Before I get into the thick of things, a little setup:
I was watching a theory video the other day about a video game character that gets kidnapped a lot (here’s a hint: she’s from Mario). MatPat, from the hit video series Game Theory asserts that, because this character makes no attempt to get away, and doesn’t seem particularly bothered by said repeated kidnappings, she may in fact be a victim of a little something called Stockholm Syndrome.
Stockholm Syndrome, for all two people who’ve never heard of it, is defined as, “an emotional bonding a victim forms with his or her victimizer, often leading to feelings of sympathy and even appreciation for that person.” The syndrome was coined after an incident in Stockhom, Sweden, “when, following the end of a bank robbery, the hostages identified with and supported their captor” (see source here).
While MatPat was trying to point out that this was in no way a new occurrence in modern storytelling, particularly for the kiddies, he singled out Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as a prime example.
I have heard this argument so often from anti-Disney people, feminists, etc., and it’s really starting to irritate me. It’s a fairytale, people! A cartoon to boot!
It’s a good movie with…a unique set of circumstances, perhaps, but I would hardly say that it advocates for that kind of relationship.
To some extent, I get where people are coming from. I personally never wanted a relationship like Belle and Beast’s as a kid, and the movie didn’t push any messages to me, that the loud, violent, abrasive Beast is what I should aim for in a man. I suppose some kids could look at it that way, but who knows? Lots of girls out there seem to love a project, and boy howdy, did Beast need a fixing!
Most people I’ve talked or noticed to who had a crush on Beast saw him as a fantasy (yes, they do exist), the whole “bad boy that can be fixed by the right girl” kind of fantasy. Unrealistic, perhaps a bit strange, but still, clearly just a fantasy. I’d be more concerned by those who idolize Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, because that’s a live-action movie that appears to follow our basic reality.
I’m kind of of the mind that cartoons are not, or at least should not, be considered role models. They cannot be held accountable for their actions (even if their creators can), and they are not real people with entirely realistic goals/dreams/aspirations/what-have-you. They are who they are for the brief period that they inhabit our screens, and then that’s it.
Because of how these characters and this movie could possibly affect expectations of reality, people argue that this great and admittedly dark film is bad for kids, and that Belle isn’t the awesome, smart, cool, independent Disney Princess we all thought she was.
I do not agree, but I decided that rather than indignantly whining about how it is “soo not stockholm syndrome OMG shut up (insert illiterate troll lingo here),” I would try my hand at an actual argument that this is not the case. If this debate has to happen, as if Belle and the Beast are some celebrity couple selling Chris Brown-Rihanna-esque beatings to kids as “twue wuv”, let me roll up my sleeves and hack into it.
So many people believe the other argument, and no one I have come across online or in person has adequately defended the movie. Can I prove it isn’t so to you fine readers? But even more important still: can I prove it to myself? Is it just my ego, defending a movie I’ve loved and hailed as a masterpiece for all these years?
Yes, it is a masterpiece still, and no, I am in no way impartial. This movie was my first movie ever, and some part of me will always be protective of it. But I like to think that I can step back and be objective when I need to be.
(Little aside here: I’m not counting any shorts or midquels based around this movie. Those are just fancy fanfictions with a budget that add nothing to the original story besides messing it up) (if your criticisms stem from those, I totally understand. They are awful, and Stockholm Syndrome is completely on the table there).
The story is a tale as old as time. Well, sort of.
Belle lives in a quiet little town where no one appreciates her for her brains and individuality, while Beast is raised as a human prince in a life of opulence and royalty. He’s not the biggest scumbag on the planet (this we see hints of in the opening and learn to be true later in the film), but he’s “spoiled, selfish, and unkind.” He’s been surrounded by yes men and servants his whole life, waited on hand and foot, which has made him arrogant and insensitive to the needs of others.
The plot happens. Belle’s bumbling father gets lost (also chased by scary wolves) and stumbles into Beast’s castle and gets himself locked in the dungeon, as you do. Belle comes to get him, and ends up switching places so that he can go back to the village, but she must promise remain in the castle forever.
