How to write fairytale princesses that are truly empowered (and the mistakes Disney made with Beauty and the Beast)

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The iconic dance scene in Beauty and the Beast. Photo courtesy: Disney Pictures

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.

But it wasn’t Walt Disney who invented these stories of course, they are fables that go back hundreds of years and were intended to be morality tales for children and help teach them how to behave in the world.

As science and technology progress, so does our collective sense of morality. Before we dig into the latest installation in the fairy tale series from Disney due out in theaters Friday — Beauty and the Beast — let’s look at little history first.

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 own princess (or any young female protagonist) in your screenplays, using Beauty and the Beast as an example.

“Belle” lives at home with only her father. Photo courtesy: Disney Pictures

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.

“Belle” likes books. Photo courtesy: Disney Pictures

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.

“Belle” enters the Beast’s castle alone. Photo courtesy: Disney Pictures

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.

“Belle” wants to learn about everything the world has to offer. Photo courtesy: Disney Pictures

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.

Here are some things not to do to your princess:

No. 1 — She shouldn’t undervalue herself

In Beauty and the Beast, it’s Belle’s father who initially commits a crime by innocently picking a rose from the Beast’s garden to bring to Belle. The Beast imprisons him and Belle offers to take his place and suffer being jailed. Her act, while being selfless, suggests that her father’s freedom is more important than her own, harking back to a time when daughters were expendable and seen as burdens. Your princess should know her worth or at least discover it by the end of the story.

No. 2 — She shouldn’t fall in love with her tormentor

Here’s when this fairy tale gets tricky – Belle grows to love the Beast over time, despite him holding her hostage. Some people go so far as to say Belle has a case of Stockholm Syndrome, a condition where a hostage grows to love his/her captor. Belle doesn’t appear to be brainwashed, but most of us would run out of that creepy castle and never look back. If your princess is to fall in love, it should be because a man earned her love through his actions.

No. 3 — Her reward shouldn’t be superficial

Belle’s reward for loving the Beast is that he turns into the sexy Matthew Crowley from Downton Abbey (Dan Stevens). Your princess should earn a reward that reflects her own emotional and physical growth as a result of the difficult journey she has undertaken.

 

What are your thoughts on how to build a modern princess? We’d love to hear them.

 

author-avatar

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

21 Replies to "How to write fairytale princesses that are truly empowered (and the mistakes Disney made with Beauty and the Beast)"

  • comment-avatar
    Patrecia Kay Jackson-McCurdy March 16, 2017 (2:37 pm)

    I’ve written a book about an empowered Princess – Anesta – Her mother is kidnapped by Fraun – a dragon who wants desperately to be human – her jealous cousins put her in the castle tower where an Angel takes her out of harms way and carries her to a castle in a land far away from her castle – but before the Angel leaves, Anesta clings to her and won’t let her go without giving her a portion of the power she, the Angel has of ‘Change’, which empowers her as she goes from a fourteen year-old to an adult. I’ve also written a sequel that features even more of her empowerment. Where ‘Once Upon a Time’ Began & sequel: Imperium, Land of Dragons and Kings.

    • comment-avatar
      dameine March 16, 2017 (2:53 pm)

      file that under “Noone Cares”

  • comment-avatar
    Sean Martin March 16, 2017 (2:37 pm)

    Wow. Where to begin…

    “Her act, while being selfless, suggests that her father’s freedom is more important than her own” No. It suggests a heroic dimension to her character. Seriously, would you say to a mother who would put her child’s life ahead of her own that she’s “devaluing” herself? Belle makes it clear that she’s not just walking in and sitting down: she plans on finding some kind of escape, which is probably easier for her to do than her father.

    “Belle grows to love the Beast over time, despite him holding her hostage.” No, she is not a hostage. She made a promise, and she’s keeping it. This makes her not only heroic (point 1), but honourable as well. And when she does leave, the Beast follows her and winds up saving her life, at nearly the cost of his own (which of course, raises that pesky “I guess he didnt think his life mattered as much as hers” line). Through adversity, they are finding common ground, which results in the best kind of love — God knows far deeply than that just-add-water kind seen in just about every rom com ever made.

