Right Turn: Beauty and brains – Disney updates inject STEM into classic tale

Author: Guest, 06/30/17

Malgosia Pakulska is the Communications and Development Officer at the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences. She is also a science writer for Research2Reality, a blog designed to engage the public in Canadian research. Malgosia completed her PhD in Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab at the University of Toronto studying drug delivery systems for spinal cord regeneration after injury. Though she has left the bench, she is still passionate about research and wants to share that excitement with the public. In her spare time, she experiments in the kitchen and blogs about it at Smart Cookie Bakes. Follow her on Twitter @SCBakes. 

When I heard that Emma Watson had been cast as Belle in the live action version of Beauty and the Beast, I was pretty surprised. Watson is an outspoken feminist and the UN’s Women Goodwill Ambassador and somehow I couldn’t picture her playing the role of a Disney princess. Sure, Belle loves books and she refuses to marry Gaston just to fit in, but she still ends up having to be saved a couple of times and marries the prince in the end.

I finally ended up watching the movie on a transatlantic flight, and I was pleasantly surprised. In particular, there were three moments in the new movie that struck me.

Belle is an engineer

In the few scenes that Belle interacts with her father, she is the one that seems to know more about the mechanical workings of machines than he does. In one instance as her father is trying to fix something, Belle passes him a tool. He tries to protest that it’s not the one he needed, only to realize that, in fact, it was. When they are trapped in the carriage bound for the psychiatric hospital, it’s her hairpin that acts as a lock pick to get them out. This is very different from the original animated version, where she is simply a passive assistant and cheerleader.

Belle is an inventor

In the original movie, Belle’s father is the inventor and she just tends to the house, encouraging him in his efforts to become famous. In this new movie, Belle’s intelligence is showcased as she invents, builds and puts into practice a mule-powered washing machine.

Belle is an advocate of women’s education

In both the live action and animated movies, it is clear that Belle loves escaping into the world of books, but in the new movie there is also a scene where she teaches a little girl to read. This leads to outrage from the villagers in her backwards little French town – this is not the type of thing they encourage or consider to be a priority for women.

Overall, this new version of the movie does a lot more to challenge the conventional roles of a Disney princess and even brings science, technology, education and mathematics (STEM) education into the mix. When it comes to gender equity, STEM fields have a long way to go; maybe this is why Watson agreed to take the role.

Outside of her acting, Watson actively supports gender equity through the HeForShe program: “a global effort to engage men and boys in removing the social and cultural barriers that prevent women and girls from achieving their potential.” The University of Waterloo is participating in HeForShe as part of the IMPACT 10x10x10 pilot program where 10 heads of state, 10 CEOs, and 10 university presidents are making commitments to advance gender equity. Waterloo has committed to three goals that “[address] the full pipeline of STEM talent.” See the video below for more.

Can you think of other Disney princesses who are good role models to little girls or, better yet, showcase their STEM abilities? Please comment below.

Our regular feature, Right Turn, appears every Friday and we invite you to submit your own blog to info(at)ccrm.ca. We encourage you to be creative and use the right (!) side of your brain. We dare you to make us laugh! Right Turn features cartoons, photos, videos and other content to amuse, educate and encourage discussion.

As always, we welcome your feedback in the comment section.


The following two tabs change content below.


Signals accepts guest blog posts on topics relevant to stem cells and regenerative medicine, as well as submissions for its Right Turn Friday feature. See https://www.signalsblog.ca/about/ for more information. The opinions, accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made in guest posts are the responsibility of the author only and not the editor of Signals or CCRM, publisher of Signals. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with the author.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses

  1. Laine Jaremey says:

    Pocahontas is one of my favourites! She’s confident and diplomatic, plus the movie came out while I was young enough to watch it in theatres. 🙂

  2. Stacey Johnson says:

    It’s nice to see that Disney is thinking about female empowerment when creating its newest female characters or recycling old ones. It matters, the people have spoken and obviously Disney is listening (although more can be done).

Leave a Reply