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.
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.
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.