Let’s state the obvious right up front: Beauty and the Beast is a Disney film. What this means is that it follows a long history of formulaic narratives involving young women in a bit of a pickle (as the result of, say, selling their voice to get out of that darn sea, see the world, and hook a young man). The plots twist and turn, but these women are only truly fulfilled after eventually finding heterosexual love with dashing, often gallant men. There are variations on this theme, but the theme persists nonetheless: Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Enchanted, and so on. Until all too recently, these films also featured mostly white princesses and almost exclusively all-white ensembles, save the occasional purple or lime villain. It’s of note that, unlike its 1991 animated predecessor, this new version of Beauty and the Beast includes a diverse ensemble of townsfolk and castle residents – well, before they’re turned into clocks, teacups and wardrobes.
Speaking of wardrobes: Belle’s style, from her time in a tiny town to her celebrated dance in a majestic castle, is an iconic component of both the 1991 animated classic and the live action remake, released this past weekend. Closely analyzing the fashion she sports in the tale’s newest incarnation can reveal how, despite its heroine’s surface level spirit and bravery, the film still traffics in restrictive notions of femininity, in ideas of virtue and wholesomeness that all too regularly come to reinforce the way women are treated beyond the big screen and in everyday life.
The early parts of the film establish Belle’s family history: the loss of her mother, her father’s gentle spirit and enduring care for his daughter, and Belle’s own ongoing anxieties about caring for him. When we’re first introduced to Belle’s father, Maurice, he’s tinkering with the gears of an elaborate gizmo as she knowingly preempts his every procedure, handing him just what he needs, right when he needs it. Though only for a split second, we’re also given a glance at the interior of this machine; within resides a tiny statuette of a woman clad in blue, holding a baby in a manner that is simultaneously adoring and protective. We eventually learn that the statuette is an expression of Maurice’s love for and devotion to Belle’s mother, and that Belle herself is that child.
Channeling the Pietà, this statuette subtly suggests the Christian narrative of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. And conveniently, for the next two hours we watch the now grown Belle demonstrate how she is, in fact, a savior: she rescues her father repeatedly; she protects the Beast from himself; and she swoops in just in time to liberate both the Beast and his trusted companions from their respective fates as a large, hairy-scary mammal, and as wise-cracking household objects for all of eternity. This early reference to Christian religion – and more specifically the allusion to virginity and purity – sets the scene for the remainder of Beauty and the Beast.
Throughout hundreds – even thousands – of beautiful artworks depicting biblical scenes and dating back to as early as the 1300s, the figure of the Virgin Mary is recognizable by the blue robe adorning her shoulders. In these images, her head is often concealed by something – the robe, a white cloth, or some other ornamental headdress – and in many works, one breast is exposed to nurse the infant in her lap. Folks familiar with the animated classic of Beauty and the Beast from 1991 are accustomed to seeing Belle gallivant about her “small provincial town” in blue garb, and others have written on the prevalence of blue in the wardrobes of many Disney leading women. Blue on Belle, however, is particularly significant; not unlike prolific images of the Virgin Mary, Belle is clothed in blue for nearly the whole first half of the film. And, not coincidentally, this is the portion of the film during which we are invited to understand Belle as (in her own words, in later reflection) “innocent and certain.”
So, what is Belle certain of? First and foremost, she’s certainly not interested in the troublingly aggressive advances (read: stalking and harassment) of the hyper-masculine Gaston. For all intents and purposes, and for the entirety of the time that she’s wearing her all-blue attire, Belle is presented as virginal: she is purely interested in books, in caring for her father, and in one day seeing the “great wide somewhere,” whatever and wherever that may be. To ensure that no viewer risks overlooking Belle’s moral innocence, it’s emphasized by the fact that she is the only woman in the film to wear all blue, both skirt and corseted bustier top. Well, except for one, that is: a young girl, the child that she attempts to teach to read. This parallel is unmistakable. Belle in blue is a naïve Belle, a resolutely single Belle, a Belle uninterested in sex and largely void of sexuality (albeit curious about romance), a Belle before the Beast.
It’s not until well into Belle’s time of isolation that we first see her in a dress of an entirely different hue. After rescuing her father by sacrificing herself to the Beast’s imprisonment, Belle is sequestered in his far-off castle and held hostage while inorganic items tirelessly try to facilitate her seduction. In no time at all, however, Belle begins to warm to said objects (while, significantly, declining the Wardrobe’s attempts to re-clothe her) and, subsequently, she warms to the Beast as well. Belle and the Beast spend time learning more about one another – of their mutual interest in literature (Shakespeare, specifically) and their similar, motherless upbringings – until finally, their eyes meet. They exchange a meaningful look and – cue dramatic costume change.
