That girl is strange, no question.

If you are a woman of a certain age or the parent of a such a woman, no doubt the title of this post immediately got you humming the opening number from Disney’s 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast. My family owned that tape on VHS; in fact, I think it’s probably still somewhere in my parents’ basement. Even though my sisters and I must have spent the better part of our childhood and adolescent years watching it, I hadn’t thought about it again until recently. Last week, my ten-year-old daughter went to see the new live-action version of the film and fell every bit as in love with it as I did with the original.

Revisiting this touchstone of my childhood got me thinking. The movies both open with the same set up — intellectual misfit Belle chafing (in song!) against the quotidian conformity of her fellow townsfolk. The divergence manifests itself in lyrics like this:

Baker: Good Morning, Belle!
Belle: Good morning, Monsieur.
Baker: And where are you off to, today?
Belle: The bookshop. I just finished the most wonderful story, about a beanstalk and an ogre and a –
Baker: That’s nice. Marie! The baguettes! Hurry up!
As a bookish kid, I was 100% Team Belle. Her love of literature clearly made her superior to oafish townspeople like the Baker, and especially to that Philistine-in-Chief, Gaston.
Watching the same thing play out from the perspective of adult experience, though, I had a slightly different take. When I look at this same scene now, here’s what I see:
Baker (being polite): How’s it going, Belle?
Belle: Let me start to tell you the really long, convoluted plot of a fairy tale I just read…
Baker (realizing that a grown woman is about to fill his entire morning with a painstaking, blow-by-blow summary of a children’s book she’s irrationally excited about): Oh, hey, Belle. Um, that’s cool. I just realized that I’m super busy with these baguettes, though. Later!
Belle, like so many Disney heroines, is a child trapped in a woman’s body. Sure, we all love characters with child-like exuberance. That’s why the internet gets such a kick out of things like this gnarly old dude tearing up the skate park. But this is especially true for female characters. Think of an iconic, lovable female character from a book or movie. Now ask yourself — is that woman fully an adult? I can think of male characters who manage to be magnetic, while still maintaining their dignity. You wouldn’t see Aragorn from Lord of the Rings breathlessly wasting someone’s time with a dizzy recounting of a book he just read. And Atticus Finch doesn’t go around befriending birds and flowers à la Snow White. Mr. Darcy may be uptight and arrogant, but he’s a compelling adult. James Bond, despite his Jack-the-lad demeanor, exudes manliness.
I can’t, however, think of a single adult female character who fully embodies an adult role while still remaining lovable. This is true, I admit, even of my own Lindsay Harding character. She’s trying to be a grown-up, but she’s got a long way to go. Remove the fun from a fictional heroine, and you’re left with a stick-in-the-mud. Or, worse, a bitch. Even the fact that female characters, like Belle in the song lyrics above, are often called girls is telling. Lots of iconic female characters actually are girls or at least very young women, from Anne Shirley to Alice in Wonderland to Katniss Everdeen. Am I wrong about this? I sure hope so. If you have a counter-example, leave it in the comments section.
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3 responses to “That girl is strange, no question.

  1. This got long, so I apologize for that. What’s the Pascal quote? “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter”?

    The first thing I thought when I read this was – oh. That’s a perspective I hadn’t seen before. And also, now that my brain was redirected along these lines, why is Belle even trying to tell these people about her book when she has to know they won’t be interested? I listen to audiobooks at work, and the other day came across something kind of life-altering – but I know the blank and uncomprehending looks I’d get if I tried to tell my coworkers about it. Because I know they don’t read often, or at all, and the only “excited” they get over a book is the titillated “Fifty Shades” kind. You’d think Belle would know better too.

    But then I started thinking – in the examples you give, they’re called girls because they are girls. Katniss is sixteen, Alice a child, Anne twelve at the beginning – and they are those ages because the books were primarily aimed for readers of those ages. (Just for fun I did a search for “how old is Snow White” – she is fourteen in the movie (at least at the beginning) according to the Wiki. I hope Prince Charming wasn’t out of his teens, or I’ll get hives next time I see it.) It’s a way in to a story to have a main character you can identify with, an avatar of sorts who sees things much as you’d see them, asks the questions you would ask and acts and reacts like you would – only better, usually.