I have used rainn.org, or the “Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network,” to define Stockholm Syndrome above. To ensure accuracy, I have included another site. Hubpages states that
“(Stockholm Syndrome) occurs in hostage situations, in other words, when people are placed in a situation over which they have no control, and are forced to depend on their captors. It is a psychological phenomenon in which the hostages actually develop positive feelings (most often empathy) towards their captors and sympathy for their problems. They ignore the fact that the hostage takers put their victims at great risk, and focus instead on their failing to abuse them. This is often mistaken for an act of kindness and compassion.”
So two sites that say basically the same thing about it. And I think we can agree that Stockholm is not a good thing.
Rainn.org further explains the components, stages, and general mentality of the syndrome beyond that basic explanation. According to this site,
“Dr. Joseph Carver, a clinical psychologist, describes emotionally bonding with an abuser as a survival strategy for victims of abuse and intimidation…It is important to remember that Stockholm Syndrome develops subconsciously and on an involuntary basis. The strategy is a survival instinct that develops as an attempt to survive in a threatening and controlling environment.”
This seems about right. After all, whether she likes it or not, Belle became “part of his world.
Yes, I know. Bad puns.
She was forced into this situation, giving up her freedom and her family to keep Beast company forever.
She was forced to make a choice: stay with Beast or let Maurice rot in the dungeon. But the Beast did not suggest that option to her; she actually came up with it on the spot, on her own. And sure, she thought it up in a fit of desperation, sure, but it was a choice she consciously made, and she wasn’t threatened into accepting it. She didn’t even back down after seeing her jailor’s ugly mug.
Beast may force her to keep up her end of the bargain, but it was a promise (which, by the way, she breaks not long after). Note that Beast makes no threats of consequences if she leaves; he puts no locks or chains on the doors (not even in his personal areas of the castle).
“But wait!” Some of you still say. “She still had no choice in the matter. It was her father’s life, after all. What was she going to do, leave him there and go home?”
While it may not have been an easy choice for her to make, she did make it. She could have said, “Sucks for you, Dad. Whelp, that’s all the time I have! Bye!” That would have been incredibly heartless and not particularly morally-sound on the part of our noble heroine, but it’s still a viable option, and one that was, for better or worse, not taken. You have to take the emotions out of it a little bit and look at her choices logically.
So Beast sent crazy old Maurice away without letting him and his daughter to say a real goodbye to one another. Belle “pointed out” what a jerk move that was, and Beast looked genuinely remorseful for a moment. As if he realized just then that, yeah, maybe he shouldn’t have done that. Without dialogue, strictly by animation, the filmmakers showed us a moment of remorse that we can obviously recognize as such.
Beast quickly recovered though (by which I mean he went back into closed-off-jerk-mode), and led her to her room, all the while making awkward small talk and trying to figure out how to woo her. Kinda. Sorta.
He was “nice” enough to offer her better accommodations than the dungeon. Still a dick, though we never really learn what Beast would have done if he’d noticed Maurice dying in the dungeon at some point. Would he have softened? Moved the old guy somewhere warmer, if still behind a locked door? Are boobs the only thing that could sway him at this point?
These things we may never know.
Belle lived in an expansive prison, but a prison nonetheless. But while she was fearful of the Beast during the first half of the movie, she did put her foot down quite a bit, unusual for what we picture of a typical victim. She wasn’t completely helpless, nor did she act like it. Belle did not open the door to Beast, even when he pounded on it and threatened to break it down. She refused to join him for dinner, even when ordered to. She outright defied him with the other servants by eating dinner after he made the whole “if she doesn’t eat with me, then she doesn’t eat at all” ultimatum.
Still…there could be emotional abuse still happening.
Rainn.org lists the common components of Stockholm Syndrome as:
- Victim having positive feelings toward the abuser
- Victim having negative feelings toward family, friends, or authorities
- Abuser having positive feelings toward the victim
- Victim supporting or helping the abuser
I’m going to try to tackle these in order, but some apply differently over the course of the story.
Let us consider Belle’s eventual feelings of love toward the Beast and her sense of belonging in the castle and with the servants. Belle had no positive feelings for the Beast in the beginning, seeing him as a monstrous creature with a temper to match. She wanted nothing to do with him at all, and defied his wishes (possibly as little acts of defiance to feel like she had some control over her situation). We have established that, while she is clearly not in complete control, she is not totally weak or helpless either; she didn’t take his temper tantrums passively or, worse yet, blame herself and try to appease him.
