Trigger warning; emotional and verbal abuse
When I finished my two posts on how Beauty and the Beast doesn’t portray Stockholm Syndrome, I felt proud of the work, but also worried. I do think it’s valuable to talk about what things like Stockholm Syndrome don’t look like. Slapping that label on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and laughing about it encourages ignorance and flippancy towards a real problem. However, the piece felt incomplete without a contrasting post illustrating what Stockholm Syndrome does look like.
Then I realized one of my favorite movies, The Devil Wears Prada, was perfect. In the first place, it hits all of the elements of real life Stockholm Syndrome that Beauty and the Beast doesn’t. Second, it’s a natural companion because while Beauty and the Beast is the story everybody blindly points to as Stockholm Syndrome, The Devil Wears Prada is a case where, although I think my case is fairly solid, I don’t think anybody else has thought to apply that label to it. Third, it was a great excuse to watch the movie again.
Just as a refresher, while the common understanding of Stockholm Syndrome is “person gets kidnapped and then falls for their captor,” it doesn’t require literal captivity. It can exist any time one person has power and the other can’t escape it, or believes they can’t. When the person in power becomes abusive, the victim tries to cooperate and bond with the abuser as an act of self-preservation. While this can seem illogical to an outsider, but when you’re in the situation it can seem like, or even actually be, the only way to mitigate the damage. As this cooperation goes on, cognitive dissonance sets in. The victim can begin to actually see the abuser in a positive light and become genuinely attached. Those feelings don’t have to be romantic; any type of attachment counts.
Spoilers ahead, as I explain how this applies to The Devil Wears Prada.
The protagonist is Andrea Sachs, Andy to her friends, a young, idealistic aspiring journalist. She gets offered a job as an assistant at Runway, a fashion magazine, and takes it despite lacking any interest in fashion. It’s the only job offer she has. Her boss, Miranda Priestley, turns out to be terrifying. She mocks Andy’s clothes, calls her fat, and publicly belittles her every mistake while failing to provide any constructive feedback. On top of this her expectations are absurdly high. One of the first things Andy learns on the job is that the phone must always be answered, never allowed to go to voicemail. Once, a secretary sliced her hand open and was away from the desk because she trying to stop the bleeding. A call was missed. The secretary was fired.
When Miranda is only being a belittling, capricious perfectionist who makes Andy work past midnight, it’s a good day. On a bad day, she might give Andy a task that is physically impossible. In one scene Andy must find an airplane that will fly Miranda out of Florida during a hurricane, and is punished for failing. In Miranda’s world, you fail to meet an unreasonable expectation, your only hope is to fulfill some other unreasonable expectation, to prove that no, you can totally live in her unreasonable world. The alternative is losing your job, and being fired by Miranda burns your reputation throughout the world of fashion.
Succeeding usually doesn’t go much better. You don’t get fired, but you don’t get thanked either. You just get hit with another unreasonable demand tomorrow. People will often carry out her tasks only to discover she has changed her mind behind your back, and not only wants something else but is shocked that you didn’t read her mind. This is a psychological abuse tactic known as moving the goalposts. You can’t win, because even when you do well, the expectations change.
On top of dealing with that, Andy’s absurd hours mean she has little time for her friends outside work. She becomes increasingly isolated from her support group, while everyone at work picks on her. Even the nicest character calls her “six” a reference to her weight in a world where anything over four is fat. Unwilling to give up, Andy tries to fit in. She learns about fashion and changes her look.
She makes herself see Miranda’s demanding nature as a challenge and an opportunity, and takes pride in the tasks she can pull off. She even takes some time to enjoy the perks of the job; hobnobbing with the rich and famous, getting free samples of insanely expensive clothing and accessories, and… no, actually that’s it. But it’s something, and she enjoys it.
In the end, she gets to know Miranda better. As she starts recognizing subtle signs of Miranda’s approval, she even starts liking Miranda and defending her actions. When Miranda’s job becomes threatened, Andy fights to save it.
So now that I’ve given you the pieces, let me assemble them. Why is this Stockholm Syndrome, and Beauty and the Beast not?
