Tag Archives: abuse

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names

What It’s About

The story of Darling, a mischievous Zimbabwean pre-teen in a shanty town where the adults no longer know what to do with themselves.

Why I Think You’d Like It

This is a beautiful, engaging, heartbreaking novel. It tells the Darling’s story in sporadic anecdotes of trials and misadventures. In a way, it reminded me of an Upside Down version of Tom Sawyer or Anne of Green Gables; it has the same episodic structure, the same cast of recurring friends and enemies, the same sense of childhood mischief. But of course the mischievous episodes involve stealing guavas to ward off starvation, seeing adults lose their grip on reality, parents dying of AIDS, and pregnant friends who are barely old enough to be called teens. In Darling’s life, the horrific and the diverting are all mixed up together. Innocence and corruption are experienced side by side.

Darling’s narrative voice is distinctive and fascinating. I love some of the metaphors she comes up with, and how her phrasing evolves through the story. I loved the way she never apologized for her perspective, or tried to make it more comfortable for a Western reader. She bluntly states her mind and takes it for granted that this is simply how things are.

That was especially interesting during her childhood stories. I often thought, “this is how kids think. They don’t censor. They don’t apologize. They just wonder why the rest of the world is doing such a bad job conforming to their expectations.”

It got a little more dissonant as we got into her adolescence, and she immigrates to America.  I did expect her to become a bit more empathetic more quickly. In retrospect, I like that she didn’t. To clarify, she is not a mean or heartless protagonist. She does care about the well being of others. It is more that, while she gets better at the adult hypocrisy of acting how she is expected to act, she has trouble grasping the shape of another person’s suffering. If someone endured something she could directly compare to her own struggles, she would care, and care deeply. But if someone’s pain had nothing to do with her own experiences, (a teenager with an eating disorder, for example) Darling’s reaction is usually anywhere from annoyance to scorn to anger. I don’t think that made her a bad character. It made her complex, realistic and interesting. If she was frustrating at times, she was always frustrating in thought provoking ways.

The only downside is that it did make the last third of the book a little less fun, but again, I think that was honest and smart. Part of the point is that immigration did not magically solve all of her problems, and we got to see her learn that. The only thing I wish is that we had seen her press on to a level

I thought it was among the most interesting and well crafted books I’ve read. It’s probably a love it or hate it book, and if you’re interested in immigration stories that are equally brilliant but a little less dark I’d recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But if nothing I’ve said so far has put you off, you will probably love it.

Content Warnings

Violence, sex, profanity, references to bodily functions, physical emotional and sexual abuse… and of course all of that is witnessed by children, if it does not happen directly to them. It’s a book for those with strong stomachs.


Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson

Midnight Robber

What It’s About

An epic bildungsroman about a young girl’s journey from fugitive to folk hero, set in a future where space is colonized by Caribbean peoples.

Why I Think You Will Like It

God, there are so many levels on which I want to recommend this, it is honestly hard to pick where to start.

First there’s the sci-fi coolness level. This is a fucking awesome world. You’ve got your androids, your nanotechnology, your pocket dimensions and your aliens, all well thought and neatly integrated into the coolest fucking neo-Caribbean culture. The dialect and carnivals and food and clothing all make for a spin on space opera that I desperately want to see more of. This was my first taste of Afrofuturism and I got hooked, in the best way.

Then there’s how it handles abuse and trauma. Tan-Tan is a fun protagonist, full of spark and wit and ferocity. She’s a perfect blend of larger-than-life enough to be thrilling, but flawed enough to be relatable. In her childhood you see the makings of a rogue on par with Han Solo or Jack Sparrow. At the same time, people don’t become that devilishly tough without surviving some absurdly scary shit first. This is a hard balance to portray; how to be honest about the pain of trauma survival without losing the fun of a thrilling adventure? Not only does Nalo Hopkinson pull this off, but she pulls it off with some subject matter that even very skilled Serious Literary Authors can fumble badly. (see content warnings for details, and some mid-book spoilers)

And then there’s just the story as a story. It starts out fascinating, takes several twists, builds to a point where you can’t see a way out and are internally bargaining for at least a bittersweet ending, and then explodes into a perfectly satisfying eucatastrophe. This book is not just science fiction at its best; it is storytelling at its best, period.

