Let’s forget modern Disney for a moment. Let’s let Frozen go, and cast our minds back to the classics, before our heroines started choosing sisters over boys.
Of the original Disney princesses, Belle is by far the best.
As a 7-year-old, I watched Beauty and the Beast on an almost daily basis, diligently rewinding and restarting my tattered VHS of the 1991 animated musical. Naturally I knew all the words and wore a yellow ribbon in my hair at every opportunity. But I also lapped up the film’s message with a quiet seriousness.
I didn’t realise it at the time but Belle’s a brilliant cartoon role model. In fact, I think she’s one of the earliest examples of feminism in Disney films.
While Cinderella cooks and cleans, and Ariel longs to give up her fishy feet to be with an attractive chap she’s only ever seen from a distance, Belle is busy at the library with her nose in a book.
The rest of the gang wait, wish and hope for the day a charming prince sweeps them off their petite feet, whereas Belle doesn’t need a man. Instead of swooning, fluttering her eyelashes or feigning stupidity, she spurns the advances of the horrid, traditionally handsome (or so everyone else thinks) Gaston.
Sure, she’s an outcast – “a most peculiar mademoiselle” – but that’s because her fellow townsfolk are small-minded. She’s an independent, compassionate and clever young woman. She’s got guts: you wouldn’t catch any other Disney princess demanding to be kept captive to save their ailing Pa. And her best quality? She’s nice. That is her princess power. She’s not the prettiest in all the land, she doesn’t have magical crystal slippers and she’s not the best at singing; she’s simply nice to shopkeepers, sheep, talking teapots and arrogant, beastly princes. And it ends up solving all her problems.
That’s why Emma Watson is the perfect fit for a new live-action Beauty and the Beast. As you can imagine, I’m more than a little protective of bookish Belle (I still dream of the day I have a library and a ladder to swing around it) but the idea of Watson taking her on doesn’t fill me with dread. Not only does the 24-year-old Harry Potter star look helpfully like the animated early nineties version, she mirrors her in other ways.
She spent her awkward teenage years in the spotlight being graceful and polite. As clever Hermione Granger, she helped make books cool, inspiring thousands of frizzy-haired tweens (me included) to put our hands up in class and not be afraid of always knowing the answer. And nowadays she’s making a name for herself as a feminist and UN ambassador for women’s rights.
Had Belle been around in 2014, I’m fairly sure she’d have studied English Literature at Oxford and/or Brown and she’d definitely back Watson’s HeForShe campaign.