She was allowed to explore the castle, but walked willfully into the West Wing, an area that was explicitly forbidden to her by Beast. She came across the enchanted rose and was then promptly chased off by Beast, who was in a fit of rage.
Abuse! Plain and simple abuse! Your argument is invalid, Marge!
But no. I maintain that he wasn’t trying to hurt her or scare her, but he was angry and fearful that she could have damaged the rose and somehow affected the curse. It’s basically his fate manifested in this world, so he has a reason to be very protective of it.
Also, he was established as immature and not very self-aware. How many times do average people get mad and fly off the handle at their friends and loved ones? Saying or doing things they didn’t mean in order to cause pain?
And yes, I know Beast and Belle were not even close to friends in this instance.
That doest excuse his actions. He did break things and yell at her, and as she left we saw his face morph from huffing frustration to a sort of “oh God, what have I done?,” before what the kids these days call “face-palming.”
Abusers can be regretful in real life, or be deceptive and manipulative because of it. So there you go. Perhaps a point goes to you, guys on Team Stockholm. Who knows if Beast was being genuine here? I think he was, judging once again by the animation, but what do I know?
But Belle grabbed her horse and left. She said to the servants, “Promise or no promise, I can’t stay here another minute.” Despite giving her word, she left at the (arguable) first sign of potential violence towards her. She felt obligated to stay until she realized how frighteningly unstable the Beast was, and that she couldn’t avoid him forever. Belle did a dumb (or possibly rebellious thing), but she doesn’t stick around to try and fix things with the temper-tantrum throwing buffalo man. She GTFO, intent on going home and never coming back again.
During her escape, Belle encountered wolves, presumably the same ones that tried to ambush her father. Just when hope seemed lost, Beast rushed in to save her, presumably (again, this word) because he felt guilty and wanted to make sure she didn’t get killed (either by wolves or the blizzard).
Some might argue that Beast only followed her to force her back to the castle, but the evidence is inconclusive. And we saw him show clear regret in the previous scene.
Anyway, Beast fought off the wolves, but was wounded. Belle almost left, seeing an opportunity to escape him forever, but because he risked his life to save hers and got hurt for it, and might, you know, die of frostbite or blood loss, she decided to go back to the castle, carrying him in tow. So in turn, she saved his life right back.
This area might blur for both sides of the argument. I say she helped him out of the kindness of her heart and a feeling of debt. A life for a life, because she’s clearly compassionate like that. I can’t say for sure, but she looked fully intent to leave him there. At least for a minute.
Meanwhile, back at the castle, she treated his wounds, weathered his whining and howling like the spoiled child he was, and even dressed him down a bit. Belle is no pushover, and by this point, she still hasn’t really come around to Beast.
She did admit some fault as well (a little bit), but she clearly won the argument there.
The two then reconciled, and Beast started being nicer to Belle. Probably for the first time in his life, someone stood up to him and didn’t give him exactly what he wanted. Remember, he’s a royal. It’s also heavily implied, if not outright stated in “Be Our Guest,” that he was a boy (about 11) when he was cursed (which I think is much more unfair and screwed up, but that’s another rant for another day).
Belle developed positive feelings toward him over believable things, such as him saving her life (the first act) and then later giving her a library, a gift based on her interests.
This may seem like a shallow “sorry I was mad, babe. Here’s a present. We cool now, right?” kind of gift to some people, but really think about it: Back in Belle’s village, no one but her father really cared about her personality or interests. Everyone saw her as a strange but beautiful girl, who should have been swooning over Gaston like the rest of her breasted ilk. Beast was the first person to actually try to get to know her, and the first to offer her a gift, a truly genuine and touching gesture. He gave her something suited to her interests; something she would appreciate and enjoy, as opposed to Gaston, who wanted her to tag along so he could show her his trophies and brag about himself.
How many girls genuinely enjoy that?
