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  • The new Beauty and the Beast is empowering to women, but not for the reasons feminists hope. Tweet This
  • A timeless lesson in Beauty and the Beast: self-respect leads to women's true fulfillment. Tweet This

Anticipation for the new Beauty and the Beast was halted for some fans when lead actress Emma Watson shared her feminist aspirations for Belle. In the weeks leading up the film’s release, Watson fundraised for Planned Parenthood and even posed nearly topless in the Vanity Fair write-up on her role. Notably, too, Watson attended the final cut viewing with her mother and Gloria Steinem. “She wanted her mother’s approval, but she needed Steinem’s,” reported Vanity Fair.

Steinem reportedly did approve. And while she and Watson may believe this “progressive Belle” furthers their agenda for women, her portrayal of Belle contains some timeless lessons for young women today. Watson’s Belle lays a path for single women trying to avoid the traps of today’s superficial, sexualized dating culture while remaining hopeful for real, committed love.

Belle Advocates Timeless Wisdom

In the live-action adaptation, tweaks to Belle’s character are realistic to the times portrayed in the movie but remain relevant to young women navigating the world today. The script holds to the line that her peculiarity is tied to her “dreamy far off look” and “her nose stuck in a book,” as we see in the famous opening scene. Yet, in Watson viewers see a Belle that is far more grounded than her cartoon predecessor.

Instead of living only in her imagination fueled by books, Belle kindly engages her fellow townspeople in conversation about their ordinary lives. Of course, her love of reading is understood to be what propels her to seek the “great wide somewhere” outside the petty rivalries of her small town. Yet her literary, open mind is also the trait that earns her respect from certain observing townspeople, even while they deem it obscure.

Belle Doesn’t Compromise Herself for a Relationship

When Gaston tells his sidekick, LeFou that “Belle is the most beautiful girl in the village, that makes her the best” and therefore his future wife, LeFou points out, “But she’s so well read, and you’re so …. athletically inclined”—implying the pair wouldn’t complement each other, something obvious to everyone but the man objectifying her.

Then, when Belle subsequently declines Gaston’s invitation for dinner, LeFou asks him if he’s moving on.

No, Gaston says: “That’s what makes Belle so appealing. She hasn’t made a fool of herself just to gain my favor. What do you call that?”

“Dignity?” LeFou responds.

“It’s outrageously attractive, isn’t it?!” Gaston exclaims giddily.

It’s a simple addition to the script that adds quite a bit to the storyline. In just a few lines, this “funny girl” who doesn’t compromise herself or her values for a man who doesn’t suit her wins respect for being dignified—and is desired for that quality.

This message hits home even more, when Belle asks her father if he thinks she’s odd.

Rebuking the thought, he gently responds, “This is a small village, and it’s small-minded as well.” He continues by comparing Belle to her mother, “Even back in Paris, I knew a girl like you who was so ahead of her time, different. People mocked her, too. Until the day they found themselves imitating her.”

Her father’s message makes it clear: that staying true to herself is a truth Belle must hold onto. The fulfillment her heart desires will not be found in the petty and objectifying culture that surrounds her. Here is the message that young woman today can absorb: while opting out of the objectifying, sexual dating scene may make you feel like a “funny girl,” your example of self-respect will lead you, and perhaps others, to greater fulfillment in life and relationships.

Of course, fans of the story know Belle does not reject men outright—as some radical feminists do. We still see the dreamy side of Belle in the opening scenes, caught up in the story of a young woman who “meets Prince Charming, but she won’t discover that it’s him till chapter 3.” And of course, it’s Belle’s selfless love for the Beast that breaks the spell, so that she and the prince can live happily ever after together.

Self-Respect Leads to Women’s True Fulfillment

The moral of this classic story remains true to the original—looks aren’t the defining feature of love. But that lesson is strengthened in this script through its clear portrayal that Belle’s strongest attraction is her self-respect for who she is and what she desires.

This is an important lesson for contemporary audiences—especially women caught up in a culture that suggests that our outer beauty and willingness to conform to the prevailing sexual culture are prerequisites to finding love. Watson’s portrayal of Belle illustrates that staying true to who you are and what your heart is made for is both a safeguard against objectification and a reason to long for more in our romantic lives. Watson’s Belle also gives a bit of direction and hope to other “funny girls” searching for authentic, lasting love: she reminds us that upholding our personal dignity and staying true to what we know to be right is not only wise but beautiful. And that is empowering indeed, even if not for the reasons Watson hopes!

Meg T. McDonnell is executive director of Women Speak For Themselves.