With all that, I still have not mentioned how it handles imperialist colonization tropes, or how the aliens as individuals are some of the most relatable characters but as a group feel genuinely alien, or the beauty of the prose, or how the folk tales within the novel are beautifully atmospheric… gah, just go read this book! Read! This! Book!

Content Warnings

It’s definitely a grown-up book. There are fight scenes, alcoholism, nudity, and lots of swearing. Also, by way of a trigger warning, there is child abuse, including sexual. The actual scenes are brief, but realistic and scary.

I’m almost reluctant to admit to that last, because if I had known I might have been more shy about this book, given that I picked it up wanting a fun adventure (which I got!). Sexual abuse and fun adventure stories don’t usually go together, or if they do it’s because the victims were used as cheap props to artificially up the stakes.

One in three women and more men than you’d think survive some form of sexual assault, and in the real world that does not mean their lives have to be doom and gloom forever. The problem with addressing that in fiction is that it can too easily turn into dismissing or understating the pain. But it is equally a problem to build up the expectation that a survivor of sexual assault is Ruined Forever(TM)! It’s just another thing that makes coming out as a survivor more difficult. People are genuinely baffled to meet a survivor who is not Ruined Forever(TM)!

This is one of the few books I’ve read that actually has an honest, painful, doesn’t-happen-in-one-epiphany recovery for a survivor of abuse. It does this while also giving you a fantastic fantasy romp. If sexual assault is a major trigger for you, probably don’t read this book. But if it’s not, give it a try. Books like this need to exist.

The Best Reason to Remake Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

I finally got to see the live action remake last week, and on the whole I really enjoyed it. I didn’t think it was perfect, but I did leave the theater wanting to see it again.

It got me thinking about my old posts on Beauty and the Beast and Stockholm Syndrome.  Beauty and the Beast does have, at it’s core, a story about a woman being captured and falling in love with her captor. Now, that isn’t actually Stockholm Syndrome; it’s one of the many cases where popular culture gets abuse and mental health seriously wrong. But it is still awful, and we have to face that. Our society grows from roots that are deeply oppressive to many people, and that oppression is often embedded in our favorite stories. This creates a tension between the desire to hold onto what is familiar and nostalgic, and the desire to destroy what is broken in order to make room for something better. A compromise is often to reimagine; to reshape a story in order to get rid of the worst parts while keeping whatever is left. The original Disney film did this brilliantly.

Stockholm Syndrome isn’t merely falling in love with a captor. It happens when a victim feels they cannot escape an abusive situation (whether they are literally captured or compelled to stay for any other reason) and then learns to adjust their behavior to protect themselves. Because they can produce a conditional kindness, they come to believe their abuser is a good person deep down, and that any abuse they do experience is their own fault. Falling in love doesn’t even necessarily enter into it.

The original fairy tale does leave room for this interpretation. Beauty is trapped, the Beast has compelled her to come by threatening her father and he is a perfect gentlemen once she begins to cooperate. But the first Disney film makes some important changes. The biggest ones are that 1. Belle is only restrained by her promise, and early on she attempts to leave, returning only when the Beast has earned a second chance by saving her life. This proves that she doesn’t actually feel trapped. She knows her safety is more important than keeping her word. 2. Belle stands up to him, and it’s he who has to change his behavior in order to have a relationship with her. 3. Belle does not actually fall in love until after he has explicitly set her free (the original fairy tale has him granting her a temporary vacation, after which she never gets to leave again).

In the remake, I did initially get worried about the second point. The animated film at least indicates early on that the Beast feels guilt and self-loathing. The desire to change is already there. The remake has him much darker, to start out, and even pulls out the old “daddy was mean to me” excuse. But then something happened that I loved. The servants made a conscious, collective decision NOT to tell Belle that her love would lift the curse. They instead said that what happened was their own fault, not her responsibility. The Beast was cruel and none of them stopped the events that made him that way. Nobody challenged him to become something better. Privately, they hope Belle will lift the curse. They are prepared for the possibility that this is just their fate.

