The writers of Once Upon A Time screwed over a lot of characters. Let's just acknowledge that right now. It'll save time.
One of the characters treated the most miserably is Belle French, the Beauty to Rumplestiltskin's Beast.
Because let's face it, that's all she ever really was, and that's the problem.
When Belle was introduced to the story on Once Upon A Time Season 1 Episode 12, viewers were unsure if they would ever see her again.
She wasn't a series regular. She was only on two episodes on Once Upon A Time Season 1.
The world of Once Upon A Time already had the main cast when Belle was introduced. It consisted of Emma, Snow White, Prince Charming, The Evil Queen, Rumplestiltskin, and Henry.
Only two of those characters were in a romantic relationship: Snow and Charming. They were both leads, and they were a team. Neither played the role of "love interest."
Belle, on the other hand, was introduced to be Rumple's love interest. She was meant to humanize him and show how he didn't believe anyone could love him.
Her story served his. With their tragic ending, her supposed "death," she had served her purpose.
Of course, Beauty and the Beast can't end like that. This is the world of Disney fairy tales and happy endings. Of course, Beauty and the Beast are going to end happily!
In any case, both Belle and Rumbelle were very popular from the start.
Many people have criticized Beauty and the Beast, and Rumbelle in particular, as being an abusive relationship. One of the arguments for this is that Rumple/The Beast cut Belle off from her friends, isolating her.
There's some truth to that. However, as the story evolves, we realize this wasn't Rumple's doing. This was the doing of the writers. Let me explain.
When Belle meets Rumple, she doesn't have any strong relationships in her life.
Her mother is dead. She's a sheltered royal/noble, engaged to a man she doesn't care for. Her father would rather that she lose her memory or rot under a sleeping curse than be in love with Rumplestiltskin.
This is a great contrast to Belle's father in the movie, who would never force her to marry Gaston, and who joins her on her quest to save the Beast based on her word that the Beast had changed.
Belle, in the movie, goes with the Beast for the love of her father. Belle on Once Upon A Time goes with Rumple out of duty and a desire to be a hero.
She's doing something noble, but she's also leaving behind a life that really holds no appeal for her.
Belle was cut off from others during her time in The Enchanted Castle. So, that was Rumple's fault. Though she did meet Robin Hood as his maid, and it's implied that she knew Jefferson.
The curse would have been an opportune time for her to make friends. However, due to Regina's scheming, she was locked up with no memory during the first curse. She had no opportunity to expand her social circle.
Belle did go on a few independent adventures with side characters. She had a pleasant encounter or two with Grumpy, Mulan, Robin Hood, Phillip, and a less than pleasant encounter with Anna of Arandelle.
For the most part, though, Belle didn't have any friends. After each adventure, she moved on with her life, heading back to her true love and the story the two would share.
Yes, she and Rumple attempt a relationship, which is her main story, but she isn't isolated. She becomes the local librarian and makes friends with Ruby, which was a decent start.
Ruby was actually a regular on Once Upon A Time Season 2. Had the planned plots been followed, perhaps her friendship with Belle would have allowed Belle to shine more.
Sadly, they got overly concerned with rushing plots, not finding the time to fit their plans for Ruby in.
They brought Emma and Snow back from The Enchanted Forest sooner than they had intended, and soon enough, the characters were in Neverland.
Sorry, Ruby. I always thought she left the show because she got a role on another show, but as it turns out, she specifically looked for other opportunities because they weren't using her!
Belle wasn't a part of the Neverland plot either. It's a shame because had they thought to expand it, it could have been great for Belle.
Really, there was little reason for Belle to stay back in Storybrooke but, had she gone with the heroes, we would have had the same problem that we had while Rumple and the heroes were in Storybrooke with her.
Unlike Rumple, who was involved with each character intimately, Belle had no real connections to the main cast. She didn't know The Charmings in The Enchanted Forest.
Belle's history with Regina only extended as far as Regina locking her up because of her relationship with Rumple. She was in Regina's prison for 28 years, but they didn't interact much at that time.
Again, since Belle was locked up during the curse, she hadn't seen Henry grow up or been there when Emma came to town.
As for Hook, he tried to kill her because Rumple loved her.
To them, she wasn't a person; she was Rumple's girlfriend. Had she gone to Neverland, she would have stayed with Rumple and once again only been relevant to his plot.
If Neverland had lasted a season, instead of a half-season, then we could have checked back in Storybrooke more, had some plots there.
She could have made and interacted with her own group of friends, especially had those friends been regulars. It might have benefitted her character growth, not to mention Ruby's, Grumpy's, and the others the show forgot about.
Belle could have worked on her life with Rumple away. Ruby's scrapped plotline could have been used, and Belle could have been a part of it.
Instead, she had a one-off adventure with Ariel. It was cute, but it was also another friendship not built to last. Ariel was always going to swim off to be with Eric. She had no ties to this world.
