree with him!  And they break Belle's washing machine and throw her wet clothes on the ground.  No, seriously.

The villagers clearly don't know what to make of Belle, and some are frightened by her unorthodox behavior and manner of dress (she wears bloomers under her dresses, and no stockings!), but Belle seems just as uncomfortable and wary of them as they are of her.  And as snobby as some villagers are towards her, Belle seems just as snobby towards them.  Belle knows she's better educated, more free-spirited, more open-minded, more creative, and more beautiful than the rest of her village, and yet she doesn't seem to handle this with much grace.  She doesn't seem to care about sharing her education (beyond this odd little scene of showing the girl how to read), she doesn't try to suggest to anyone in the village that there might be more to the scope of life than the mundane daily grind they know, and she is never shown trying to build relationships with anyone in her village.  She complains that the owner of the bookshop is the only other person in the village who reads, but she never tries to tell anyone else of the wonders and joy of reading.

Belle wonders aloud to her father if he thinks she's "odd."  I would have liked to see her ask this question of a female, perhaps a village acquaintance she exchanges pleasantries with at least.  But she passes by nearly everyone in the village without giving them a second glance, and is downright rude to Gaston when he asks if he might join her and her father for dinner.  (Yeah, yeah, he's stuck up, conceited, and definitely doesn't deserve to marry her, but seriously, it is possible to decline the offer of a date in a straight forward way WITHOUT being rude.  And I would argue that even people as self-absorbed as Gaston deserve basic politeness.)  For all her championing of feminism, I would have liked to see Emma Watson push for Belle to have a female friend in the village.  Watson is the one who pushed for Belle to be the inventor rather than her father, and for Belle to take a more active role in her own story.  But Belle has no friends save for her father, and eventually, the Beast.  Would it not have been far more progressive to have given her a true female friend? 

I think the biggest issue I have with Watson's portrayal of Belle is that at the end of the movie, Belle does not appear to have gone through any significant character development.  She started the movie as an outcast, a weirdo, an outsider in her own village, and does not have to change anything about herself or learn any significant lessons in order to get her happily ever after.  She is never forced to ask herself what she could do to better her life; it seems she thinks the villagers, Gaston, the Beast, or maybe even life itself ought to change to suit her.  Even her relationship with her father, and the backstory of her mother, do not seem to develop the character of Belle. 

Even, dare I suggest, her ability to see the human within the Beast does little for Belle.  The whole point of this "tale as old as time" is that Belle is meant to be the one who can see beyond the shallowness of looks to find what's really important - but she never turns this focus within herself, when perhaps she should.

Belle is the most beautiful woman in her village, and while she doesn't care about being beautiful, she never seems to ask herself how she can bring out the beauty in others around her.  She only bothers with the Beast because A) he saved her life, and B) he eventually reveals that he has read most of the books in his extensive library.  Belle seems to lack sincere interest in anyone around her unless it turns out they have some manner of education, but she never seems interested in educating anyone herself. 

This seems in sharp contrast to Cinderella, particularly the 2015 remake where Cinderella is played by Lily James.  Both Disney versions of the character have infused her with grace, kindness, and gentleness, which many interpret as weakness and passivity.  But I do love the wisdom and humility displayed by Cinderella:

"Have courage, and be kind."
"Just because it's what's done, doesn't mean it's what should be done!"
"And Ella continued to see the world, not as it was, but as it could be, if only you believe in courage, and kindness..."
"Would who she was - who she really was - be enough?  This is perhaps the greatest risk any of us will ever take: to be seen as we truly are."
"Your majesty, I am no princess.  I have no carriage, no parents, no dowry - I do not even know if that slipper will fit.  But if it does, will you take me as I am?  A good, honest, country girl, who loves you."

And most of all, the moment when Ella turns to her stepmother and says, "I forgive you."

There are no such pivotal developmental moments for Belle, and therein lies the whole problem with the latest rendition of the tale as old as time...

"I want adventure in the great wide somewhere, I want it more than I can tell!  And for once it might be grand to have someone understand: I want so much more than they've got planned..."
"New, and a bit alarming; who'd have ever thought that this could be?  True that he's no Prince Charming...but there's something in him that I simply didn't see."
"He's no monster, Gaston, YOU are!"
"For who could ever learn to love...a beast?"

For all Belle's education, for all her beauty, for all her desire for more from life and her creativity and her ability to see past a person's looks, I'd rather emulate Cinderella any day.  I'd rather have courage and be kind, and be vulnerable, and real, and true, and good, and honest, and loving, and forgiving. 

So there you have it.  Beauty and the Beast was beautiful, and refreshing, and nostalgic, and I definitely appreciated a few details that fill in some of the gaping plot holes from the 1991 animated film...but for all those good qualities, both the movie and its lead character miss the mark overall.

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