(WOMENSENEWS)–As the new highly anticipated, hyper-commercialized live action Disney remake of “Beauty and the Beast” continues to dominate the box offices—it broke the record for the biggest box office opening in March, bringing in $170 million in North America on opening weekend – it’s prompted many to debate if its lead character, Belle, is a strong female leader or just another princess waiting for rescue.
Many say the 277-old character of Belle is a throwback from a sexist fairytale and that her life as an animated Disney princess is shallow. Others say she may have modernized as a powerful heroine in this iteration, a working woman played by a real life feminist.
In this latest version, Belle is an inventor, one who creates a washing machine so she can spend more time reading. She is a tech innovator, a start-up entrepreneur, a role model for women’s leadership. Yet, we acknowledge deeply that her name is Belle, and her archetype is Beauty, not Brains.
While this fairytale was written by a female French novelist, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and published in 1740, it was cemented in American popular culture with the animated 1991 Disney version of the story. Actress Emma Watson, who plays Belle in this new film, has said she idolized the character as a child.
But even though Watson, who herself works for causes such as literacy and ending sexual assault on campus, claims she took the role because Belle is “this feisty young woman who spoke her mind” and director Bill Condon heralds Belle as a “21st century heroine,” many criticize the premise of the relationship between Belle and Beast as abusive.
In ReelRunDown, for example, Melissa Smith writes that Beast kidnaps Belle and she is his victim. “He is even allowed to commit villainous acts without us holding it against him, because we know he’s an ‘enchanted prince’ and the prison is an enormous and luxurious castle. Had a non-prince kept Belle prisoner in his cottage, it might not have gone over too well.”
The kidnapping and falling for your captor is also a tale as old as time. Watson has responded to the twist: “It’s such a good question and it’s something I really grappled with at the beginning; the kind of Stockholm Syndrome question about this story,” she told EW. “Belle actively argues and disagrees with [Beast] constantly. She has none of the characteristics of someone with Stockholm Syndrome because she keeps her independence, she keeps that freedom of thought.”
Despite these criticisms, if you look closely, Belle does have attributes we can glean for women in the workplace. Here are 10 positive takeaways for working women and female leaders from the new and improved fictional Belle, with tongue planted in cheek:
She persists. Belle sets off to rescue her father, taking his fate into her hands, knowing the danger. In modern life, she is a leader who embarks on projects with confidence and mission. Active, not passive, she takes decisive action on her present and future to change her life.
Back off, wolves. Maybe it’s too obvious a metaphor, but Belle has to fight the wolves in the forest—can they be seen as men defending their turf in business and the boardroom? Perhaps the snarls and hisses are sexist comments and harassment that so many women endure on the way to gender parity.
She’s nonjudgmental and deep. Belle doesn’t judge a beast by his hooves, so she comes off as a role model for a leader who will look to the performance, intelligence and insight from her co-workers, not what they look like.
Not afraid to be smart. She is not offended by her outsider persona as a bookworm. Belle is someone in the workplace who works hard, delivers on time, does the research necessary and is not distracted from her goals.
Beyonce is OK with Belle. Queen Bey accompanied her daughter to the premiere. So she must be OK as a strong female role model.
Damn the corsets. The new Belle character is not confined by the 18th century practice of wearing corsets and high heels. Dressing for comfort, utility and horseback riding in an emergency, she models the need to stray from fashion victim to fashion utility.
Give Beast a chance. Updating her character to 2017 workplace circumstances, Belle might be the one person at work who talks to everyone, is never dismissive and allows for people to grow, develop and change into who they truly are.
She’s kind to everyone in the office. Accepting of the servant characters who are certainly odd as animated versions of inanimate objects, Belle accepts them at face value, giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Performing the Second Shift. As caretaker for Beast as he is recuperating, Belle models the modern working woman’s multi-tasking efforts of caring for family and partners, children, parents, spouses. The good news is he gets better and can take care of himself.
Grasping the power to change your life. Belle embodies Leadership Power Tool #2, to define your own terms. Developed by Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead, the “9 Leadership Power Tools” are rooted in a sophisticated concept of power. Embraced with intention, women shift from the outdated, oppressive “power over” (or what Beast engages in at first) to the expansive, positive and innovative “power to.”
A version of this piece originally appeared in Take The Lead’s The Movement Blog.