The Wicked Arc also provided the potential for Belle. Phillip and Robin Hood were now in the same realm as her. (Mulan, for whatever reason, was not. Her absence made no sense, and it made us sad.)
Anyway, Phillip and Robin had no cursed memories and might need help acclimating. Plus, they were her friends, not Rumple's, and she could have enjoyed spending time with them.
Instead, Phillip was, once again, disposed of. Robin, on the other hand, became Regina's love interest. He was in the same role as Belle. Late to the party, and only important because of who he was dating.
At least he had a son, a wife to mourn, and a bunch of Merry Men to back him up. Belle, three seasons in, still had nobody but Rumple, who was being held captive by an evil witch.
There is always a difference between how a lead and a love interest is handled, storywise.
Love interests come and go. Lead's stick around, baring a huge surprise. They drive the story. They're connected to the plot and the other leads.
Belle was written as a love interest. Although Rumbelle was endgame (Disney? Beauty and the Beast? What else are they going to do?), she was always written like a love interest.
They never gave her her own plots, her own friends, her own character development. Even when she and Killian became friends, it was more about him.
First, it centered on his relationship with the Dark One during the whole Dark Swan plot.
Later, it was once again about his redemption for laying a hand on Belle at Regina's castle and then shooting her at the town line.
Killian got hero points for protecting Belle, but even he admitted part of his reason was to piss off Rumple.
The bond the two developed was, once again, about where she stood in her relationship with Rumple, with a hint of being Hook-centric. It wasn't Belle-centric at all.
In the early years of Rumbelle, they kept the relationship interesting with external conflict. She and Rumple kept being torn apart. At some point, the show decided it would be more interesting to use internal conflict.
Rumple's behavior towards Belle became harder to excuse, and the audience was left with a choice. Root for Belle to leave Rumple, or somehow not lose respect for her when she returns to him.
(Some people even blamed her for his behavior. That one's complicated to wrap your head around.)
We don't want to blame the victim, and Belle was a victim, no question. However, if you pay attention, you see that their problems were mutual. Belle played her part in them falling apart too.
The show hinted at that on Once Upon A Time Season 5 Episode 16, when Rumple tells her she fell in love with him because he was a man AND because he was a beast. But they never really explore that.
Addressing Belle's role in the relationship would have been great. All great characters are flawed and layered.
Exploring how and why Belle would love him for being a beast could have been a great way to expand and develop her character. However, doing so would have meant focusing on Belle and giving her an arc all her own.
Belle deserved that, but it wasn't the story being told. The focus was on the lead characters, making their marital problems all about Rumple because he was a regular.
How could they even repair their marriage when their issues were only about him? If he's an abusive villain and she's a victim in a toxic situation, how can they go forward? And how can we respect Belle if they do?
The thing is, if they wanted to portray Beauty and the Beast as an abusive relationship, they could have. Belle could have ended things with Rumple, come out stronger, and come into her own.
She could have made friends, found love, and built a life for herself. That clearly wasn't the plan.
When she and Rumple were apart, her plots were still all about him. She never made friends of her own, and her one attempt at a relationship had less substance than the one-night-stand you have after a break-up.
(For more on that, check out my thoughts on how the writers screwed over Will Scarlet.)
Even when she was single, Belle had no life, no character development, and no story beyond her on-again-off-again relationship with someone we weren't even sure we wanted her to end up with anymore.
As we watched this girl go back and forth between hating and loving her husband, we didn't know what to root for. Should they work it out? Should she leave him?
Neither of these things happened. Belle eventually stayed with Rumple, but they never actually resolve any of their issues.
Instead, their problems are swept under the rung on the latter half of Once Upon A Time Season 6 for the sake of their child.
Then, on Once Upon A Time Season 7, Belle dies in seclusion with Rumple. Other than their son, who comes back occasionally, nobody is in her life, and nobody but Gideon and Rumple cares when she dies.
In the beginning, Belle was a smart girl who loved books, wanted to be a hero, and have adventures. They had adventures, mostly offscreen on Once Upon A Time Season 7 Episode 4, but the rest is more or less forgotten.
Wait, that's not true; her love of books helps her research a way for Rumple to die so they can be together forever. Sweet, right?
Now, I don't begrudge a centuries-old immortal the right to rest in peace with his dead lover finally. But before Rumple gets to die, shouldn't Belle get to live?
She never really got a life of her own, and we never got to know her outside of her relationship with Rumple. For a supposedly feminist show, Belle's role was minor.
You could even make a case that she was just a woman in the refrigerator for Rumple.
I'm not trying to insult Rumple or Rumbelle. I love Rumple, and as for Rumbelle, let's just say I have mixed feelings. But Belle should have been more than how she related to just him.
All the main characters were more than their love stories. Belle deserved that too. She deserved to be a lead, but sadly, she was always a love interest.
Did Belle deserve better? How could her arc have been handled? Let us know in the comments.
Leora W is a staff writer for TV Fanatic..