    The first strong, fully adult, outright formidable female character I thought of was Maggie Smith’s Dowager Duchess from Downton Abbey. She pretty much is a bitch, I suppose – but she’s so masterful at it that she is fun. And she does show evidence of a huge heart now and then. But Downton Abbey is aimed at adults. I knocked out a brief list of other strong adult female characters that I love: Mercy Thompson, Toby Daye, Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Randall), Max from the Chronicles of St. Mary’s … And, to loop around to your own examples, the adult Anne Blythe nee Shirley, who is very grown-up and very strong but still Anne at heart; Eowyn and Arwen and Galadriel of Lord of the Rings are dignity and magnetism personified, never childlike; and Mr. Darcy’s counterpart Lizzie Bennet is – well, when she gets old she will be the awesome Dowager Duchess, I think. All of these books are aimed at mature adult audiences, and therefore feature mature adult characters. These characters are lovable – if not in a cuddly way, then more along the lines of the admiring affection I feel for Aragorn and Atticus.

    Belle is a girl in the story – which may be why she hasn’t learned not to let her enthusiasms show so much where they won’t be understood. My impression, based partly on the other versions of the tale that I’ve read, is that she’s about sixteen or seventeen. She doesn’t act fully adult, doesn’t know not to gush to people who don’t care and don’t get it – doesn’t know better, because she’s an isolated teenager still hoping for someone to talk to about what she loves, and not comprehending that others don’t share her passions. When I was sixteen I’ll bet I still tried to tell people who couldn’t care less all about the amazing Star Trek episode I just saw. It’s been a little while since I saw the original, and I haven’t seen the live action yet, but if I recall correctly she feels a sort of sad superiority to the villagers because she – like Anne Shirley before her – plumbs the depths and soars to the heights while everyone else just plods along and sells their bread and makes fun of what they don’t understand. I get that.

    There’s a Simpsons moment I have a screengrab of somewhere, with Marge asking Lisa “what’s the matter, sweetie? Is one of your book characters having difficulties?” To most people, that’s just silly. But when two major characters were killed in an episode of Torchwood, I was gutted, and after the movie Serenity I cried for about two hours. But, not being a teenager anymore, I didn’t go to work the next day with red eyes and tell people my heart had been broken by fictional characters – the only people I ever let see that were online, in groups that felt much the same, because I had learned better. I grew up. Belle will too – but she’s got the Beast, who understands the depths and the heights of good fiction, and who might be just as likely to enthuse over a new book as she is. Lucky girl.

    I hope this made some sense! Again, sorry for the ridiculous length.

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    • Thanks for sharing this. Now I’m really curious about the audiobook that changed your life!

      I’m not familiar with most of the female characters you’ve cited–I must be reading the wrong books. 🙂 I’m going to add these to my reading list ASAP. And you’re right that my examples were meant to show that many iconic female characters actually are girls from children’s or YA fiction, rather than grown women.

      Isn’t it crazy how creepily young the Disney princesses are? I think Ariel is 16 when she marries Prince Eric. And that’s one of the more modern films…

      I did manage to think of another counter-example to my original thesis. Katharine Hepburn almost always played strong, independent adult characters, without a hint of school-girl silliness.

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      • The book that caused a shift in my perception … probably wouldn’t do it to anyone else; it acted on very specific bits of my past that I very suddenly realized I missed very, very much. It was a fantasy called Thorn Jack, by Katherine Harbour, and somehow hit all the right notes to make me strongly remember what used to be important to me. It was a wonderful feeling – now I need to try to keep it alive.

        The other characters I babbled on about are:
        – Mercy Thompson from the urban fantasy series by Patricia Briggs, starting with Moon Called
        – Toby Daye from the urban fantasy series by Sean McGuire, starting with Rosemary and Rue
        – Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Randall) from the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
        – Max from the Chronicles of St. Mary’s by Jodi Taylor

        I read a little bit of everything, so fantasy might not be up your alley, but I hope you enjoy them if you try them!

        Ah, Kate the Great. Rosalind Russell is in there too, as witness His Girl Friday.

        Yes, some aspects of Disney movies do not bear too much thinking about…!

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