This is really the first instance in the entire movie of someone actually getting to know her. Other characters tell her what she wants or should want, or assume things, but he asks. My point is that Beast didn’t treat Belle like a housewife or just some trophy girl who should be hanging off his arm. True, she started out as a goal for Beast – someone to break the curse on him – but he figured out, slowly but surely, that approach was going nowhere fast. Selfishly hoarding and using people wasn’t doing any good. Through his interactions with her, seeing her kind nature and independent spirit, Beast realized what a jerk and an animal he was becoming (which may also be a result of the curse and his repeated despair; see the Broadway musical for more clues on that one), and started working his way towards redeeming his character. Maybe for her sake, his own, or both. It’s ambiguous enough to be interpreted those ways.
And Belle realized that, while he was capable of great anger and darkness, he is capable of kindness, and caring for others as well. He just hadn’t had much experience before, when he was being served, or when he was a despairing beast, slowly being worn away. We saw, as the movie progressed, that Beast began to walk and talk more like a man, dressing in clothes and engaging in civil behaviors, encouraged all the more by Belle and his servants.
Speaking of the servants, as I’ve mentioned before, they could be seen as just as guilty as Beast. They are invested in breaking of the curse as well. They want to be human again, but they couldn’t force Belle to love Beast, and they couldn’t prevent Beast from being a jerk.
But Belle gave them hope, much like the Beast, with her very presence, and while they could have been selfish and manipulative, they tried to make her feel welcome, even when Beast himself didn’t.
She truly was welcome, too; a welcome change in their lives. They had someone to entertain and serve again (“Be Our Guest”), and to everyone except maybe Cogsworth, she was a pleasure to serve. She was kind and, despite her initial fear, full of wonder.
My final word on the servants is: they weren’t always a party to Beast’s attempts, and even undermined his orders at times. They also did not prevent Belle from leaving (the first or second time), and were implied to be innocent people who were affected by Beast’s curse.
But back to the main argument…
Conditions 1, 3, and 4 mentioned way above fit together and are decently rebutted, and condition 2 doesn’t even really apply here. The only friend/family member Belle had outside of the castle is Maurice (excluding the horse), and even when he still thought the Beast is a monster, Belle didn’t harbor any anger or negativity towards her father for his differing opinion of things. She did clearly say he didn’t understand, though, to Maurice and later the townsfolk, but to be fair, none of the latter were her friends. Quite the opposite, actually.
And Belle only think she knows more than Maurice because she has spent more time with Beast, and gotten to see a side of him that her father pretty definitively never did. It wasn’t as though Beast was all nice in the beginning, and then slowly started hitting or gaslighting her, and she’s the only one who refuses to see the truth.
But what about more concrete stages of Stockholm Syndrome? Surely there’s more room in this story for abusive not-love?
Rainn.org lists the stages of Stockholm in this order:
- The victim dissociates from his or her pain, helplessness or terror by subconsciously beginning to see the situation / world from the abuser’s perspective. The victim begins to agree with the abuser and certain aspects of his or her own personality, opinions, and views will fade into the background.
- By doing this, the victim begins to learn how to appease and please the abuser, which may keep him or her from being hurt or worse. Similarly this tactic can be used to manipulate the abuser into being less dangerous, at least for a little while.
- After a while the victim begins to realize that his or her abuser portrays the same human characteristics as anyone else. At this point he or she will begin to see the abuser as less of a threat. Some abusers may even share personal information in an effort to bond with the victim and to promote pity rather than anger.
- This bonding, in turn, leads to conflicting feelings (e.g., rage and pity) and illogical concern for the abuser. The victim may even ignore his or her own needs.
- Once the traumatic event has ended, however, the victim must again learn not to dissociate from his or her emotions and not focus on the abuser. This can be a very difficult transition.
As established, Belle only came around to the Beast when he saved her life, admitted to being an insensitive, violent jerk; and even started behaving more like a person than an animal. She was still wary of him while the change was occurring (hesitantly agreeing to follow him when he was going to surprise her with a library), but she did not agree with him or comply with him just to save her own skin. She repeatedly refused doing things she didn’t want to do (from Gaston and the townsfolk as well, I might add).