After I made my first Beauty and the Beast posts, I talked with someone who has was abused by someone who expected her to change him. She talked about how the real underlying message of Beauty and the Beast isn’t “Stockholm Syndrome” but the idea that it’s the victim’s job to change the oppressor. That was a really good point that I’m a bit ashamed to have missed the first time around. This is a massive myth in our culture, and it’s incredibly damaging. It brings me back to the question; is it better to abandon a story with toxic roots, or reimagine it?

I think that when a myth is pervasive, it’s often because there is an element of truth. For example, I think there are times when love can change the behaviors of someone oppressive. Look at this story about how tthe son of David Duke abandoned white supremacy, or this TED talk by a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church. I myself used to have deeply oppressive beliefs, and my friends from outside the religious right changed me. But fairy tales and romances carelessly pass around the maxim that love can redeem, and we ignore basic limitations of that principle.

  • It doesn’t work when we pretend love means never challenging or offending or calling someone out
  • It doesn’t work when the oppressor has no desire to change
  • Even if there is a desire to change, some oppressors want something else even more; power, status, the ease of a life where everyone works to accommodate their bad behavior. I know plenty of people who never changed
  • The potential redemption of an oppressor is not more important than protecting their victims

I think that a complex truth can never be told by cutting stories out of our culture. Instead, we need a variety of stories. When it comes to oppression and redemption, we don’t have much by way of stories that teach us how to recognize oppressors who aren’t willing to change, or that affirm the importance of a victim’s safety. This is one reason I loved The Force Awakens. Kylo Ren, just like Vader, has someone who loves him asking him to choose goodness. He makes the wrong choice. We almost never see that. We need to see more stories that show that, and that remind us that this whole “love redeems” thing is a gamble.

But in addition to telling more stories that show the other side, I do think we need to be more conscientious about how we tell the “love redeems” story. I think that of all the changes the original film made to the fairy tale, the addition of Gaston was one of the best. The difference between Gaston and the Beast is that, when Belle asserts herself, the Beast responds by fighting his inner darkness, and Gaston responds by escalating his misogyny. He goes from street harassment to manipulative proposals to locking her father up in order to blackmail her to, finally, attempting to kill his romantic rival. At no point does he learn that Belle’s “no” is sufficient reason to leave her alone. His entire rationale is “she’s the most beautiful, and that makes her the best, and don’t I deserve the best?”

The new film takes this contrast even further. It becomes even more explicit that the Beast has realized that, whatever the cost, nothing can justify keeping Belle against her will. As much as he wants Belle’s love to save him, he has no right to demand it. His darker behavior in the beginning even works to support this. He never really seems to expect that Belle will love him. LeFou, meanwhile, becomes explicitly attracted to Gaston. He becomes an example of love leading a person to enable oppressive behavior, rather than challenge it. In the end, he is betrayed, and learns to look for happiness elsewhere. His arc embeds into this “love redeems” story an example of how, sometimes, it doesn’t.

This is why I was glad to see Hollywood take on the old classic again. This is why I think it’s worthwhile to retell old, problematic stories. Stories are a product of their past. So are all of us. We do ourselves no favors by failing to acknowledge that. But when we revise our stories, we also re-examine ourselves; our old beliefs, our assumptions, and the oppressions we have been complicit in. Like the Beast, that examination can lead us to better ourselves.

An Open Letter to Kellyanne Conway

Dear Ms. Conway,

Yesterday I caught your interview with George Stephanopoulos. It was disturbing, on many levels. You dodged his very reasonable question about why Donald and press secretary Sean Spicer both lied about attendance at the inauguration, and when he did what good interviewers do, (that is, repeat the question until you gave a real answer) you accused him of harping on an issue. Even when he clarified that he agreed it shouldn’t be important, but stressed that the falsehoods were worthy of discussion, you kept treating him as if he was single handedly standing in the way of talking about real issues.

