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Of course Emma Watson wasn’t going to let last week’s International Women’s Day pass by quietly. The 26-year-old Brit, once upon a time synonymous with wand-wielding Hermione of Harry Potter fame, is now as known for her gender rights activism and work for the UN as she is for her 15-year acting career. So to see her dashing about NYC in a jaunty red beret – a sartorially revolutionary look if ever we saw one – hiding feminist books in monuments and under statues, is something that didn’t surprise us in the slightest.
It did, however, make us want to punch the air in delight just as much as when we heard she’d been cast as Belle in Disney’s live-action adaptation of Beauty & The Beast – out this week and now responsible for holding the record for the most-viewed trailer in the first 24 hours of release.
Take that, 50 Shades… It’s hardly the first time she’s made us proud to share two X chromosomes. In 2014, the UN contacted her to become a Goodwill Ambassador. She took her role and ran with it, launching the HeForShe campaign which aims to get men to cosign on feminist issues. In January last year, she started a bi-monthly, online feminist book club called Our Shared Shelf, opting for legendary social and political activist Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road as her first choice. “She’s way more like a real person than a movie star,” Steinem said of her, now a good friend. She makes a strong point. It’s exactly this kind of girl-next-door appeal that made us all fall for her in the first place.
When Emma talks, you’re more inclined to listen – like your best mate telling you matter-of-factly to stand up for yourself, demand more, and always, to quote Nora Ephron, another of her book-club authors, “be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” Approachability teamed with a fierce, feminist brain. It’s her secret weapon.
Playing a Disney princess, then, seems both totally fitting, but also slightly at odds with Emma’s mission statement. Well, most Disney princesses, maybe – but not Belle. “The [original] movie came out in 1990, the year I was born, and I just fell in love with Belle,” Emma tells GRAZIA.
“She was this feisty young woman who spoke her mind, had all these ambitions and was incredibly independent and wanted to see the world. She was so smart.”
Putting it like that, one could even argue that Belle was the first feminist Disney character; a rogue spirit in her traditional little French village, eschewing the advances of the town’s handsome yet boorish heartthrob while belting out numbers about wanting “much more than this provincial life.”
In this vein, it’s really not difficult to draw parallels between Belle and Emma herself. Reading, for one, seems to be of central importance to both, Emma’s book club and Belle’s love of Shakespeare making their personalities almost interchangeable in parts. “We know she loves to travel and is quite industrious,” Emma explains of her character, who even invents a rudimentary, horse-powered washing machine in the remake. “But we wanted to make sure that people know she loves reading,” she continues, the film opening with Belle’s head buried in a leather-bound book.
“It was fascinating that her activism could be so well-mirrored by the film,” Steinem told Vanity Fair in an interview this month, noting that Belle uses books to “expand her world.” So when the Beast, played by a gigantic, slightly hairier than normal Dan Stevens, gives Belle his entire dust-filled library, it was arguably the point in the film when she really begins to fall for his hirsute charms. Steinem concurs, “It’s this love of literature that first bonds the Beauty to the Beast, and also what develops the entire story.”
It’s another reason the tale was light years ahead of its time – and far less reductive a love story than Disney is usually known for. It allowed a relationship to develop organically, rather than love spontaneously bursting forth in a forest with a complete stranger, a foregone conclusion. Sorry, Sleeping Beauty.
“It’s so funny and so romantic but in a way that didn’t feel contrived in the same way as other fairy tales have, in the sense that the Beast and Belle really dislike each other in the beginning,”
Emma says. Understandably, we might add – he did kidnap her dad and then hold her prisoner in a castle full of talking furniture, after all. “Then they form this friendship and then they fall in love. It was something that was so beautiful to me. I loved how Belle had this relationship with the Beast where they were just toe-to-toe.
That to me just seemed like such a dynamic and interesting kind of relationship that I’d never seen before in a fairy tale.” We’d say this is precisely the reason that Beauty & The Beast is universally considered as the most romantic of all Disney movies. Because, aside from it being physically impossible to not weep instantly at the opening chords of Tale As Old As Time, it seems – talking teacups notwithstanding – the most real. It’s about a relationship based on equality. And what’s dreamier than that?
This article first appeared in GRAZIA UAE. Olivia Phillips is Deputy Editor at Grazia Middle East and Grazia Arabia. Follow her at @favouritething