What with today's release of the live action film Beauty & The Beast, there's been much chatter about the figure of Belle. What do we think of her? Is she whip-smart and insouciant, the ideal gal to fall in love with a buffalo? Or is she a whimpering pretender whose prickly exterior belies a soft, anti-feminist core? And, more importantly, how do we feel about her?
I have an answer: I love her. I have another answer: I can't stand that I love her.
I was never one to profess love for the Disney princesses. When I was young — like many girls in the early '00s — I actively claimed the problematic title of "tomboy." I eschewed skirts and dresses in favor of sweatpants and one very worn Felix the Cat tee-shirt. I adored a pair of college sweatpants, purchased for me by my sister, that I'd cut off at the knee and run ragged through my life. (These pants still surface on Facebook sometimes and I am reminded that we all come from somewhere.)
When it came to the Disney characters, I took pride in the fact that I adored the side characters. I wanted to be Flounder, not Ariel. I preferred the vocal stylings of Chirp, the lucky Cricket in Mulan, to the titular character's crooning. But there was one character that tugged at my wannabe-cool girl heartstrings, and that was Belle.
Belle exists just on the verge of alternative. Through the 1991 animated film, she actively professes a desire for "more than this provincial life." She reads about princes and princesses. When she walks down the street, she hardly notices the hustle-bustle around her. No, she's too busy with her head among the clouds. (A side note: Belle is most definitely a Pisces and I invite everyone to challenge me on that.) She benefits from being both beautiful and a little off-kilter.
"No denying she's a funny one that Belle," the townspeople sing to her in the opening number. The townspeople are wary of her, but that doesn't mean they're not intrigued. And this is why Belle is perfect. She's the type of gal who fits inside the narrow pleasure window set forth by the Goldilocks of this world. She's cool, but not too cool — she reads dweeby books! — she's beautiful, but seemingly disinterested in her looks, and she's feisty, but not so angry as to make her unlikeable.
As a bookish girl in high school, I wanted to be Belle, or a version of her. I know I'm not alone in wanting to be the blue-clad brunette, but when one adores a lonesome girl locked in a castle, one feels alone anyway. In fact, one kind of desires a romanticized solitude. When I transferred high schools in the middle of my teenage career, this is exactly the kind of life I wanted to lead. I carried a heavy tome wherever I went. (Shout out to The Name Of The Wind, Gone With The Wind, and Shadow Of The Wind for being my hefty wind-themed companions.) I took to the corners of my new school, versions of Belle's solitary meadow, to find my glamorous alone time. I read books in the stairwell, wrote poetry in the bathroom, and generally encompassed the type of douchebag that no one wants to be friends with, ever.
"I can't stand this school," I told a girl, Mia, during literature class. I always sat at the back in case I wanted to read. (I was once caught reading The New Yorker in the back of class. I wish I could say I was embarrassed, but I was delighted. Now, that's risky behavior I can endorse.)
"If you hate it so much, why don't you just leave?" she wondered. It was a good point. But, see, the issue with the perfect heroine of Belle is that she requires the townspeople in order to enjoy her sexy cloud of mystery. I can't leave my high school — that's what makes me so damn cool. Without the baker with his tray like always, she's just a cranky girl who likes to whine. (This is a title I now actively claim: cranky girl who likes to whine.)
Belle encompasses this archetypal "cool girl" we keep hearing about. She came into the mainstream before we knew any better. The character, who first gained notoriety with the film Gone Girl in 2014, treads a thin line of both caring and not-caring. Belle cares about her father — a noble trait for sure — but she doesn't care about the townspeople. She ties her hair loosely at the nape of her neck in a hairstyle that looks simple. Give yourself a minute in the annals YouTube hair tutorials and you will discover it's actually quite difficult.
Recent years have given us innovations on the character of the "cool girl." Starting with Gone Girl, which featured a cool girl gone very not cool, the no-fucks-given heroine has started to give a shit. There's Mickey Dobbs on Love, who reveals that her nonchalance is a consequence of her active denial of addictions. Issa Rae on HBO's Insecure spent the first season of the show discovering that, hey, she really loves her job. The "cool girl" is defined by not caring, which makes her little more than an object.
So, I hate that I love Belle. This doesn't mean I don't love her utterly. She's the Disney princess we all love to hate in a way. As R29's Anne Cohen pointed out, her story teaches some pretty bum lessons. Fall in love with your captor. Stay with the frightened, broken man. See if you can work things out. Oh, and if you can do that, you'll probably become a princess.
Rumor has it this newest adaptation of Beauty & The Beast lends agency to our super-chill Belle. Full disclosure: I have not seen it. But here's what I hope the series does for the love of my Disney-filled life. I hope she's prickly — you've got to be a little cranky in life. I hope she reads, but I hope she's friendly. I hope they show her putting on mascara in the morning because that would be cool. I hope she engages with witty repartée with Lumiére and Cogsworth. I hope that she inspires the next generation of Disney lovers to be not just cool girls, but wise girls, silly girls, stupid girls, puzzled girls, despondent girls, and tearing-my-hair-out-cuz-its-Monday girls. But no matter how she's portrayed, I'll probably love her. What can I say? I love Belle.