That was abusive, Ms. Conway. That was practically gaslighting.

And that wasn’t the only time you used tricks from Manipulation for Psychological Abusers 101. You used promises of future good behavior to bargain for free reign now, when past behavior clearly indicates those promises will go unfulfilled. You encouraged viewers to confuse “less bad” with “good” when you talked about Donald’s inauguration speech. True, it was not as horrendously crass as we are used to, but it was also fearmongering and an inaccurate characterization of our nation. I know you want to people to equate “he’s not being quite as nasty as we are used to” with “he’s actually fine,” because that’s a classic trick manipulative people use to convince others to trust them. It saves them from the inconvenience of a real apology.

That brings me to the one thing that made me more angry than any of the other abuser tactics. You used one of the most sadistic mindfucks of all; using your victim’s defenses against abuse as justification for that abuse.

The press criticize you, so it’s fine that you exclude them and dodge their questions. People protest you, so it’s fine that you lie and cheat and bully. You treat other people horribly, but that’s fine, because by having the audacity to stand up against their own bad treatment, they justify your abuse.

No. That’s not how this works.

We all saw this dumpster fire of an election. We saw how your candidate bullied, insulted, and incited violence at every rally. Every newscaster and journalist saw how he changed the tone of the entire election cycle. He spent more time insulting Mexicans alone than talking about concrete policies, and still had time left over for African-American communities, women, people with disabilities, Muslims, refugees…..

Let me break this down for you. Until Donald Trump makes a genuine apology for everything he has said over the past year and a half, you have no moral high ground to criticize anyone’s conduct or civility, period. Here’s what that apology would look like;

  • Admitting, without reservation, that he was crude, demeaning, and even abusive to millions of people.
  • Naming specific individuals and groups and directing individualized apologies to them.
  • Admitting that this was damaging on both a personal level and damaging to our national culture.
  • Taking full responsibility for what he said and the consequences, and apologizing for going so long without an apology.

Having trouble picturing the Donald we all know doing that? Well, tough. That doesn’t change the fact that this is the only thing that would even give you the right to criticize other people’s tones. You don’t get to adjust the goalposts for him to something like;

  • Going nearly fifteen minutes without adding to the list of people he has crassly insulted.
  • Being polite to people who are knuckling under and giving him everything he wants for fear of being abused even more.
  • Giving one of those fake apologies where you explain how nothing you did was actually your fault.
  • Stating that things are going to be better in the future and expecting forgiveness on credit.

And since I’m having to explain these basic things in detail, I might as well add that if such an unlikely apology were to be given, it would only give you the right to ask for civil discourse to begin again. It would not give you the right to avoid doing any of the following;

  • Answering questions from the press, including ones that could potentially make you look bad.
  • Listening to the concerns of people, regardless of whether they voted for you or not.
  • Tolerating peaceful protests from people who decide, for any reason at all, that they aren’t happy with your actions.
  • Educating yourselves collectively on the issues, and evolving your stances.
  • Compromising and being happy with getting some of what you wanted, instead of whining that you didn’t get to steamroll over those with a slightly different take on the world.

Those are all just basic consequences of getting to live in a democracy.

Based on Donald’s past behavior, we can’t even picture him dealing with that final list of to-dos. That’s why we hate your boss, and that’s why we protest him. We are expressing anger and fear at a man who has gone out of his way to be infuriating and scary.

This has been your refresher course on Basic Decent Human Behavior. If you don’t like it, get the fuck out of here.


Lane William Brown

No Clean Slate For Donald Trump

I’m not a fucking goldfish.

So, the election is over, and the person who technically won it somehow lost it. The majority of the country is pissed; that’s not the conversation we are having, as a nation. The conversation is whether we should calm down, take a deep breath, and give him a chance to show us what kind of person he’ll be, or actually let his past behavior inform our current opinion of him.

