Emma Watson’s Next Feminist Campaign? Modernizing a Disney Princess

Story by Hannah Lenore Gray

Emma Watson at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo by David Shankbone. 

Emma Watson at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo by David Shankbone. 

Emma Watson is having a major moment. Since her 2014 appointment as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, she has campaigned for various feminist issues, including gender equality. Largely serving as the voice for the UN HeForShe campaign, Watson inspired action from multitudes of celebrities and world-citizens alike as the campaign’s eponymous hashtag dominated the Twitter-sphere. In her UN address Watson recounts how at just 14 years old she “started to be sexualized by certain elements of the media.” Her own experiences with inequity assist in her understanding of present issues and also validate her position as an ambassador. She lives her life on such a public platform, but she is not exempt from the negative repercussions of gender roles. And because of her status and relevance, her words wield the power to make a change.

With all the humanitarian work Watson is responsible for, it is easy to forget she is an actress by day. It was recently announced she would be joining Disney’s live-action rendition of the animated classic, Beauty and The Beast, portraying the leading role of Belle. Though the news is exciting, the casting does raise some questions. Disney movies and their princesses are not exactly known for being progressive or feminist, and with Watson’s position as the “feminist of the moment,” many are left wondering how she will approach the role.

As far as Disney princesses go, Belle, from Beauty and the Beast, is perhaps the most broad-minded. However, this is not to say that the film is entirely devoid of outdated and even anti-feminist aspects. Take Gaston for example. Though he is an exaggerated character, obviously dismissed and reviled by Belle, he is also the epitome of misogyny, sexism and entitlement. His objectification of Belle and his regard for her as a possession to be dominated and won is a character type we see often. Historically and socially, gender roles permit men to behave in this uber-masculine manner, and expect women to submit, just as Gaston expects Belle to.

Even her prince is guilty of embodying some oppressive tendencies. He desperately needs Belle to fall in love with him and lift the curse cast upon him. He essentially keeps her captive to ensure a romantic relationship can form and save him. The Beast steals Belle’s freedom to achieve his own. And it works; she falls in love with him after he saves her from an angry pack of wolves, indebting Belle.

And before her imprisonment at the hands of the Beast, Belle was regarded as the weird outcast of her little French town because — get this — she read books. This was the basis for chastisement and pity. Gaston even tells her, “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking.” The townspeople pity her because she is so beautiful, but instantly an anomaly because of her desires to learn. Let’s remember that Watson played one of the greatest bookworms of all time — Hermione Granger — so we can hope she won’t let banter such as this go unaddressed or unreturned.     

The actions of the two men are disquieting and upsetting, but the movie is of a different time, and I like to think the blatant oppression will be rectified in the remake. If there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that Watson will not let the casual sexism present in the Disney classic define her own upcoming version. I believe Watson will be careful not to perpetuate unequal gender roles through involvement in a Disney movie about princesses and living happily ever after.

The bottom line is that we can assume Watson would not sign onto a role with no room to grow. She would not choose to portray a weak and submissive character because she leads her life in the exact opposite fashion. Belle does embody some progressive qualities; she is smart, strong and capable of saying no. I think Watson saw these qualities in the character and will expand upon them to encapsulate the character entirely. She will transform Belle’s story into one more representative of equal partnership and support, because after all, that is what Watson is all about: equality.