Emma Watson’s Beauty and the Beast is a good start – we need more feminist fairytales

Emma Watson

For the duration of this article, we are going be using “feminist” as a transitive verb. You have to just not let it bother you.

Related: Beauty and the Beast trailer beats Fifty Shades as most viewed in 24 hours

Emma Watson has feministed up Beauty and the Beast, addressing the questionofwhat Belle actually does all day. We have pretty good intel on the dad, who was an inventor – and as for the Beast himself, it is a full-time job being so ugly. But, in the familiar habit of misogyny, this children’s story gives us a heroine who, for want of detail, is nothing more than a receptacle for male desire.

The amount of sheer feministing that has to be done, to unpick the centuries of careful work that have gone into smothering the female spirit, is astonishing. In fact, it’s quite draining to even think about. And then Emma Watson says something practical and simple, like: “So, we created a backstory for [Belle], which was that she had invented a kind of washing machine, so that, instead of doing laundry, she could sit and use that time to read instead. So, yeah, we made Belle an inventor.”

She makes redrawing the frame of cultural lore sound easy, but it is actually really bloody complicated. Looking at each classic in turn makes me suck my teeth like a feministing plumber at the thought of how much could go wrong.

Sleeping Beauty
Last year, the Bristol Old Vic put on a gender-reversed Sleeping Beauty, seeking to redress the innate sexism of a story in which the heroine has literally no agency, being asleep, and is nothing but the locus of male protection and rescue. (And is beautiful; important not to forget, that part. If a man accidentally rescued a woman who was only plain, imagine how boring that would be.) It worked in the sense that it was fun to watch, but at smashing the patriarchy, not so much: for the hero to function as a fragile creature whom the mere prick of a needle can floor, he had to be so ridiculous that he became a de facto anti-hero, someone whose salvation we rooted for out of convention, rather than deeply wishing for it. So the take‑home was that this had been a nice try, but the sexist original – and therefore sexism itself – was the expression of some deep human truth. For the record – and yes, I’ve been thinking about this all year, now – if you wanted to feminist up Sleeping Beauty, you’d have to keep her awake.

Cinderella
Cinderella, likewise, would need an overhaul more significant than “could we maybe find a way to identify Cinders that doesn’t rely on the glorification of small feet?” (Possibly the weirdest iteration of male insecurity in fairytales.) Mate-selection by aristocratic male privilege is too dodgy to gloss over; they’d have to choose each other, which takes away the whole point of the ball.

Snow White
Snow White already carries the seed of its own salvation in the fact that, following her exile, she forges an independent life that doesn’t rely on a man, nor even on the search for one. It could be significantly feministed if they just dropped the whole apple/glass coffin/princely salvation thread and concentrated on having more capers with the dwarves.

The Little Mermaid

Walt Disney’s notorious – in Meryl Streep’s memorable phrase – “gender bigotry” is possibly best showcased in the person of the Little Mermaid who, for the sake of a man of whom she knows nothing but his appearance (I guess it is cool that female sexuality gets a look in, but I think it was probably an accident), must relinquish her voice and her mobility. Your only hope of feministing this one up would be to make the love interest follow her into the sea. He would lose his kingdom, but materiality versus identity is rather a trivial thing. He would also have to grow gills, but he could look on that as a new skill set. He would still have his voice, though there’s a question mark over whether or not he could make himself heard under water.

The real problem, running through almost all these tales, is that the events, specifically the violent events, are driven by female jealousy. It is so often a stepmother that we tend to mistakenly regard it as a comment on blood ties. In fact, the outliers – Ursula in The Little Mermaid, the uninvited fairy in Sleeping Beauty – demonstrate that the real theme is the dark and everlasting energy of a woman’s envy. It pleases me to picture the Brothers Grimm as an alt-right version of Beavis and Butthead, laughing their arses off at having immortalised yet another story that shows the world as the exact opposite of how it actually is. Arguably, the way to turn the canon on its head is not to approach the stories directly at all, but to create a competing narrative, a stock of stories in which fathers and stepfathers and slighted wizards attack their sons and appropriate their futures with long-range curses and elaborate vindictiveness.

Beauty and the Beast: trailer for live-action adaptation starring Emma Watson

In the meantime, though, Emma Watson has pulled off a subtle triumph, with a film whose trailer has now had the most views in the history of the internet. The purist might ask why the laundry was Belle’s job in the first place, and realistically, if she were an inventor, why she couldn’t escape through ingenuity rather than waiting to fall in love. Not me. I want to stop what I’m doing, go to wherever Watson is, and throw a hat or some petals at her, some flamboyantly pointless gesture of admiration.

Five films that don’t need feministing

101 Dalmatians
In the original book – and I say this as an ardent fan of Dodie Smith – Missus is quite a stupid dog, and can’t tell her left from right. But in the film, she is Pongo’s equal – resilient, dedicated, loving, protective and capable in the same amount. It is almost as if, being dogs, they are liberated from what is generally seen as the cultural imperative of reinforcing gender stereotypes (see also: The Lady and the Tramp).

Frozen
People are sniffy about Frozen, presumably on the basis that five-year-old girls love it, and therefore it must be schlock. In fact, it is brilliant, but that is secondary: the emancipating thing is that it is about a female relationship – sisterhood – that in reality is profound and complicated, but in films is mainly competitive and resentful.

Happy Feet
This is actually a film about liberal values – science versus superstition, tolerance versus punishment, discourse versus authoritarianism – so it stands to reason that the heroine is, at the very least, a decent and self-reliant penguin.

Toy Story 2
OK, this is more of an ensemble piece. Jesse and Woody’s relationship goes straight from stranger to sibling without much interim, so they never have the same emotional guts as Woody and Buzz. But I liked the bit where she kicked his ass.

Monsters Vs Aliens
Susan is gigantic. That is her power and her curse. She is larger than anyone else in the movie and, one has to assume, the universe. She starts off majorly not enjoying this, and ends up relishing the power of her size, and it is impossible to overstate what a massive deal this is for mainstream culture.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Zoe Williams, for The Guardian on Saturday 19th November 2016 09.30 Europe/London

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