Here’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. The most dangerous people aren’t the ones who are consistently horrible. The ones with no self-control, no common sense and no shred of human decency set off warning signs around themselves. They can screw things up fairly badly, but most people figure out to get away from them before things get too bad. The worst ones are the people who can make a show of contrition, without really meaning it. They are the people who know how much forgiveness you have in you, who will push you right to the edge of your limits and stop exactly when you run out of second chances. They’ll bide their time, until your anger has simmered down and you are confident that they have changed, and then they’ll go back to their old ways. They’ll do this again and again. Worst of all, any time you hurt them, they will take the fact that you value forgiveness and turn it against you. The expectation will be that you apologize every time you do something they don’t like, while they only apologize to you as often as you can force them to. This will create a distorted feeling of reality; you feel constantly hurt by them, but somehow you’re apologizing more, so you must be doing something wrong, right? You may never get out, because you are mired down by your constant fear that asserting yourself will make you a bad person.

There is only one way out of this trap. It is to recognize the signs of someone who has a truly repentent character, as opposed to somebody who is currently in a situation where contriteness is convenient. Here are some of the signs I have learned:

  • They aren’t afraid of having their flaws pointed out to them.
  • You never need to threaten or bribe them in order to get them to act like a decent person.
  • The first time you bring up the fact that you were hurt, they listen.
  • Sometimes, they even bring it up before you’ve figured out what to say to them.
  • They regularly invest effort in improving themselves, across the board. They want to be a better person simply because that is a valuable goal to them, for its own sake.
  • They never have to be convinced of the basic fact that other people have feelings that matter. They already believe this; it’s just a matter of better understanding how other people’s feelings work.

If a person hurts you, and doesn’t have the basic human capacity to care that you are hurting, they will not change. At most, they will temporarily adjust to dodge consequences.

I have had eighteen months to watch Donald Trump in action. He has, in fact, been shoved in my face by a ratings obsessed media. In order to have him act like a kind and reasonable adult for two minutes together, there needs to be enormous pressure, from media, from his campaign managers and pundits, and from the nation as a whole. But he will gleefully smear any marginalized group for a round of applause from his alt-right voters. I genuinely don’t care which groups he is or isn’t actually prejudiced against. Whether he is willing to harm marginalized groups because he personally hates they or just because he’s pandering to a hateful base, the same people end up hurt.

Between his staff and cabinet picks, the Russian calls and the fact that he’s already gotten into another twitter fight, with the cast of Hamilton of all people, it already looks like those who have erased their slate will just end up having to write the same shit on it all over again.

Apparently “Thanks for coming, please treat us like humans” constituted harassment.

My slate still has everything written on it. All the slurs, all the bigotry, all the violence at his rallies that he actively encouraged. All the scandals, the cheats, the corruption. All the sexual assault and intimidation, all the bullying of reporters. All the unconstitutional and dictatorial suggestions he made with flippant disregard to the actual implications. He ran on a campaign of racial hatred and totalitarian soundbites. I will take him at his word.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic Atheist: Emotional Baggage

This story opens with Connie’s Mom talking to someone on the phone. Apparently there’s a surprise visitor coming. When Mrs. Kendall hangs up there’s some light-hearted banter. Connie will be giving up her room, and banished to the sofa. She and her Mom are joking about cricks in the neck and the resulting Quasimodo posture.

Then Connie learns the mystery guest is her Aunt Helen, and completely loses it.

As previously mentioned, Connie’s parents are divorced, but apparently her Mom is still on friendly terms with many people from her ex-husband’s side of the family, including Helen. Connie, on the other hand, has nothing but bad memories of Helen. The two of them are actually quite close in age, and Connie remembers being bullied by her. Mrs. Kendall doesn’t remember things the same way. She just recalls two kids being a bit bratty together, sometimes getting along and sometimes not. This dissonance only makes Connie more angry, and she storms out of the house.

The story cuts to Whit. We first find him talking to a girl, Tracy, while he organizes some leftover materials. He’s got lumber, bricks, and random sacks of feathers. He has no idea what to do with all of it, other than keep it neat for now.

Tracy has sought him out for the scoop on which of her friends are going to a party. Turns out, she’s trying to avoid a whole crowd of girls from the cheerleading squad. There’s been middle school drama.