    “Belle’s reward for loving the Beast is that he turns into the sexy Matthew Crowley” You really never have seen the film, have you. Yes, she gets the handsome prince, but she also knows what’s *inside* that sexy exterior. If all she wanted was sexy, Gaston was right there waiting. But she held out for better — and she got it. The fact that he’s hot? Icing on the proverbial cake. There’s an empowerment lesson right there: hold out for what you want and sometimes it comes back better than you expected. I guess maybe you missed that?

    There are plenty of wrong-headed Disney films — CINDERELLA leaps to mind. Picking on this one? You blew it.

    • comment-avatar
      dameine March 16, 2017 (2:54 pm)

      wrong. this movie blows. everyone hates it. the original was a masterpiece.
      nobody wants to see this beastiality,

      Cinderella is a beautiful film. its a classic dummy.

      • comment-avatar
        dameine March 16, 2017 (3:01 pm)

        This beauty and the beast is awful. she looks like shes 14 and he looks like like he’s 35.
        gross

      • comment-avatar
        Sean Martin March 16, 2017 (5:45 pm)

        Right, Dameine, CINDERELLA is a classic… about a bimbo who sits around waiting for Prince Charming to bring her a shoe. Uh huh, got it.

        You’re, what, 12? Thirteen? Grow the F up a little before presuming to talk to the adults.

        • comment-avatar
          dameine March 16, 2017 (6:05 pm)

          haha you’re clearly mad cause you’re overweight like gastons buttboy.
          cinderella is a classic everyone loves and shows their kids. nobody wants to take their kids too see this bestiality show about a 14 year old pompous british girl falling in love with a 35 year old man-dog. you don’t understand disney storytelling.

          read a script instead of daydreaming about kissing men loser hahaha

          • comment-avatar
            Sean Martin March 19, 2017 (11:24 am)

            I over estimated. Ten, at most.

  • comment-avatar
    Paul Rich March 16, 2017 (2:46 pm)

    I can only give my two cents, having been on the marketing team at Disney for the original animated classic, albeit the video distribution side. Belle was by far the most empowered princess at the time, compared to Cinderella, Aurora etc. But not nearly enough by today’s standards. The live action version attempts to correct this. Her act of sacrifice to save her father can be seen as noble. A strong virtue. Not necessary undervaluing herself. Secondly, for a remake, the studio could not stray so far from the original as to change the plot entirely. Had she simply escaped, there would be no movie. I have yet to see the live action version so I don’t know the ending. I would hope that Belle would have broken through to the Beast not only emotionally, but intellectually, opening his eyes to books and reading … an epiphany. “By Jove he’s got it! I really think he’s got it!” (Henry Higgins). Mistakes Disney made? Ah, that’s the rub. The balance of show and business, like no business we know. It has so far broken pre-sale records for a family film. My money is on it will break opening box office records for a family film as well.

  • comment-avatar
    dameine March 16, 2017 (2:51 pm)

    This trailer looked terrible from the get go. That actress is terribly miscast. She’s great as hermoine in harry potter but she’s very unsexy and screams uppity.

    Another shitty moneygrab from Disney. just like the stupid pile of pig puke that was Feces..excuse me..Rebel One.

  • comment-avatar
    James March 16, 2017 (2:57 pm)

    Sean Martin — great reply. I also was stopped by the comment that Belle undervauled herself by changing places with her father only I didn’t come up immediately with your reasons and all the additional things you have mentioned. Good stuff.

  • comment-avatar
    Ron March 16, 2017 (4:32 pm)

