Disney has received a lot of criticism over the years. I recently heard an opinion that piqued my interest and made me want to delve into the deep dark world of Disney’s character development. This opinion in particular had to do with whether or not Belle from Beauty And The Beast is a good person, but there is a problem with that question. To label a character as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is too one dimensional and it does the character a disservice to not look at the entirety of their being and emotional journey throughout the film. Take a look at your own life. It would not be a fair assessment of who you are as a complex human if someone pointed to one aspect of your personality or one faltering moment in the span of your life’s journey and said that that was what/who you are. So instead, let’s peel back the layers and reveal the building of her character just like the building of your character through your own life’s struggle.
A protagonist has to be someone you can relate to and root for throughout the story. The writer of Toy Story once told me that writers often start off with a particular archetype to help the audience understand the character when introduced to them. It is the first level of character development. That is what the song Belle (Little Town) does. With her face constantly in her book as the town gossips about her behind her back for being different, you learn that she is the stereotypical girl who fantasizes about wanting more for herself than what her small town has to offer and that, at that moment, the only way to obtain this greatness is for her to get lost in the fantasy world of books and imagination. She is the girl who understands the world that she lives in and because of that is able to fairly assess that she does not fit in. We know this because she recognizes everyone she encounters throughout the song, she knows their morning routines, and talks to them accordingly. So that is the surface level of Belle’s character. It is relatable, easily understood, and is our jumping off point as we begin to follow Belle on her personal journey.
When we start to move past the archetype, we learn about her character as an individual and truly get to see her strengths and faults and how they play off of each other. We see that she puts her father before everything else, including her own life. This starts to get us thinking that maybe she has not left town yet because she is not sure how her father could survive on his own. It is made clear through his dysfunctional inventions and unsuccessful trip into the forest that he is a danger to himself and that he has no one but her in his life to help him. The townspeople do not even pay attention to him when he returns home and calls upon their help to reclaim Belle. This creates a strong internal conflict for Belle, but also pushes the plot forward because, if it were not for her protectiveness over her father, she would never have given herself up in place of him when the Beast captures him. We also learn that she is impulsive in both her actions and speech. When Gaston, a character with clear abusive tendencies, proposes to her, she throws him into the mud without thinking of the consequences that it will cause. Though the audience is quietly cheering for her tenacity and self-respect, this action drives his character to go to the extremes that he does in order to force her hand. Although being loyal and acting based on individual principals are considered strong traits, they are put into situations where they create both positive and negative results for her. Her character now has a real life complexity to it.
The third layer of Belle is exposed when her character is put in a situation that tests her. The way that she reacts and evolves during her time as prisoner is key to understanding what truly makes up the core of her character. Her archetype is still there, for she loves that the castle has a library, her individuality is still there, for she keeps to her principals and refuses to come to dinner with the Beast, but these two layers to her character intertwine to allow us to discover something else about her that is rooted in Belle’s core. It is what brings all of her other characteristics, both positive and negative, together and is the reason why we need to look at her character in full in order to truly understand her. We the audience discover it during the sequence that defines the midpoint of the film.
At the beginning of the midpoint, she wanders up to the West Wing, the one place in the castle where she is told not to go. Her archetype of being a curious adventure-seeker and her impulsive individuality come into play together to push her up those stairs instead of going to the library. If she was nothing more than an archetype, then it would have made more sense for her character to be more interested in the library than the West Wing, but since her character traits have been individualized, she has that impulsive drive that pushes her to investigate the West Wing. When the Beast discovers her there and shows the extent of his temper, she flees. Once again, her impulsive behavior is highlighted as well as her archetypical characteristic of feeling like she does not belong. We finally crack her person open when the Beast puts himself in danger to save her life. When he gains her trust, so does the audience and therefore, from that moment on, we understand what develops her character as a whole. She is vulnerable to how people treat her, but not to what they think of her and all of the other aspects of her personality tell you how she is going to respond to someone who treats her a certain way, with little thought given to what they think. This is the basis for every defining action she carries out.
With this new understanding, we can now look back and see why she was cold to the people she brushed off and why she put her dreams aside to help her father. We as the audience see common townspeople just going about their daily lives, not hurting anyone, but she sees them spending their morning talking about her behind her back. So, based on her defined archetype, she only gives them a small bit of her time and then, since she does not care what they say only what they do, she responds by doing exactly what causes them to gossip in the first place: reading books and living in her imagination. We understand Gaston to be a confident man who is just trying to make her his wife, but she feels him disrespecting her opinion and own personal wants. Therefore, based on her defined individuality, she reacts to the way he treats her by making rash decisions in an attempt to force him out of her life without caring that he could either hate her of fixate on her. Her father to us is an eccentric man who has a hard time taking care of himself, but she experiences his love and unwavering support and therefore her character shines through when she is willing to do all she can to keep him safe, with little regard to the fact that he might think she’s being ridiculous and throwing her life away. The shift that the Beast causes when he proclaims such an intense act of selflessness towards her by saving her from the wolves, allows us to see how Belle reacts to this shift. When he was rude and unkind to her, she shut him out and refused to talk to him, but after this incident, she spends her days getting to know him and eventually falling in love with him. As she sees him let his guard down, she matches it by letting her own guard down. This allows for their feelings for one another to grow at an equal pace. At this point, the characteristics that make up who she is, push her towards letting him into her life and heart in a way that the love that she has towards her father is the only other relationship that could match it. The two people who we know to have shown her true kindness and warmth are the two people she feels the most intensely for. She is falling for a Beast, but because the thoughts of others have never bothered her, she isn’t embarrassed by this fact. Though her faults get her into a lot of trouble, they allow her to be the exact type of character that the Beast needs in order to be set free from the curse.
Belle is a multitude of things, some faults and some strengths, but it is those diverse set of traits that lead her to save the lives of a castle full of people just by being herself. They do not just humanize her or make her relatable, they also make her respectable. No matter what she does, she never changes herself based on the opinions of others. As I’ve matured, Belle has become my favorite Disney character because she goes from being an outsider, to finally finding where she belongs. Growing up, my favorite Disney character was always Ariel, but looking at her now I realize that she changes everything about herself in order to find happiness. With Belle, it is her unique character traits that allow her to find the place where she fits in and the people who truly love her. Belle is a character who should not be put in a box with one single label of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because she is so much more than that.