Specifically, Harriet Paulson picked Bobbi McCormack instead of Donna Barclay for the cheerleading squad, but Donna didn’t really want to join, so she was going to step down, giving Gailene Harding, an alternate, a chance to step up, and Gailene had promised to make Tracy her flag bearer. So by picking Bobbi over Donna, Harriet cheated Tracy out of the flag bearing squad. Tracy believes the whole gang had it in for her, and was trying to get her hopes up and then crush them.

Whit feels the urge to give her some kind of advice, but he’s still dazed from simply processing all of that. His train of thought is interrupted by a call from Mrs. Kendall, which is how he finds out about their fight. He finds Connie in the back room of Whit’s End, where she’s setting up an old cot, determined to avoid Helen for the duration of the visit.

With a little prying, he gets at the real reason Connie is so angry. Helen introduced Connie’s father to the woman he left her mother for.

Connie doesn’t even know if her mother knows, and isn’t sure how to tell her. The divorce is still fairly fresh. Whit doesn’t know the story beyond those broad strokes, but he does think Connie is probably overreacting. Which… I think he might be right, but he might also be wrong. He doesn’t know Helen, Connie’s father or his new girlfriend. All he knows is that Connie is hurting, which he acknowledges, and he does allow her to stay at Whit’s End until Helen leaves. But he clearly isn’t happy about it.

When he goes back to the front, he finds Tracy’s situation has already been resolved. Turns out, Harriet Paulson wanted Tracy to be her flag bearer all along anyway, so clearly there was no conspiracy. Whit talks to Tracy about how she narrowly avoided carrying around a grudge for her entire life. He compares grudges to infections that take over your soul, and also to carrying a heavy load through your life. Tracy, high on her new revelation, wants to take on the world. She wants to tell everyone in the world how wonderful people can be if you give them a chance. She wants draw cartoons of people carrying around heavy boulders labeled “grudge” and show everyone on the planet, so they’ll know how silly they are being.

This gives Whit an idea.

He sets up a relay race with the leftover bricks and feathers. He ropes Connie in, under the pretense that Tracy needs a partner. The rules are as follows:

  1. The first person in each team runs to the end of the field, picks up an object, and brings the sack back to their partner, who must repeat the process.
  2. The next round is the same, only you pick up two objects. This goes on for four rounds.
  3. At any point, the runner can choose bricks or feathers. There are no extra points for choosing a brick.

Connie is surprised by that last rule. It seems like there’s no point to having bricks as an option at all. Clearly, she hasn’t yet realized she’s being preached at.

Tracy, under Whit’s instructions, runs first and chooses bricks every time. At the end Connie is staggering around under a bag of ten bricks, long after everyone else has left, and Whit takes the opportunity to lecture her on grudges. He tells her she’s choosing to hold onto her grudge against Helen, and it’s destroying her from the inside. He tells her she needs to let God take away her anger.

Then Mrs. Kendall shows up. Before When even began his game, he called Connie’s Mom and told her to come over, stating that Connie was ready to talk. He says he was taking a chance, which I think is putting it rather mildly. Connie concedes and goes back to her house to get ready for Helen’s arrival.

You know, I nearly liked this one. I do think grudges can be destructive. I do think it’s important to learn how to forgive. But the way Whit goes about teaching this lesson to Connie is terrible.

First of all, he draws a simple equivalency between a little middle school drama and a turbulent, broken family. Kids Tracy’s age are collectively going through an asshole phase and need to learn to give each other second chances and not jump to conclusions. They have an equal opportunity to learn and grow. Family is complicated. There are power imbalances and subtle dynamics. Nobody can assume, from a ten second summary, to understand exactly what’s going on in someone else’s family. Connie might be simplifying Helen in her mind. She might be remembering a distorted version of her childhood, and falsely attributing bad intent to what happened later. Or maybe Helen truly is manipulative and cruel. Maybe she did intentionally set Connie’s father and his new girlfriend up. I don’t know, and neither does Whit. The second possibility matters, because if Helen is that bad, maybe Connie’s anger is a necessary defense mechanism.

