When I was about twelve years old, a librarian recommended I try reading the book Beauty by Robin McKinley. I had already read most of the other things in the small teen section of my library branch and was looking for something new. To my surprise, I totally loved the book and re-read it several times that year. The story of a girl who was loved more for her kindness and integrity than her outward beauty touched something deep within me. At that time in my life, I was deeply conflicted about my identity and my place in the world, and looking for something or someone for guidance.
At home and at church I had learned that men and women were fundamentally different—men were from Mars, women from Venus. Men only thought about physical attraction, and therefore the only way to grow up and get married like God wanted us to was to somehow manage to attract a man, but without getting too out of control and moving into Satan’s territory. I realized fairly quickly, however, that there was nothing about me that was attractive in any way. The boys at school who teased me about my lack of breasts and asked mockingly if I was still a virgin made it pretty clear that I was not in the club of girls who could get the right kind of attention. Even at church, the boys all paid attention to the lithe girls who wore cool clothes and didn’t talk about stuff like geography.
I loved wearing my comfortable green Converse and t-shirts from the zoo, plus I also took seriously the counsel to follow the law of chastity by dressing modestly and avoiding excessive flirtation. How could I ever fulfill God’s command to get married when I obviously had no power? I sometimes lament the fact that I spent my entire adolescence without becoming friends with any males because I had no idea that such a possibility existed. They were a separate species whose sole focus was sex, and since I was so completely non-sexy, I had nothing to offer them. I resigned myself to a life of invisible singularity.
When Disney’s animated version of Beauty and Beast came out the year I turned fourteen, I rediscovered my role model in the spunky heroine whose unconventionality is rewarded with a real, deep relationship. Sure Belle is actually pretty attractive in a wholesome Disney way, but at least she isn’t mute like Ariel and she doesn’t spend most of the movie asleep like Aurora. Even more importantly, she finds a man who respects her, listens to her, and fulfills some of her deepest desires, like access to a library. The Beast isn’t a lech like Gaston, who only sees Belle as an object for making babies; he’s a real partner to Belle and gives just as much as he takes. Beauty and the Beast was the first time I saw possibilities for myself in a story; I might not have any breasts, but maybe that didn’t matter to some men.
Belle was touchstone for many years, and even now with my mostly negative feelings about Disney princess films, I still have a soft spot in my heart for Beauty and the Beast. Last month when I took my kids to see the movie Hidden Figures, there was a preview for the live action version of the film. I didn’t expect it to make me cry, but it did. My daughter happens to be turning fourteen this year, and while I know she’ll love the movie, I’m glad it won’t be as meaningful for her. She has a full life with band, swimming, art, advanced math classes, and friends of both genders. Even more importantly, she has a confidence and sense of power that I never felt at that age. Her favorite female characters are those that save the world through some combination of smarts and athletic ability. Belle might not have brought down an entire dystopian regime, but I’m grateful she was there to show me what might happen if you have the courage to be yourself.