The third stage is a possibility, as Belle began to see Beast as less and less of a threat, but other than telling her he had forgotten how to read (an embarrassing fact that they then proceed to bond over in “Human Again”), he doesn’t share personal information with her onscreen. Not about the curse or life before the curse, at least. They mostly bond over mutually pleasurable activities; Beast distracting Belle from her feelings of loneliness and Belle distracting the Beast from focusing solely on breaking the curse. There was no evidence of any one character’s needs being compromised over the others. They only time spent getting to know one another.
In another little aside, Belle professed a desire for adventure from the very beginning of the movie, seeking something beyond herself. In a way, that was exactly what she received, albeit not in the way she expected.
I mentioned before that the curse had been somewhat forgotten in Beast’s mind. I think that it was still there, as a nagging reminder at the back of his mind, but at the same time, he started to genuinely care for Belle as a friend, making his desire for love more genuine and, by extension, less selfish.
But here’s some more conditions relating to Stockholm Syndrome, as provided again by Rainn.org.
There is often:
- Perceived or real threat to one’s physical or psychological survival and belief that the abuser will carry out the threat. The abuser may:
- Assure the victim that only cooperation keeps loved ones safe.
- Offer subtle threats or stories of revenge to remind the victim that revenge is possible if they leave.
- Have a history of violence leading the victim to believe they could be a target.
- Presence of a small kindness from the abuser to the victim
- In some cases, small gestures such as allowing a bathroom visit or providing food/water are enough to alter the victim’s perception of the abuser.
- Other times, a birthday card, a gift (usually provided after a period of abuse), or a special treat can be seen as proof that the abuser is not “all bad.”
- Victim’s isolation from other perspectives
- Victims have the sense they are always being watched. For their survival they begin to take on the abuser’s perspective. This survival technique can become so intense that the victim develops anger toward those trying to help.
- In severe cases of Stockholm Syndrome the victim may feel the abusive situation is their fault.
- Perceived or real inability to escape from the situation
- The victim may have financial obligations, debt, or instability to the point that they cannot survive on their own.
- The abuser may use threats including taking the children, public exposure, suicide, or a life of harassment for the victim.
Applying to Number 1, Beast does promise Maurice’s safety and freedom in exchange for Belle’s freedom, but he doesn’t threaten to seek Maurice out and harm him after the deal is made, nor does he threaten to hurt Belle or hurt her father if she were to break their agreement. In fact, Beast seems to forget about Maurice altogether. Belle might worry that if she leaves, Beast will come after her or her father, but she doesn’t make that fear explicit, if it even exists at all. It’s never presented to us.
Beast may vaguely know where she lives though, because his creepy spider carriage knew exactly where to take Maurice when he was ejected from the castle. Hmm…
For Number 2, Beast does give Belle a library after a big fight they had, but to be fair, it is the last fight we see them having in the entire movie. And I don’t think that is because Belle is cowed or too grateful to stand up to him. That’s pretty clearly never been the case before, so why should it be now?
Besides, he remarks to the servants that he wanted to do something nice for her, because he’s “never felt this way about anyone.” I doubt he gives the servants gifts of any kind after he’s yelled at them. And no way is he shelling out for a library or a fancy Baroque piece for Cogsworth.
Number 3 doesn’t really apply, and for Number 4, Belle is pretty quick to leave for someone with so much stake in the situation. Granted, it was panic-driven and spur-of-the-moment, but she did leave. Also, later the Beast lets her go, knowing full well that the curse will never be broken, so that she can help her father. And again, she leaves. She doesn’t really seem to give it a second thought, other than to be slightly unnerved by Beast’s roar of sadness as she’s departing.
Maybe she would never have come back if it hadn’t been for Gaston riling up the mob (In this case, maybe she felt responsible or maybe she was worried for Beast and the servants’ sakes, but it’s, again, up to interpretation. No surprise here, but I pick the latter).
Belle sees contrast between the Beast and Gaston; the former being monstrous in shape but kind-hearted, and the latter being handsome but a truly selfish, hideous person on the inside. She races back to the castle with her father. I guess Maurice was okay with it after all, after that one talk while he was probably sick and delusional anyway?
Beast had lost the will to live when she left, because he loved her and he knew that he would spend the rest of his days as a monster without her, so he was content to let himself be killed by Gaston. He gains the will to fight back with Belle’s arrival on the scene, and even shows mercy (unlike Gaston) because of his remembered human emotions and kindness.