Number one, Andy feels trapped. On paper, Belle is the character who is Beast’s prisoner, while Andy voluntarily took a job that she can quit any time. Under the surface, though, their situations are reversed. Belle ran away from the Beast the moment she felt threatened. Later on she returns voluntarily, and the Beast learns to control his temper, knowing that if he doesn’t he risks driving her away again. Andy, on the other hand, was low on options when she took the job. She repeatedly says she has to stay at least a year, because anything else would make her resume look poor. Furthermore, it is made explicit that if Miranda doesn’t like you, she doesn’t just have the power to fire you. She has contacts throughout publishing, and can write you the kind of reference that will blacklist you from every decent job in the business. Belle is the prisoner who can leave any time she wants to. Andy is the employee who has to stay.
Number two, Miranda uses her power over Andy abusively. She deliberately tears her employees down and bullies them into doing anything she asks, including acts that could get them arrested (in one scene Andy must steal an unpublished Harry Potter manuscript). The Beast is also bad, initially, but after Belle stands up to him, he changes. This is a dangerous point to make, because there are millions of people out there staying with their abuser because they believe some magical change will happen. However, there is a difference between Beast and those abusers. The abusers say they will change, then go back to their old behaviors, then say they will change, then go back, then say they will change, then go back. Beast just changes. You can discuss how realistic or common this is, and whether that might set up unrealistic hopes, and those are all valid questions, but it doesn’t change the fact that by the time Belle falls in love with him, he really isn’t acting like the Beast she met. We don’t see him go on the attack or lose his temper after the sequence where Belle runs away and returns. We do see him being kind to her.
In fact, a lot can be learned by contrasting the kindnesses Beast shows to the ones that Andy comes to think she sees in Miranda. In Stockholm Syndrome, as the victim tries to cooperate with their abuser, incredibly small gestures can be viewed as kindness. A momentary smile can make the victim feel like the special person who get to see this poor, broken individual’s good side. In the movie, Miranda deliberately calls Andy by the wrong name for nearly half the running time. It’s not a mistake; she is a sharp, detail oriented woman. Clearly she was capable of keeping remembering the name of one of her two personal secretaries. When she finally calls Andy “Andrea,” its a profound moment of her affirming that Andy has done well enough to earn her respect. It is also what is technically known as seriously fucked up.
The Beast isn’t a “small kindnesses” guy. He does big things. He spends time with her, getting to know her in a way the people in her village never did. He gives her his library because she loves books and he wants to see her happier. When she misses her father, he uses his magic to find him, and when they learn he needs help, Beast tells her to go to him, and that she does not need to come back. While I maintain that in spirit, she was never his prisoner, in that scene he formally releases her from her promise.
This is not to say that abusers can’t put on dramatic shows of affection, like the Beast’s gift of the library. The person who throws a romantic dinner one evening and beats their partner bloody the next is a definite Thing That Happens. However, abusers are fundamentally selfish and generally will not choose their partners needs over their own. If they did, they probably would be choosing “my partner’s need to not experience physical and/or psychological harm” over “my desire to hurt them.” When the Beast chooses to send Belle away, he thinks this means she will never return and he will be a monster forever. He has every reason not to do that. He does it anyway, preferring his pain to hers. This shows that his character arc from cruel to kind is authentic.
All of that leads me to the third element of Stockholm Syndrome; the victim attempts to bond with the abuser to mitigate damage. In contrast with Beauty and the Beast, where the Beast changes his behavior to bond with Belle, Andy changes how she acts and thinks in order to impress, and therefore survive, Miranda. She even tries to downplay how Miranda acts. In the long run, telling yourself that something awful really wasn’t that bad is unhealthy. It can become a beautiful fantasy that traps you in an ugly reality. In the short run, though, it can get you through the day.
This leads Andy directly to the fourth element of Stockholm Syndrome. Her behavior leads to actual attachment to Miranda, as demonstrated by the times she defends Miranda’s actions to others. This truth is that most abusers, being humans, have at least a glimmer of a good side, or at least a Freudian excuse. For people who are motivated to see their abusers as good people, this can be a smokescreen for a bigger truth; a good side and a sob story do not a good person make. Repeated acts of abuse are not erased because they are committed by a person who pets a puppy once in a while.
If you’ve watched the movie, you know of an element of the story that I haven’t touched on yet. Andy’s descent into the world of fashion is characterized by several characters as Andy “losing her soul.” So am I saying that Stockholm Syndrome victims are going over to the dark side? No, for the record, I don’t think that, but I think that raises some more complicated questions. So complicated, in fact, I will have to cover them in another post, so stay tuned. And thank you, very much, for reading this far.