Hint: It’s not because “her looks have got no parallel”
Today is the 25th anniversary of my favorite childhood movie: Beauty and the Beast. There are many reasons I love this film, but the main one is simply the beauty of its protagonist: Belle is by far the most admirable heroine to appear in a Disney movie. Apparently, I’m not alone in this view—Belle has won Buzzfeed’s “Favorite Disney Princess” poll for three years running.
But what is it about Belle that makes her so appealing to the audience? Is it simply that “her looks have got no parallel,” to quote the movie’s opening song? Obviously not—each Disney princess depicts a unique physical beauty. Rather, what sets Belle apart is her spiritual beauty, which surpasses that of every other princess for three reasons:
1) Belle cares infinitely more about inner beauty than outer beauty.
Belle’s most obvious distinguishing feature is her utter lack of vanity. While none of the princesses are conceited about their looks, Belle literally pays no attention when an entire town is singing about how pretty she is!
Is Belle simply unaware of her physical beauty? Such an absurd lack of self-awareness would be a serious defect—whatever One Direction may think, ignorance of one’s physical beauty is not what makes one beautiful. And Belle does not act surprised when she’s hit on by Gaston, the village hunk, so she clearly isn’t naive.
No, Belle is so blasé about her looks because she knows how little they matter. It’s not that she regards physical beauty as completely unimportant—she obviously takes care of her appearance—but rather that she’s aware of how much more important spiritual beauty is.
We see this attitude especially in Belle’s treatment of others. Her initial dislike for the Beast is based on his character, not his looks, so she warms to him when he starts growing in virtue. She can see that, though still a beast on the outside, he’s becoming a man on the inside. And the reverse is true as well: as Belle says in a memorable line, “He’s no monster, Gaston. You are!”
2) Belle delights in learning for its own sake.
Another quality that sets Belle apart is her love of reading. She has read every book in the local bookshop, and is overjoyed when the Beast presents his enormous library to her as a gift. Thus, Belle is a true philosopher—a lover of learning for its own sake.
But what does this have to do with beauty? Well, everything. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, beauty consists in “a certain brightness and due proportion,” which are both found “rooted in the reason” because it is the intellect that illuminates and orders everything with its knowledge. Consequently, it is in the mind’s contemplation of truth that “beauty is found in itself and essentially.”
These words of Aquinas confirm what most of us already know: a woman’s beauty is truly found not in her body but in her mind or soul. Despite what Gaston says, a girl’s capacity for “getting ideas and thinking” is her most beautiful feature!
Hence, Belle’s rich intellectual life is itself enough for her to outshine the other princesses, especially for an egghead like me. (I like to imagine Aquinas is her favorite author, but that’s probably wishful thinking).
Yet there is something still more beautiful than Belle’s love of wisdom: her love of other people.
3) Belle loves others to the point of self-sacrifice.
From the movie’s beginning, Belle sacrifices herself for others. She willingly takes her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner, though it means surrendering her dreams of travelling the world. Nor do her acts of love stop there: she abandons plans of escaping the castle to care for the Beast’s wounds from the wolves, leaves only to save her father’s life, and returns to warn the Beast of the mob.
This heroic degree of self-sacrificial love is more than anything what makes Belle beautiful. According to St. Augustine, “love is itself the beauty of the soul.” And, as Christ Himself says, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
The beauty of Belle’s selflessness is baffling but irresistible to the Beast from the moment he meets her: “You would … take his place?” And by the film’s end, Belle has inspired the Beast to love selflessly as well—he lets her go at the risk of remaining a beast forever, and even shows mercy to the murderous Gaston. And these acts of love are what make him human again.
Thus, it is the beauty of Belle’s love that transforms the Beast into a prince. Indeed, the whole point of Belle’s story is simply this: love is what makes us beautiful.
Truly, then, it is no wonder that her name means “beauty.”