But Gaston manages to fatally wound him before dying himself, leaving Beast to die beside the woman he has grown to love. And as she finally realizes the love she felt for him – it really does seem like she didn’t recognize any real feelings until she actually thought about it right then – the curse is broken. Beast is revived and human again, and everyone lives happily ever after.
I don’t want to spit on real cases of Stockholm Syndrome or those of domestic abuse sufferers. I chose that word and not “victims” or “survivors” because both have problematic associations of perceived “strength” or “weakness” that are usually insensitive at best and unfair and disparaging at worst. Every situation is different, and people should be treated like people.
Also, while I have been trying to argue against it, I can see why people argue that this romance may in fact be just a case of Stockholm Syndrome, much as I disagree. Some warning signs are there, certainly, so if that’s your interpretation of the film, I can’t really stop you from going forward with that.
It’s a fairytale, which aren’t known for being the most progressive of stories. They’re meant to teach a few lessons and encourage good behaviors and characters; in this case, being kind, compassionate, and looking past appearances to see the truth inside. They’re meant to scare kids a little too, warning them about consequences of misbehaving or straying from a moral path. Things change over time, and what used to work doesn’t always when modern audiences are concerned. I acknowledge that.
But anyone over a certain age can see that it’s a fantasy; escapism. By definition, not reality. Kids who don’t understand that should be engaged by their parents to talk about it, which requires some energy and supervision, but can certainly be done.
Can Beast be classified as an abuser? Yep. While he is a product of the time and his royal pampering, he stands above others and orders them around, bellowing at them, smashing things, and threatening to break down doors. But he’s a prince, so it makes sense (I’m explaining, not excusing here). Before Belle came along, his servants were probably either neglected or beleaguered by him.
Also keep in mind that he’s also growing up throughout this whole curse. If the rose blooms until he’s 21 years old, and it’s been “10 years (they’ve) been rusting,” he was just a kid. Possibly one who made a few stupid mistakes with little to no parental supervision.
(Team Stockholm says, “That’s right, kids! Stay with your abuser and change them, for your benefit and theirs! It’ll all work out!”)
So, is Belle and Beast’s relationship a class A case of Stockholm Syndrome?
I still say no.
Call me stubborn, but I honestly think love blossomed between the two without necessarily having to be coerced or guilted. Belle didn’t pity Beast or wait on him, and she didn’t go out of her way to please him so he wouldn’t hurt her. If anything, he went out of his way to please her because he discovered the joy of pleasing someone else. And, when he had nothing to gain and everything to lose, he let her go, concealing his anguish until she left so that she would not feel compelled to stay with him out of pity.
Another thing I’m sick to death of hearing is the whole “it’s a kids’ movie/show/product, so it’s okay if it’s crappy” argument. Why do I get so worked up about it? Because the stuff I grew up with was mostly good and challenging and engaging, with some crap mixed in. I don’t believe media makers get a free pass to make crap just because kids are their target audience, and it pisses me off even more when they are successful and make loads of money off it.
I believe Disney has exceeded this standard time and time again.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a great kids movie. Not just good, but great. It has flaws just like everything made by human hands must, but it had stunning animation, unique characters, and a dark and engaging story with good pacing. We don’t know how long Belle and Beast spent together, so it could’ve been three days-ish, a la Ariel & Eric or Aladdin & Jasmine, or it could’ve been weeks or months.
There is so much to love and respect about this film, and it pisses me off when, particularly feminists, harsh on Disney relentlessly without acknowledging things like time periods in which movies came out, and also how far Disney has come as a company and a content creator.
Criticism needs context, and an acknowledgement of the good and bad, to be whole and rounded. Kids’ movies can sometimes paint the world in black and white, but nothing is just black and white. Not even opinions, really. Just hating or loving something blindly and ignoring the contrasting side of the argument makes otherwise sound, interesting ideas stupid and irritating. You know, unless they’re really funny.
There are people out there that will find reasons to hate something, anything, about anything. If you must, make sure you can back yourself up first.
And don’t even get me started on the whole bestiality thingy.
Beauty and the Beast and any images of it are owned by the Disney Corporation. It is not in any way mine. In fact, none of the pictures here are mine. In any way. At all.