    I think there are a lot of great replies to this article here. The fact that the author of the article is so quick to throw the baby out with the bath water only speaks of her own narrow minded bents. While people today have righted the ship of misogyny, the pendulum always swings far the other way. The soup du jour IS women heroes, from Brave having the champion archer a girl, to Salt. And that’s great, women are heroes. But to wholly dismiss the, “Knight in armor” is to ignore history, myth and legend. The current trend to rewrite classic stories so that they line up with modern ideals only erases something we’ve all cherished and serves PC culture more than ring true. Besides, the attitude in this article seems to assume that the general theme for women is that they should accomplish some great feat rather than act out of love for family, or to find love herself. Most people value love and family over any accomplishment, because, well, to value accomplishment over family is selfish and narcissistic. That’s why stories about self sacrifice, be it Hunger Games, Braveheart, or Passion of The Christ, speak to our hearts. To portray women as primarily out for their own gain is wrong and promotes a selfish modern narrative that simply tries to rewrite human nature to no avail, and does not settle in our souls. It seems that the author of the article cannot be satisfied unless all “Old fashion” values are tossed and replaced by a modern template. Modern is good you say. Sure, for the most part. The woman warrior is a wonderful theme. I write about them myself. But our PC culture seems bent on the annihilation of all gender distinction which is in itself a lie. How will that serve us well? In Beauty, Belle shows ample fortitude while acting out of love for her father, and seems to be seeking true love instead of the town buffoon Gaston. And this is somehow not right because she’s not in lock-step with 2017 feminism? Really? Does she need to be the Victorian equivalent to Laura Croft to be a real woman? I think that’s where this is coming from.

    • comment-avatar
      dameine March 16, 2017 (5:33 pm)

      Ron, these clowns want to crush the “knight in shining armor” and replace it with Gaston’s buddy struggling with his desires kiss Gaston on the weenie

    • comment-avatar
      Stephen March 17, 2017 (7:52 am)

      Well done, Ron.

  • comment-avatar
    Cobalt Blue March 16, 2017 (5:34 pm)

    Beauty and the Beast is ultimately about unconditional love, not the fast food version today’s ’empowered’ women settle for.
    As a writer I see a bit of Belle in every strong female protagonist drawing audiences to the box office. That’s not a mistake. She is my personal favorite Princess and the one I most relate to.
    I agree with the comment feed rather than the article on this one.

  • comment-avatar
    Michael March 16, 2017 (9:00 pm)

    The 1946 La belle et la bête is the standard. It has emotional depth that Disney would dare to touch. Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney movies, but their strong suit is animation. I thought that they played it way too safe with Cinderella with one-dimensional characters or they were dull and uninteresting. There was a George C. Scott TV version that was a little darker, and yet, quite effective. It’s ok to have a but of fright in films. The original stories certainly contained mystery, thrills, and an added darkness. That is what makes them so compelling.

    • comment-avatar
      Michael O'Rourke March 23, 2017 (11:48 am)

      Viva Cocteau! The one version that makes sense of a very old tale from the unconscious.

  • comment-avatar
    Michelle Llewellyn March 16, 2017 (9:31 pm)

    Anyone read Robin McKinley?
    ‘Nuff said.

  • comment-avatar
    Kenneth Wood March 17, 2017 (5:11 am)

    Like others, I questioned the casting decision of Emma Watson to play Belle (She didn’t look enough like the animated Belle). However, I just watched Beauty and the Beast last night with family (a March 16 pre-showing). Emma was amazing. She brought so much depth to the role—from sensitivity to heroism. Her performance was so moving, I found myself tearing up three times within the first thirty minutes and many times after that.

    What blew me away unexpectedly was Emma’s singing voice. It was warm, emotional, expressive, powerful and beautiful to listen to. Her relationship with her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) depicted what a loving daughter would sacrifice for her father. Her transformational relationship with the Beast (Dan Stevens), from anger and horror to compassion and love was heartwarming to watch unfold.

    Now that I’ve seen Emma in the role, I couldn’t imagine anyone else in it.

    I might add that the new songs, written for the movie by it’s original composer Alan Menken, contributed richly to the storyline and were every bit as powerful and singable as their forerunners, and the musical orchestration was the best I’ve ever heard on any movie anywhere. Wow!

    Kudos to the screenwriters for creating the best ever rendition of the centuries-old Beauty and the Beast story. And kudos to Emma Watson for bringing Belle to life. She will win you over.

  • comment-avatar
    Stephen March 17, 2017 (7:48 am)

    Can the author explain how Belle could achieve a different reward at the end of a movie based on a relationship in any other way than marriage? You could write Belle opening a bookstore or starting a school for girls at the end, but that’s not what the audience came to see. The whole point of a romance movie is ending in a relationship: that’s the only logical reward.

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