Beauty and the Beast has always been one of my all time favorite movies. In fourth grade I spent every night after dinner singing Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson's "Tale As Old As Time" to myself in the giant dresser mirror of my bedroom. Sometimes I cried as I sang, the emotion of the song and the story behind it too much for my fragile tween self to handle. I sang that song so often and for so long the cassette single ribbon eventually snapped. While my mom claimed they were "out of stock," I think my failure to hear pitch might be the real reason she never got me a replacement. Still, the movie about a girl who loved books and saw the goodness in people's hearts (and who got to wear one amazing ball gown) spoke to me, and I was thrilled when I found out they were making a modern live-action version of Beauty and the Beast starring the flawless feminist that is Emma Watson.
Obviously I'm not the only one who was excited to see this classic reimagined. The live-action version of Beauty and the Beast raked in over $350 million dollars worldwide on opening weekend, with most critics agreeing that the film was fantastic. My cheeks still hurt from grinning the entire time. But it wasn't just seeing the iconic gold gown come to life that had me crying happy tears into my popcorn. There are some subtle but very important changes in this new version of the Beauty and the Beast and as a mom, I'm so excited that this version of the beloved movie will be the one that helps shape the world view of my 4-year-old twin boys. If you haven't seen the movie, considered yourself forewarned: there are spoilers for Beauty and the Beast ahead.
Much of the film is frame-for-frame true to the original, but the small changes in this version of Beauty and the Beast go a long way towards teaching our kids about acceptance and that love is love is love, no matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from. And that "exclusive gay moment" with LeFou everyone's fawning over? Media hype aside, the moment is truly a blink-and-you'll-miss-it type situation. In the closing ball scene, LeFou is dancing with a girl and someone bumps him, and a handsome young man takes the girl's place. He smiles, LeFou raises an eyebrow, and the camera pans away. Does that make LeFou gay? Not to detract from the importance of the moment, but it's not the only change in Beauty and the Beast with staying power to influence how my kids view the world we live in.
Unlike the animated version, the movie opens with a pre-Beast prince holding a grand costume ball. He's wearing makeup that makes him look like a Cirque du Soleil version of a tiger, all soft pastels and white. Aside from the fact that his look is stunning and gives me ideas for next Halloween, it's an important commentary on men wearing makeup. With more and more men like Manny MUA and Patrick Starr slaying makeup tutorials on YouTube, it's great to see Disney acknowledge that makeup isn't just for girls.
My own boys frequently beg me, "Make me look like Elsa?" while thrusting my eyeshadow palate in to my hands. They may one day grow out of this phase (or maybe they won't!), but seeing that Disney is embracing the makeup-is-for-everyone philosophy, perhaps they won't feel pressure from people who view makeup as "unmanly" to give up something they clearly enjoy doing. Maybe they'll be helping me figure out false lashes one day.
I don't know if these games have any bearing on his gender identity, but I like knowing he'll grow up watching a film that shows him it's OK to enjoy these things.
But just in case you watch the film and think Beast's makeup is really more about being historically accurate (in the 1600s, when the film is set, men frequently wore theatrical makeup) than a social message, Disney's message is one of self-acceptance. There's a scene in the final battle between the villagers and the castle when Madame Garderobe engulfs three of Gaston's lackeys. They emerge from her drawers dressed as women, in ball gowns with powdered wigs and makeup. Two of them are horrified at their appearance, and one of the men preens and skips away. While the idea that dressing men as women can be seen as a "punishment" or bad thing is problematic, it's a big deal to see a male happily dressed in female clothes in a Disney film, even if the moment is fleeting. Madame Garderobe says to him, "Be free," which felt like an explicit acknowledgment that it's OK if dressing in women's clothes makes you happy.
My son Lolo frequently asks to play with my jewelry and gets into my makeup, and I don't know if these games have any bearing on his gender identity, but I like knowing he'll grow up watching a film that shows him it's OK to enjoy these things.
Kids are influenced by what they see on movies, and I'm happy my boys will grow up with a childhood film that shows more diverse couples because I want them to know that love comes in all forms and they're free to fall in love with anyone they want.
It's not just sexuality and gender roles that got a much-needed facelift in this new version of Beauty and the Beast. I didn't realize how many other aspects of the film were outdated until I watched the new version. Think of the classic Disney movies we all know: Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid. How many people of color are featured in those cartoons?
Disney appears to recognize this as well, and makes every effort in the film to move toward inclusivity that depicts the real world we all live in. Audra McDonald, who plays Madame Garderobe, opens the movie in human form, singing for the dancing party guests. When she first appeared on camera, I was stunned. I didn't know that she was in the movie, and the Broadway nerd in me fainted. But if I'm being brutally and uncomfortably honest, her appearance in the film made me realize that every single character in the animated version is white. It wasn't until that second that I realized a movie I loved as a child failed in terms of inclusion.
The live-action version corrects that mistake with a more diverse cast, helped in part by Gugu Mbatha-Raw's role as Plumette, the feather duster. The couplings between the castle servants and villagers cross race lines as well: Madame Garderobe spends the film upstairs, separated from her dear husband Maestro Cadenza, played by Stanley Tucci, and Mbatha-Raw and Ewan McGregor sizzle with PG passion as Plumette and Lumiere. Because many of the characters spend much of the film as objects, you don't see their differences in race — you take stock of the relationships they have with each other. It's only in the end of the movie, once the spell is broken, that we see them as humans. Though I think it's vital for my children to see color and to act as allies and advocates to those in marginalized communities, I thought the film did a fantastic job of stressing the importance of diversity.
Back in the '90s, having a female lead who wasn't tripping over herself in search of a prince was novel. Here in 2017, they made Belle's character even more of a strong female role model by making her an inventor.
In the future, I think Disney could set an example and do even more to diversify the casts, but I can't think of many other examples in children's media depicting biracial relationships so nonchalantly. This change is a more accurate reflection of the actual world we live in. Kids are influenced by what they see on movies, and I'm happy my boys will grow up with a childhood film that shows more diverse couples because I want them to know that love comes in all forms and they're free to fall in love with anyone they want.
But you can't talk about Beauty and the Beast without talking about its leading heroine: Belle. The new version of the movie lends new depth to Belle's character, proving once and for all that this is not just a fairytale romance. In the cartoon, Belle is a bookworm. Back in the '90s, having a female lead who wasn't tripping over herself in search of a prince was novel. Here in 2017, they made Belle's character even more of a strong female role model by making her an inventor. Yes, she invents a washing machine and yes, it would have been nice to see her create something that wasn't so... domestic, but it still goes a long way towards showing all of the kids watching that young women can do far more than twirl and look pretty.
We all have a few childhood movies that we watched over and over until the VHS wore out. The movies you watch as a kid affect your personality and how you view things as an adult (how many mermaid-themed shirts and mugs for adults are in the store right now?), and the truth is, the world we live in now isn't the same as it was when the animated version of Beauty and the Beast came out. The new live-action version is a more accurate reflection of the accepting world of today, and it's the one I want my kids to remember until they're old enough to screen it with children of their own.