A hush falls over the theatre as the lights go down. We wait with baited breath as the screen fills with the images of … the first of 35 previews for all kinds of movies. While 35 might be an exaggeration, I’m almost certain they show more trailers every time I go to the theatre.
Just as I’m about to give up and pull out my phone to tweet about the frustration of sitting through so many previews, the screen goes black and the house lights turn off completely. The first strains of the familiar music fill the room, and suddenly I’m seven years old again.
Beauty and the Beast, the animated version, is the first movie I ever saw in a movie theatre. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, took me and two of my sisters, most likely to relieve my mother of some of the burden of caring for five kids ages one to seven. I honestly don’t remember any part of that first movie theatre experience. But I do know Belle has always been my favorite Disney princess. She’s the brown-eyed, ordinary girl who loves to read and doesn’t quite fit in. She longs for adventure, for more than what she has.
When the movie came out on VHS (you know… those black bricks we used to put into VCRs before DVDs and Blu-Rays were invented), a family friend showed up at our house one night to surprise us with a copy. Now I could watch Belle anytime! I memorized the songs, the dialogue. I wanted to be Belle. Back then, I wanted the adventure and romance she experienced. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand the traits I admire so much in this fictional character.
First and foremost, Belle sees people for who they are. We see it in a variety of ways throughout her story. She recognizes the genius hidden behind her father’s eccentricities. She interacts with the enchanted castle residents as though they were still their human selves instead of the objects they’ve become. She looks past Gaston’s outer charms to see the beast within. And she calls out the man trapped within the Beast. Despite her own circumstances, or perhaps because of them, she treats the people around her with dignity, recognizing their inherent value.
Second, she comes to the defense of those she loves. She speaks up for her father and protects him from accusations of insanity. When Gaston uses fear to stir up the villagers against the Beast, Belle tries to speak the truth, to tell them what she knows of the man she’s come to love. She even rides into the fray to put herself between Gaston and the Beast, desperate to save the latter from the former’s ignorant assumptions.
Third, she refuses to give in to expectations. In a world where women are kept uneducated and at home, she reads anything and everything while longing for the opportunity to explore the world beyond her tiny village. She refuses Gaston’s advances despite the village’s encouragement to accept. How could she possibly marry someone she could never respect and who would never respect her?
It was a bit surreal to sit in a movie theatre nearly 26 years after I first met Belle and watch her story come to life in a new way. Because I’ve learned to articulate why she is a favorite character, I appreciated the little things they did to develop her identity even further in this movie. Watching her invent the washing machine, teach a little girl to read, listen to the stories of the boy who became the man who became the Beast—these moments solidified what I already knew about this character I’ve come to admire so much.
Just before the movie started, a little girl, maybe seven or eight, dressed in a child-sized version of Belle’s iconic yellow dress, slipped past me to find a seat in my row. Throughout the movie, I smiled as I thought of her learning all the things I learned from Belle when I was seven. I hope 26 years from now, that child will also have an appreciation for the things we can learn about life from fictional characters.