Ever since we were kids, we’ve all loved classic Disney fairy tales. from Pinocchio (1940), about the puppet who wanted to be a real boy, to the gorgeous live-action Cinderella (2015), about the young woman yearning for love as she’s mistreated by her cruel stepmother and sisters, these films have made their protagonists iconic.
In the 17th century, women were really limited by their biology in the sense that the most they could hope for was to be married off to a kind man and spend the next twenty years of her life bearing his children. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. It’s this lack of opportunity that fueled the princess-focused fairy tales like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel in the first place. Meeting a handsome prince and getting to experience romantic love were the ultimate fantasies.
Fortunately, the women and girls of 2017 have a lot more opportunities than their counterparts even 30 years ago, let alone three centuries ago. As women have progressed in society, so have Disney princesses. But it’s not always easy. Beauty and the Beast tries to fuse an incredibly misogynic story with an empowered young woman, Belle (Emma Watson), but that doesn’t always make for good story telling. Let’s look at how Beauty and the Beast succeeds and fails when it comes to being a modern story about an empowered princess.
Here are 5 ways to empower your young female protagonist in your screenplays, using Beauty and the Beast as an example.
No. 1 — Give her humble beginnings
Belle lives in a small village where the days are long and the work is hard. Her aging father Maurice (Kevin Kline), barely ekes out living. The fact that Belle’s mother is dead adds to her woes. Starting Belle from a place of adversity gives her room to grow, change and arc. Make sure your princess has room to do this as well. Even wealthy young women can be suffering.
No. 2 — Make her really good at something
We see early in the movie that boys are allowed to go to school but girls are not. This doesn’t stop Belle from educating herself. She loves to read, even if there are few books at her disposal. When she’s not reading, she’s teaching little girls how to read. The villagers ridicule Belle for being different. Your princess must also go against the grain to establish that she’s an independent thinker and has a skill that she has worked painstakingly hard to hone.
No. 3 — She bucks typical feminine restraints
Through much of the film, Belle has one side of her skirt hiked up and tucked into her apron, exposing her bloomers underneath. Why? She alters her long, restrictive skirt so that she may adequately ride and control a horse. Instead of wearing delicate slippers, she wears rugged leather boots to fit properly into the stirrups. Find a way to show that your princess isn’t hung-up with being the “ideal woman” and is willing to rebel against ridiculous social trappings like women riding sidesaddle to protect their modesty.
No. 4 — Her desire in life is greater than merely finding a prince
Belle rejects Gaston because of his lascivious nature, despite his wealth and looks. Instead, she’d much rather chase the adventures in the distant lands she reads about in her books. Don’t get me wrong – feminists deserve to fall in love just as much as anyone else – and a romantic plotline can add all sorts of delicious conflict to your story. But if the sound of wedding bells are her main motivation for taking action in the film, she’s better off in 1950, than 2017.
No. 5 – She’s the opposite of a damsel in distress
This one is obvious. There are times when all women can use some help, but needing to be rescued by a knight in shining armor is a dead trope. Your princess should be clever and skilled enough to save herself most of the time and have the wisdom to know when she needs a helping hand.
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