This sartorial shift aligns with Belle’s reflection upon a change taking place inside her, away from innocence and certainty, toward a more “wise and unsure” state. (The more we know, the more we know we don’t know, right?) Presumably maturing, while also beginning to acknowledge the fluttery butterflies in her belly which will eventually lead to “love,” Belle reappears donning a deep red robe. It is only now, in this ruby-colored cloak, that she and the Beast touch for the first time. Hands. They touch hands. And, with palms placed over one another, we start to get the picture: the girl skipping around the village just days ago is now galloping towards womanhood (which, in this case, apparently involves a crush on her captor). Even though Belle puts her standard blue frock back on in some of the following scenes, it’s accompanied by a red scarf tucked alongside her décolletage, thus denoting her permanent shift away from inexperience. (It’s worth a quick mention that, in contrast to the Virgin Mary, artistic representations of Mary Magdalene – notably, not a virgin – traditionally clothe her in red.)
Anyone who is familiar with Beauty and the Beast can call to mind the yellow ball gown Belle wears during what is arguably the story’s most famous scene: Belle and the Beast twirling together in the great hall to the film’s eponymous tune. It’s the moment that she discards the yellow dress for another, however, that marks the final transition of Belle’s burgeoning love. Finally out of captivity, Belle has officially caught feelings for the Beast. Deciding she must go back to save him, she quickly hops on a horse, casting off her heavy yellow gown to reveal a white dress beneath, leaving the viewer to puzzle whether this gauzy number was layered under her ball gown the entire time. Now wearing white, the color Belle dons in varying iterations for the remainder of the story, this clothing change marks Belle’s confirmed commitment to the Beast. Which is only fitting, as she can seamlessly move from saving the Beast with her tenderness (and unshackling the castle staff), to participating in what is most likely a joyous celebration of their matrimony. And, end.
Clothing unquestionably plays an important visual role in defining the kind of girl that Belle is, and in indicating her internal sense of herself. One could dismiss this as a mere narrative tool of a children’s story, but that would require willfully ignoring a lengthy history of how clothing has functioned and continues to function in everyday life – especially for women moving through public spaces. When interpretations of clothing – of style, errant behavior and even bodies – can be manipulated to legitimize harassment, assault or violence against cis women, non-binary individuals and trans folks, the significance of attire cannot be ignored. And as it turns out, the hyper-masculine character of Gaston – former general and current town bachelor and brute – is there to forcefully remind us that what people wear remains a problematically significant part of both the perception and justification of actions.
Belle’s tiny little town hosts a thriving rape culture in which women are literally defined as “prey” and followed home despite repeatedly rebuffing a man. Spurned by Belle’s hard and fast no, Gaston states, “It’s the ones that play hardest to get that make the sweetest prey.” He is utterly undeterred by her adamant refusal of his efforts to entice her. Belle’s blue chasteness is contrasted by other women in the town, who very clearly want Gaston’s attention and affections. A trio of women are clad in low-cut pink with well-pruned coifs and make-up caked on their faces; not shockingly, these women, in attire meant to suggest promiscuity, are unoriginally depicted as literally “asking for it.” Later, Gaston’s sidekick LeFou, in an effort to soothe the arrogant brute, reminds him in calming, hushed tones of his days of yore as a war general: “Go back to the war… blood… explosions… widows.” With this, Gaston lasciviously smiles, as though lost in some related, fond memory of war, and with it, a different type of carnal conquest.
Gaston’s masculinity is a muddled amalgam of alarmingly violent heterosexuality. Normalizing gendered aggression is particularly problematic in a children’s story that clearly contrasts the clothing of the women chasing him with the one spurning his come-ons. This simplistic polarization reinforces the notion that one can anticipate what a woman “wants” based on her aesthetic – and at the same time stalk another, couched in jokes, smiles and attempted charm. As outsiders, passive viewers of the story, it’s easy for us to rationalize that the film positions Gaston as a villain, and to conclude therefore that the film condemns his behavior as a result.
Watching his relationships to other characters within the film, however, one could hardly guess that his behavior is perceived as a problem. On the contrary, Gaston remains a well-respected, adored, even lionized figure till the time of his demise. The townsfolk kowtow to his demands and consistently follow his lead, from dancing around their community dining hall to blindly storming off into the night in search of the Beast. And this is precisely what defines and reifies rape culture: normalizing, trivializing, and largely ignoring sexual assault and harassment (let alone horrifically using sexual assault as a weapon of war as referenced in the quote above).
Of course, the world of Beauty and the Beast is one of fantasy, but the false notion that you can tell what a woman wants based on what she’s wearing is very real, and has only too much power in our lived realities. When films like Beauty and the Beast rely on simplistic ideas of female identity as existing either in the realm of the “pure and innocent” or elsewhere, and suggest that what women wear accurately communicates their desires, their value, and how they should be treated, they reinforce attitudes about women and attire in our culture that are not just ridiculous, but dangerous as well. All in all, the new live action Beauty and the Beast is an easily enjoyable delight – but that doesn’t mean we can’t also be diligent in our awareness and analysis of it, even as we leave the theater fondly humming along to its familiar and incredibly catchy melodies.