Second, even if Connie is holding onto a grudge, Whit is applying far too much pressure to make her give it up NOW. It’s like his pride as a community fixer is at stake, and he will make Connie give in whether or not she’s ready. He sets up a humiliating game, lectures her when she’s exhausted and then puts her on the spot with her mother. Is Connie genuinely forgiving at the end of this episode? Because I think a normal human being would just be too beaten down to keep arguing.

Third, once again, instead of understanding the real underlying cause of a problem, Whit is just deciding that certain emotions she’s feeling are WRONG and she needs to stop feeling them today. That will make him feel good in the short term, but as to whether or not it will make her life better, well, that’s pretty much a crapshoot. Genuine healing takes time and it’s not Whit’s job to set that schedule.

Listening to this episode, what stood out to me was that Connie is clearly still adjusting to life after her parent’s divorce. Superficially, she’s doing pretty well, but there are deep wounds under the surface and she hasn’t really processed everything yet. Her Mom also seems to have already processed things, but isn’t in a good place to empathize with where Connie is. If I were in Whit’s shoes, my priority would be to give Connie a space where she can feel safe to talk. That means no assumptions and no judgment. Just listen to her talk about what happened, from her perspective, and how that made her feel.

One thing I’d want to say to her is that when something like this happens, we often feel the need to blame someone. That can be tricky, because sometimes one or two people of the people responsible are also people we don’t want to blame. Connie’s father cheated. She loves her father. It’s very likely that, on some level, Helen is being used to wall off a whole flood of bad feelings about him. This is completely normal. I think it would be good to point out that possibility, but gently, and not with any demands that she agree with me today.

Connie is a person, flawed but ultimately sociable and warm. She doesn’t want to be this walled-off, angry person. The problem, as I see it, is that she doesn’t have the resources to deal with this shitty situation. Her mother is overwhelmed by her own issues, she’s been cut off from all her former friends, and her closest confidante is a man who views everyone around him as a project. Give her a space to sort through her feelings properly, and she will come to the right conclusion.

Final ratings

Best bit: The thirty seconds of mother/daughter banter before everything goes to shit.

Worst bit: The goddamn manipulative bullshit relay race.

Story: Completely trampled by the moral. D

Moral: Went for something good but completely missed the mark on execution. Also D

Stockholm Syndrome and The Devil Wears Prada, Part 3

At one point in the story, the stress of the job causes Andy and Nate to break up. Specifically, it causes Nate to break up with Andy, when in the middle of an argument, she gets a phone call from Miranda, which he doesn’t want her to take. Shaking, crying and apologizing, she tells him she has to take it. He says “You know, in case you were wondering – the person whose calls you always take? That’s the relationship you’re in. I hope you two are very happy together.”

A couple months ago, my sister and I talked a lot about abuse on the blog we share. I posted some meandering thoughts, based on my experiences, on how to be supportive when someone you love is being abused. It’s a difficult question, because while you want to get them out, sometimes pressuring them too hard can actually put them in more danger. The last thing you want to do is give them an ultimatum, to threaten to remove support from them if they don’t leave their abuser right now, because the fact is that if the victim hasn’t left yet, a probable factor is that they don’t feel they safely can yet. It’s unfair to demand that they leave if you can’t provide a safe place for them to escape to. Even if you can, that’s an option to be offered gently, without force or coercion or expectations of compliance that they can’t fulfill. They have enough of that in their lives. If you can’t provide that, you can still help simply by being patient and kind to them, giving them a part of their life where they aren’t abused, and responding to their stories of abuse with affirmation that they don’t deserve to be treated like that. Be a person with whom the Stockholm Syndrome rules don’t have to apply, where abuse can be acknowledged without all the defenses against it being torn down.

Being the patient and gently loving ally of an abused person is difficult, both because of the delicate balances and the lack of guidance available for people in that role. So keep in mind that I acknowledge that when I say this; Andy’s friends and especially her boyfriend are a perfect example of what not to do.

