I can still picture the exact spot where I was sitting when I opened my Belle Barbie. It was Christmas Day, 1991 and a sea of wrapping paper floated atop the golden oak floorboards of our lounge, where I sat next to the fireplace. Belle was one of the last gifts I opened that day. I had never owned a Barbie before and I could not believe she was mine. She came with her blue peasant dress and apron, a sparking gold ball gown with long gold gloves, two pairs of Barbie shoes, and an enchanted mirror. It was one of the best Christmas gifts I have ever received.
Beauty and the Beast became an instant hit in my family. We delighted in calling my mum Mrs. Potts, and howled with laughter when she told us that “it’s time to get in the cupboard, Chip.” My sister and I acted out the part of Gaston’s three bimbette admirers, using our staircase to swoon on.
Many academics and parents warn about the dangers of princess culture. For example, Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter considers the rise of the princess, the dominance of pink and purple merchandising, and the deleterious effect of the princess on young girls. Lego bricks need not be pink and purple, and the word princess does not need to slapped across all girls toys. But by focusing on young children and the Disney Princess brand, scholars ignored those girls who grew up with the princess movies. Girls like me, who grew up to follow their dreams first, and men second. It is these girls, the original Disney princess generation that I study.In teaching Disney, I encourage my students to think about their own relationship to the company. Most enter my classroom die-hard fans or dedicated skeptics, with strong opinions on the Disney princesses. Schooled in literature on unrealistic body expectations, and the limited choices available to princess characters, students today are well versed in the dangers of princess movies, even if they themselves like the movies.
As one of my course requirements, I assign a research paper posing the following question, “should Disney princess movies of the 1990s be seen as feminist?” My students always ask me what I think, however, I rarely divulge my opinion, and instead challenge them to reach their own conclusions. However, as Disney fans around the world excitedly head to the cinema to see the new Beauty and the Beast, I’ve decided to answer my own assignment. And my answer is yes.I grew up with a long line of positive female role models, who taught me that I could do anything. My mother was the leader of this group, but it also included the dancers in my beloved Noel Streatfield books, Judith Kerr’s courageous Anna and her flight from Nazi Germany, Scarlett O’Hara’s faith in tomorrow, and even Elle Woods’ determination to succeed at Harvard. Disney’s women were part of this world. They taught me that girls could be feminine but also intelligent. Like third wave feminists of the 1990s, Disney taught me that you could have brains and beauty; you did not have to choose.
With the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid, the Walt Disney Company entered a new period of prosperity under the direction of Michael Eisner. It was the first princess movie since Walt’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty, and there were marked differences between the two eras of princess films. Unlike Cinderella or Snow White, Ariel had interests and ambition of her own. She dreamed of adventure and life beyond her ocean world. Her body, while still unnaturally proportioned, was newly athletic. She swam, dove, and, in time, danced and ran. Unlike Walt’s princesses she was also defined as a teenager, and acted like one. She defied her father, had secrets, and found her own ways to get what she wanted.
While she ultimately still married the handsome prince, the movie showed partnership and teamwork between the leading figures, as Eric and Ariel worked together to defeat Ursula. Moreover the prince, Eric, also had personality. He too refused to settle down when told to, and he mocked his older advisor, Grimsby. Disney animation now focused on character development and three-dimensionality. Eisner princes—Eric, the beast, and Aladdin—looked distinct, whereas Walt’s Prince Charmings were vapidly interchangeable. Developing the prince created heroes worthy of a new more adventurous heroine.Two years later, the studio released Beauty and the Beast, a film more consciously pro-feminist than The Little Mermaid. Beauty was the first princess film to be written by a woman, Linda Woolverton. With Beauty, Woolverton became the first woman to write an animation film at the Walt Disney Company. Woolverton pushed to make Belle interested in books. She made Belle adventurous, defiant, intelligent, inquisitive, and imperfect—a lone strand of hair repeatedly falls into her eyes, taking her from a picture perfect princess to fallible woman.
Unlike Ariel who had to physically gain legs for marriage, Belle does not change. Marriage is not inevitable and she does not spend the film pining for a distant price. Indeed, the film does not end with a marriage scene. It is the Beast that has to learn the meaning of true beauty and love. He must win her mind before he wins her heart. Sacrifice and compromise cements their relationship. When they forgo etiquette and sip soup from a bowl, they create their own traditions and norms together. In letting Belle go, the Beast makes the ultimate sacrifice, recognizing that Belle’s happiness is more important than his own. This is an entirely new type of prince.
Beauty and the Beast is the first Disney princess film to contain a male villain, and it is his preposterous masculinity that makes him villainous. The femme fetale villains of Walt’s era obsessed over beauty, and Gaston is similarly fixated with his own looks. He displays traditional symbols of masculinity—strength, rugged good looks, and hunting ability—but is mocked for this. Indeed, his hyper masculinity becomes camp.
In rejecting Gaston, Disney’s Belle rejects the expectation of marriage and happily ever after. She mocks Gaston’s visions of domestic idyll as “positively primeval.” She finds happiness in her herself, and her books, and neither needs nor seeks the approval of those around her.
This wasn’t tale as old as time, for Disney this was a radically new tale.
One of the many sources I show in my class is Traci Hines’ Disney Chickz video, which combines classic Eisner era princess songs with those of the Spice Girls. Hines imagines what would happen if the princes dumped their princesses, concluding that with friends and girl power they would be just fine. In worrying about the possible dangers of princess culture, we’ve overlooked the positive messages given in Disney’s princess films. Girls of the 1990s, like Hines and me, appropriated the princesses on their own terms. They longed for the library, not the beast, they saw the dangers of mob mentality through the actions of the townsfolk, and they saw an outsider figure who ultimately found the place she fitted.
While I envy my parents for witnessing Beatlemania and the rise of Rock and Roll, I consider myself lucky to have grown up in the 1990s. I was part of a generation of girls that grew up with Disney’s princess movies, entered their teenage years at the dawn of the Spice Girls, and went to college with the Gilmore Girls. A brown haired book lover, I followed my dreams and found adventure. Eventually, I married a man who loves my brain, and we danced to Spice Girls songs at our wedding.
As people all over the world rush to see the new Beauty and the Beast, I remain hesitant—I don’t think it can be done any better than the 1991 original. I heard the message loud and clear the first time. And for that, I am forever grateful.