Beauty and the Beast and Stockholm Syndrome Part 1

Trigger warning; discussion of abuse

Part Two can be found here.

One of the great internet overthinker pastimes is analyzing favorite childhood stories for hidden meanings and implications. What would have happened to the Forest Moon of Endor after the destruction of the second Death Star? Wasn’t Mufasa actually oppressing hyenas? What will happen when Ariel find out she lives with people who treat her former friends as a dietary staple?  Isn’t Beauty and the Beast basically about Stockholm Syndrome?

That last one has bothered me for a while. Most of the others don’t really interfere with my enjoyment. Either I can laugh it off as a “writers can’t think of everything” problem, or think up an alternate explanation. But with Beauty and the Beast, the issue cuts right to the heart of what I like about the story. It takes a beautiful love story that is also one of the most touching redemption stories in the world, and turns it into a story about abuse. Abuse and toxic relationships in general are a little too close home for me. I think it’s important, even critical, for people to know how to recognize and avoid it. I don’t think young children should be shown love stories that will teach them to convince unhealthy drama with excitement and abuse with love. If Beauty and the Beast is really about Stockholm Syndrome, I can’t like the story anymore.

But is it really? In contrast to other cases where I’ve been told to check out this creepy implication of a children’s story, I’ve never seen an analysis of the Beauty and the Beast/Stockholm Syndrome connection. The point is never much deeper than “she gets kidnapped and then falls in love with her kidnapper and that’s basically Stockholm Syndrome, right?” It also often comes with a very demeaning attitude towards Stockholm Syndrome victims; what an idiot to fall in love with someone who kidnapped you, amirite? The Stockholm-y aspects of Beauty and the Beast isn’t actually seen as a big deal, because Stockholm Syndrome is seen as kind of a joke diagnosis, which bothers me. I don’t like seeing abuse victims dismissed like that.

I decided to do some research myself, to fill in that gap in the overthinker’s market. I’ve already researched abusive and toxic dynamics extensively, for personal reasons, so I started by reading up on Stockholm Syndrome and seeing where that fit into the picture. Most of what I say below comes from this resource; I found others, but this one was the most clear and comprehensive. I’m going to use this part to explain more about what Stockholm Syndrome is and what causes it; my next installment will get into how this applies to Beauty and the Beast.

First, Stockholm Syndrome can exist any time you have an abuser and a victim who feels they cannot escape. This person could be someone who was kidnapped, but the dynamic can also exist between parents and children, students and teachers, employees and employers, and in romantic relationships. It is the victim’s belief that they cannot escape that makes them vulnerable to attaching to their abuser, not the physical obstacles to their escape. A woman may be able to physically walk out the door on her abusive husband, but if she thinks she can’t make enough money to survive on her own, and that all her Catholic friends will abandon her if she becomes a divorcee, and also that she’s not attractive enough to find a better man, she’s effectively his captive, even if none of those things are true.

Second, Stockholm Syndrome is actually something of an adaptive survival technique. If you cannot leave, or feel you can’t, the next best thing you can do is try to live with your captor as best you can. This is where things get really disturbing. A common belief among abuse victims is that they did something to deserve their abuse, that if they had only been more polite, more accommodating, more alert, they would not have been hurt. From the outside, it is obvious to see that this is wrong, that even if they had made a legitimate mistake, the other person’s actions were in no way justified. From the inside, though, if you can’t leave, the only thing you can do to protect yourself is try to act in a way that minimizes your abuse. Most people, no matter how awful, are more likely to mistreat someone they see as hostile and uncooperative, and more likely to treat someone well if they shows love and compliance. Looking at the situation that way, it’s easy to see why someone would cooperate with an abuser to spare themselves some pain.

Unfortunately, a psychological quirk called cognitive dissonance enters the picture here. When our thoughts and actions clash, we tend to feel uncomfortable. We tend to adjust either what we think or what we do to feel better about ourselves. So, what starts out as cooperating to save your own skin turns into wondering if that other person was really so bad, if maybe you’re going along with them because you do like them. You can start thinking that, after all, if there are things you can do to keep from pissing them off, maybe they aren’t so bad. Maybe they’re just misunderstood, and you’re the person who knows how to do things right to bring out the good person inside.

Third, the thing about abusers is that they are human beings, and human beings are very bad at fitting into tidy good guy/bad guy boxes. Just as an ordinarily nice person might have an awful day and a stress headache and end up losing their temper at their friends for no good reason, an ordinarily mean person could still be very pleasant to be around when they are calm and happy. They might remember your favorite flowers and bring you a bouquet. They might be good at making you laugh. They might have quiet, introspective conversations where they seem to really open up about how their parents beat them and it kind of messed them up psychologically and they really wish they were a better person… and that might not even be a manipulation tactic. It might be the honest truth. Again, from the outside, its easy to see that there’s a line, that keeping somebody captive and mistreating them isn’t made all better by flowers and a sad childhood, but when you combine that with feeling trapped and the powers of cognitive dissonance, the results can be terrifying. It can twist abuse victims around so they become wrapped up in their own abuse. It can make them lie to cops to keep their beloved spouse from being taken to prison for beating them up. This is real world Stockholm Syndrome

The worst part is that none of these things that lead to Stockholm Syndrome are actually bad in and of themselves. It’s good to be able to look at a hopeless situation and figure out how to make it better. It’s good to be able to forgive and empathize with people who aren’t perfect. It’s good that we have cognitive dissonance stopping us from being flippant hypocrites and liars (or at least making it more difficult to do so). Stockholm Syndrome is horrifying because it takes some of the best human traits and twists them into a knife that the victim falls upon.

You can see why, if Beauty and the Beast is about Stockholm Syndrome, I can’t keep liking it. Coming up soon; I answer the question of whether or not I can.

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