Tuesday, March 7, 2017

But is she really?

I have to admit, the new Beauty and the Beast movie isn't something I had planned on going to see, even though some of my daughters are considering it. This isn't because of the headline ripple a few days ago about the alleged gay moment or moments in the film, or because I have greater disdain for Disney offerings than usual, or anything like that; it's really because I rarely see movies in theaters. When seeing a movie in a theater has a pretty good chance of triggering a migraine due to the bright flashing lights, overly-loud sounds, and arctic chill or blazing heat of the theater's interior temperatures, you tend to go see only those movies that are really worth the risk of hours of pain later. Most aren't, and a remake of a cartoon that, however charming, first came out when I was already an adult isn't going to be one of them.

Still, it has been interesting to see some of the reviews materialize, and to listen to some of the movie-related chatter. One of those elements of chatter has been about Emma Watson, the Harry Potter star now cast as Belle--and, according to some, miscast:
One of the core problems, believe it or not, is Emma Watson as the title character. Even with slight revisions to make Belle more of a master of her own destiny, this is still not the healthiest romance ever told. Unlike, say, Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, it is a romance that begins absent consent and without equal agency. And Watson can’t quite sell her own acceptance of this narrative. Like Jodie Foster in Anna and the King, Watson can’t quite dumb herself down to the level of buying it.
Belle is much more engaged when she’s fending off Gaston (Luke Evans) or conversing with her father (Kevin Kline). She looks unsure of how to react when she’s watching a bunch of silverware put on a dinner theater or falling for a relatively charmless Beast (Dan Stevens, with a great singing voice even if I kept thinking of Colm Wilkinson’s Jean Valjean). The film is much stronger, at least as surface-level entertainment, in the village sequences, where good actors are conversing with each other, as opposed to Beast’s castle where good actors do their best to bring visually displeasing CGI creations to life.
This iteration of Belle is supposed to be more of a feminist; articles from last year talked about the movie's allegedly surprising feminist twist. But as the review quoted above and some similar reviews point out, it is actually more problematic to see Belle as a modern-day feminist than to envision her as a girl from the 1700s, the sweet and humble youngest daughter of a merchant who has fallen into poverty (which is how the story originally goes). As a girl nobly taking her father's place in a debt of honor (the stolen rose) and being treated with unfailing kindness and politeness by the Beast, Belle makes sense; as a feminist who initially is treated cruelly by him but sticks around and eventually (if somewhat inexplicably, in this new film, if the reviews are accurate) falls in love with him, she really doesn't. In fact, the whole movie may end up being somewhat incoherent:
It’s a deluge of good actors (including Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) trying their best in what amounts to a cover band of a popular album. The new version feels obligatory rather than narratively organic, with the core romance feeling unearned. The love story plays out merely because all parties know how the plot must go. All we can do is simply admire the visual elements, the pomp and circumstance and the new variations on iconic beats.
And, source material fidelity notwithstanding, I'd like to think we've advanced a bit beyond the whole "that mean creepy dude is really a sweetheart once you get to know him" trope. On one hand, that's the story. But it says something about our addiction to nostalgia that we keep having to tweak old stories so that they are slightly more palpable to modern audiences.
What interests me about this whole matter is this: why the insistence on Belle being a modern-day feminist, anyway? The live-action remake of Cinderella did not find it necessary to imagine Ella as the sort of woman who would join NOW, for instance. Ella was still the girl who dutifully if unhappily served her stepmother and stepsisters after her father's death, while retaining a certain dignity and depth of character that is evident in the earliest versions of the tale. So why is Belle different?

In other words, when we are told endlessly that Belle is a feminist, I think it's perfectly permissible to ask: but is she, really? The Disney cartoon version of Belle may have had some feminist leanings, in that she wanted adventure and loved to read, but it seems pretty clear that she also took practical interest in household matters to the extent necessary. When we first meet her she is in the village, and presumably she would be the one to do the marketing since she and her father don't appear to have servants. And her house isn't filthy, and she is seen feeding chickens (if I recall correctly), so we're not exactly getting a Gloria Steinem vibe from the young lady.

If this new film actually does make Belle more of an avowed feminist, I think the reason isn't because the story demands it (especially if you consider the original tale). I suspect the reason Belle must become a feminist is because the Beast is deteriorating from the kindly and gentle person in the original tale to a strange, cruel, creepy person who kidnaps young women and locks them up for totally inadequate reasons. In other words, the less the Beast is a gentleman in disguise, the less Belle can be, quite simply, a lady, and the more she must be cast in today's mold of perpetual antagonism between the sexes.