Saturday 21 October 2017

Emma Watson reinvents the Disney princess

Disney prides itself on its wholesome image but Watson's new role has shaken it up

Disney debut: Emma Watson and Luke Evans in Beauty and the Beast
Disney debut: Emma Watson and Luke Evans in Beauty and the Beast
Beauty

Rebecca Hawkes

Everyone on the internet seemed to have an opinion about Emma Watson's photoshoot in Vanity Fair last week. Wearing a rather revealingly cut bolero jacket, the 26-year-old came under fire from keyboard warriors arguing the shots were incompatible with the actress's professed feminist views. Watson, of course, has every right to pose wearing whatever she chooses - but what is surprising is that she has been doing so while promoting new film Beauty and the Beast, a movie which marks her debut as a Disney Princess.

In the past Disney, which prides itself on its wholesome image, has kept a tight grip on its stars. Yes, the company has moved with the times - but even so, it often seems to be a good decade or so behind everyone else.

In 2007, High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens had nude photos leaked online when she was just 18. Having private images exposed to the world can be a traumatic, violating experience, but Disney's response was to ask her to say sorry.

"I want to apologise to my fans, whose support and trust means the world to me," Hudgens said in a statement. "I am embarrassed over this situation and regret having ever taken these photos."

Meanwhile, Hannah Montana actress Miley Cyrus faced a swarm of controversy after posing for Vanity Fair (yes, them again) at the age of 15, wearing just a sheet.

Following that, the star engaged in various well-documented attempts to carve out a more adult identity. Her antics were interpreted as a deliberate attempt to distance herself from Disney and her sanitised, family-friendly former image.

Watson, of course, was also a child star. She grew up in the public eye as bookish Hermione in the Harry Potter films. But anyone trying to dictate how the star should present herself, or "shame" her by leaking private pictures, should watch out. After photos of the actress during a fitting were stolen earlier this week, Watson is taking legal action.

Unsurprisingly, her feminist principles have reportedly had a strong influence on how she plays Belle in the film.

"(Belle) is absolutely a Disney princess, but she's not a passive character - she's in charge of her own destiny," Watson told Vanity Fair, before revealing that her friend, renowned feminist activist Gloria Steinem, had approved the final cut.

It remains to be seen how significant Watson's input has been. We know, for instance, that Belle now sports a tool belt, replacing her father as the inventor of the family, and that her ballet slippers have been swapped for more sturdy footwear.

But physically speaking, the new character doesn't seem all that removed from her animated predecessor. She's petite, she wears the requisite sweeping yellow dress, she has long hair - and she's very, very pretty.

In the past, Disney has been criticised for its one-note characterisation of its female leads. Ahead of the release of Frozen - which was in many ways progressive, thanks to its focus on the relationship between two sisters - concerns were raised after head animator Lino DiSalvo made comments about the difficulty of giving animated complexity to female characters while still making sure they looked attractive.

"Historically speaking, animating female characters is really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty," he said. "So having a film with two hero female characters was really tough."

It was also claimed in 2015, by one keen-eyed Tumblr user, that all animated Disney women and girls have "the same face" - an observation that went viral.

"The only face that girls get to have is some round snub-nosed baby face. That's not right," the user wrote.

Even those characters who have, to limited extents, broken the mould, aren't immune to subsequent makeovers. Fans were outraged after the defiantly tomboyish Merida, heroine of Brave, was given sleeker hair and a slimmer waist after her official induction as a Disney Princess, which saw the release of a doll in 2013.

Even the film's co-director Brenda Chapman got involved. "I think it's atrocious what they have done to Merida," she said. "Merida was created to break that mould."

Given this kind of past track record, it feels unlikely that Watson's Belle will be pushing any image-related boundaries. Instead, her promised radicalisation will presumably come from the way she plays the character and, perhaps, from her own status as a feminist activist.

Indeed, when you look at the way that Disney has controlled some of its "role models" in the past, Watson's decision to pose with partially exposed breasts, while proudly promoting her new role as a Disney Princess, is perhaps the most ground-breaking thing she could have done.

See Emma Watson's interview in tomorrow's Weekend magazine

Irish Independent

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