Beauty and the Beast and Stockholm Syndrome Part 2

Trigger warning; discussion of abuse

Part One can be found here.

The wonderful thing about fairy tales is how adaptable they are. They are light sketches of events that are evocative, yet minimalist, so they can be retold by writer after writer and always remain fresh. I wrote yesterday about what Stockholm Syndrome really is, and promised to use this one to answer the question of whether or not Beauty and the Beast is really an example of it. The truth is, that’s not a question I can fully answer. There are many versions of the story out there, and just as you can tell the Wizard of Oz so the Wicked Witch is a hero or a villain, you can tell this fairy tale as an abuse story, or a redemption story.

Every fairy tale has a set of elements that must be kept for the story to be recognized. Cinderella needs a shoe, a ball and a wicked stepmother. Sleeping Beauty needs a spindle, a cursed sleep and a kiss to wake her. In Beauty and the Beast, the heroine must agree to live with a monster to save her family, come to love him, and with her confession of love turn him from a beast into a man. Usually there is also a point where Beauty leaves the Beast temporarily, returns to find him dying and only then confesses her love. That all does sound suspicious, but the details of their characterization, of why Beauty loves the Beast despite his earlier threat to her family, of how he treats her and whether either character changes over the course of the story, all of these are up to the individual who tells the story. You can’t conclusively answer the question of whether this is a story about an abusive dynamic or not without knowing them.

I’ll stop being disingenuous now; the version we are all interested in is this one.

Beauty and the Beast

And to be honest, no, I don’t think it portrays Stockholm Syndrome at all.  First, recall that I said in the last piece that the first element of Stockholm Syndrome is that the victim feels trapped in their situation. The actual means used to entrap a victim are less important to the presence of Stockholm Syndrome than the sincerity of the victim’s belief that they are trapped. There is a scene early on in the film where the Beast loses his temper at Belle, and she runs out of the castle saying “promise or no promise, I can’t stay here.” Belle has agreed to stay with him, but she does not feel trapped by that promise. If she did, she would not have run away.

When Belle returns, it is not because she feels afraid of anything the Beast will do to her if she runs. While she is leaving, wolves attack, and the Beast is wounded protecting her. She returns because she can’t abandon him under those circumstances. Now, the fact that he saved her does not in and of itself prevent this from being a story about abuse. This could actually turn into an unhealthy dynamic, if the Beast guilt trips her into continuing to stay, and uses the danger of the wolves as an indirect threat, but neither of those things happen. Instead they argue, and Belle holds the Beast accountable for his actions, and she doesn’t suffer any consequences for insisting that he needs to learn to control his temper. That is not typical of an abusive relationship. Nobody likes being told they are in the wrong, and the Beast doesn’t like it in this scene either, but while an abuser would find a way to shift the blame onto Belle, or punish her for standing up for herself, the Beast actually seems to take the experience as a lesson.

This brings me to the second point. In Stockholm Syndrome, victims learn to cooperate with their captors in order to protect themselves. When the Beast seemed to be a threat to Belle, she stood up to him and won. For the rest of the movie, Belle will never need to protect herself again. The Beast treats her kindly and respectfully, and she responds in kind, which makes him continue to treat her well and grow into a very gentle, thoughtful person. That is the opposite of an abusive dynamic; that is one person genuinely having a good influence on another.

The third point I made about Stockholm Syndrome is that the victims do see their abusers being nice sometimes. Most humans aren’t rotten twenty-four seven. Abusers will have their moments when they are fun, or when their victims are cooperating and they reward that by not being completely terrible, or when they say “I’m sorry” in between bouts of violence. So how do we tell whether the Beast has really grown and is sorry for what he’s done, or whether he’s just playing nice for the time being? In the real world, how do we know the difference between a changed person and an abuser who happens to be in a good mood these days?

I don’t have a comprehensive answer for the real world, but in the case of this story I think the way you know the Beast has changed is this; he lets Belle go. He tells her to go help her father, and that she does not have to ever return. He specifically says she is no longer his prisoner. This comes at personal cost to the Beast. In addition to the ordinary pain of losing someone he loves, he is also sacrificing his only chance of ever returning to human form, because Belle’s happiness is more important to him.

One thing I love about this movie is that Belle does not fall in love with someone who is threatening and harming her; instead, we see the Beast actively, measurably changing his behavior, and Belle developing feelings for the person he becomes once he ceases to be a threat. The refrain of the song where much of this growth happens is “there may be something there that wasn’t there before.” This story is not trying to portray the Beast’s former actions as excusable, but as something bad that had to go away before Belle and the Beast could have a relationship.

I love genuine redemption stories because I do believe that most people can change, and I love it when that happens. Unfortunately, there is a difference between “can” and “will.” There are stories out there, passed off as romance, where the heroine (and its usually a heroine, even though men can be victims) sees some minor gesture of kindness in the actions of a tortured man (vice versa) and learns that, by going along with everything he says and being a perfect person she can make him a decent person nearly all the time. Those are the stories we should be calling out for portraying Stockholm Syndrome. I recently saw a trailer for a French version of Beauty and the Beast that seemed to be taking this approach. I’m not going to state that it is, because I’ve had a hell of a time finding a version with subtitles so I haven’t actually seen it, but there are some things in the trailer that make it seem like the Beast’s hold over Belle is far more coercive. For example, this story seems to be keeping the part of the original fairy tale where, instead of setting Belle free, the Beast lets her leave temporarily, and also tells her “If you do not come back, I will die.” In context there might be a legitimate reason for him saying that, but it could also be his way of making her feel like trying to leave a dangerous situation is her abusing him; a common abusive tactic in real life. He also tells her, in an earlier scene, that she cannot escape because the forest itself will close in on her.

I think that fiction offers us an opportunity to think about real world issues, without forcing us to live through the trauma of actually experiencing them. Dealing with and recognizing abuse is a big issue. Recognizing how to help people who are hurting and lashing out badly, and help them without martyring ourselves in the process, is also a big issue. Analyzing stories that touch on those issues is great, but when our analysis is sloppy, when we gloss over the issues and make jokes of them, we don’t do ourselves any favors.


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