My ex-wife recently wrote a beautiful blog post about how Disney's Belle was a hero for her as a socially awkward, bookish teenager who felt she had no sex appeal to boys--she saw in Belle a message that a girl's value could be in other things besides her looks. I'm glad that Belle exists for this reason, and I'm glad that my daughters (and my son) are growing up in a world where there are a lot of female protagonists in pop culture who display other admirable traits besides physical beauty: Hermione's intelligence, Rey's courage, Katniss's don't-mess-with-me attitude.
I'm also glad that Emma Watson, who so beautifully portrays Belle's bookish bravery, is not afraid to embrace her own sex appeal. Looking at Belle from the perspective of my ex-wife's essay, I can understand why some feminists are upset at Emma Watson "betraying" hers and Belle's ideals to appear in a sexualized photo shoot in Vanity Fair*. Even though I can understand this argument, I solidly side with those other feminists who support Watson's right to use her body as she pleases.
I didn't understand this issue until a few years ago. For much of my life, especially when I was a gay man trying to make a straight marriage work, I devalued sexuality. I insisted that my love for my wife was purer because it was non-sexual--my feelings for her weren't clouded with any desire to objectify her. Why would anybody want to be objectified by their significant other, I wondered? I felt very progressive and feminist in this belief.
And then I got divorced and started dating men, and I discovered what it was to be objectified. In those first few months of going on dates, clubbing, and going to parties with gay men, I learned for the first time that I'm a decently attractive guy. I had never found myself attractive, so when men told me how young I looked and complimented me on my looks, I was pleasantly surprised. I liked it enough that I started working harder to cultivate my looks--working out every day, having fun with various hairstyles and colors, buying tighter-fitting clothes. The first time I wore a skimpy European-style swimsuit, I was self-conscious about wearing it, but showing off the body I'd worked so hard to improve was thrilling. My body ain't perfect and it never will be, but I love it and I enjoy putting it on display.
I love that my husband finds me sexy, and I love that I find him sexy. He objectifies me and I objectify him, and it works because it's our choice and it's mutually consensual. Physical attraction doesn't distract from the emotional and intellectual aspects of our relationship; it complements and enriches them. Some people want to preserve that experience of objectification for their significant other, some don't want it all. I support their right and would fight to defend it. But I will also fight to defend the right of those, like Emma Watson, who choose to enjoy being the object of strangers' physical attraction. It's okay to be both Beauty and the Beast.
*Disclaimer: I'm not making any claims about my ex-wife's feelings on this particular issue; her essay doesn't address the issue and I haven't asked her, so I can't speak on her behalf.