Beauty and the Beast was one of the first movies I ever saw, or so I’m told. The VHS came out shortly before I was born, and my mom remembers watching it while nursing me on her birthday, just six weeks after mine. While it wasn’t my favorite Disney film–that honor definitely goes to The Lion King–my mom likes to joke that having Belle as one of my earliest fictional female role models shaped my personality.
It’s probably not an entirely unfair claim. I was, as a child, impossibly bookish. If there was an opportunity to read something, I would take it. “Can I bring a book?” probably came out of my mouth more than any other sentence. Trip to the store? Hair cut? Family reunion? I would find time to read. My first email handle, in the 4th grade, was “thebookworm.” I have a list of almost every book I’ve read since mid-2006; in 8th grade, I was averaging about one book every 2.5 days. (The summer before, it was more like a book a day.) I identified very strongly, then, with nose-stuck-in-a-book Belle. She preferred reading and spending time with her dad to socializing with the townspeople, and that was a feeling I could relate to.
As I got older, though, I saw myself in other parts of her story. I’ve been known, even today, to compare my hometown to the village in the story: “Little town/ It’s a quiet village/ Every day/ Like the one before.” (If I’m feeling particularly mean-spirited, I’ll continue: “Little town/ Full of little people.”) Her plaintive proclamation that “there must be more than this provincial life” spoke to my heart. Belle very much did not belong in her hometown, just as I was sure that I didn’t belong in mine. This is kind of a theme with the Disney Princesses of that era. I mentioned earlier the idea that Ariel is an adventurer at heart, and it’s true. Long before she meets Prince Eric, she has an insatiable curiosity about all things human. Ariel knows where she belongs, even if no one else will recognize it, and she’s determined to break free of the constraints of her home and become the person she knows she is deep down. “Part of Your World” is an incredible song about a girl with a heartfelt desire for something more.
As for the others? Jasmine has her flying carpet. Her “whole new world” is True Love, yes, but it’s also a literal world of incredible things to explore and experience. Mulan casts aside traditional gender expectations to find a role that suits her better. Pocahontas–offensive and inaccurate as that movie may be–is adventurous, free-spirited, and unwilling to marry someone she doesn’t love. Much to my disappointment, none of these stories have great endings. Ariel ends up married at 16 and has a direct-to-video kid, moving straight from her father’s domain to her husband’s without a chance to ever explore the human world on her own. Belle, it is implied, stays with her abusive (but now-human!) prince when she, too, should be off seeing the world. Jasmine at least gets to keep her carpet, but she, like Ariel, ends up hitched by the time she’s 16 or 17. Pocahontas ends up coerced into marriage and dies at 21. (Wait, no, that’s the real version. The movie version chooses to let go of John Smith and stay in Virginia with her family, which honestly could be worse–she’s the only one who doesn’t end up with a man.) Mulan… Actually, Mulan gets a pretty good deal, all things considered: respect, recognition, and an implied egalitarian relationship. She and Pocahontas, of course, are probably the least-promoted of the five.
It reminds me, in a way, of the girls–now women–I knew in high school who wanted nothing more than to settle down in our hometown and start a family. That’s a valid life choice, and I try not to judge them for wanting to take that path. It’s not the path everyone wants, though, and it’s important for girls to know that there are other options out there.
I’m not going to claim that my life was drastically changed by the Disney Princesses. A daughter of the 90s, though, I had all of the songs on cassette and had a princess-themed birthday party in second grade, so it’s not as if I was free of their influence. I imagine that I absorbed at least some of the messaging, as did most other girls of my generation. The magic of Belle and the other princesses–yes, even Ariel–is that while they generally present a traditional narrative, they also present an alternative. Their stories may not always follow through, but to a one, they’re dreamers. For the most part, they’re adventurers, girls who know that there’s a big wide world out their waiting for them. Ariel sings of “bright young women, sick of swimmin’, ready to stand.” For a girl who grew up in a quiet town, that’s a hell of a dream to have.