When Andy first starts working, her time with her friends is her time to vent about Miranda. They all laugh things off together, and for a while this seems to give her some relief. That doesn’t last. Things are too bad for a simple vent session to fix. This is when her style of dress begins to change, and I start really disliking her boyfriend, Nate.

The change of clothes is part of her Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s not really hurting anyone. It’s not accompanied by vanity or meanness and real change of character. She just dresses differently. Nate hates it, and just as the Runway girls put down her old style, he puts down her new. Now, he doesn’t do this to anything like the degree that they do. He just states that he doesn’t like it. For the record, he doesn’t have to like it. It’s awesome that he liked Andy back before she was stylish. However, he is close enough to the situation to understand that Andy is doing this because she is being picked on and needs a way to connect with her coworkers. Furthermore, as the film goes on, her interest becomes more genuine. After she leaves Runway, she finds a happy medium between her old style and new; more casual but still stylish.

Nate’s saying he doesn’t like her clothes makes her feel like she has to defend her quite reasonable actions. It makes her feel like he isn’t on her side. A better reaction than “I don’t get this, I don’t like your clothes, I liked the old clothes better” would be something that includes an affirmation that he will love her whatever she wears. If I were in her situation, I would really need to hear that, and it would be a valuable reminder to me that those people who are only nice to me when I look like them aren’t my real friends.

In fact, his reaction is fairly shallow. We associate fashion with shallowness, and so its tempting to see his reaction as loving the “real Andy,” but the thing about real love is it totally transcends outward appearance. Rejecting someone for not being unfashionable or alternative enough is just as superficial as rejecting somebody for not knowing what Sephora sells.

The other primary complaint that Nate has is that she’s never around. She used to have lots of time for him and her other friends, and now she rarely does. This is a more valid concern, but he seems to forget the fact that Andy has no control over this. Andy will be fired if she doesn’t do everything Miranda demands, and Miranda makes demands that keep her up past midnight, interrupt the lunches she’s legally entitled to, take away days off at the last minute, etc. That’s not Andy’s fault.

Nate pressures her to quit at times, but I never see him address the valid reason she has for sticking with it. They share an apartment in New York, which given everything I know about New York, they couldn’t afford it on just his salary. He never brings up a kindly rich uncle who can cover her half of the rent if she quits. He never suggests making budget cuts that would allow them to make it together. He never addresses her fear of losing her dreams for their future. And yet, he’s shocked that she always takes her boss’s calls.

While the way her coworkers treat her is much worse than how Nate and her friends treat her, I find the latter less forgivable. As I explained in my last post, I think her coworkers are all dealing with some variety of Stockholm Syndrome. Her friends and Nate are far enough from the situation to think clearly, but close enough to see and hear stories that should clue them in to how bad things are. Even if they don’t attach the word “abusive” to it, they should recognize it as unhealthy and coercive.

And yet, this is a part of the story that I also find very realistic. Victims of abuse often doubt their own feelings because those around them don’t use the label “abuse,” but the lack of that label can happen for many reasons. One of them is a preconceived notion about what abuse looks like. It varies from person to person but it is usually a variation a low class male hitting his wife while wearing soiled jeans and an undershirt, but abuse isn’t about hitting. It’s about a pattern of behavior that systematically tears down another human being.

Psychological abuse is often considered somehow less serious than physical abuse, but it is equally abusive, and many experts even consider that it to be more damaging. Personally, I think all abuse is psychological; every other category just describes the efficiency of the delivery mechanism. Physical abuse is harder to hide and thus easier to recognize and get other people take seriously. Verbal abuse is less obvious, and when abuse isn’t recognized it’s often internalized, leading victims to believe they deserved to be neglected, insulted and mistreated.

Miranda isn’t hitting Andy or her other employees, but she is creating an environment where they all feel like shit. She makes it the norm for her employees to neglect their health, personal lives and autonomy just to survive. At one point Andy says that if Miranda was a woman, nobody would call her anything but good at her job. I think she’s got that exactly backwards. Miranda is a white upper class woman who uses her words to destroy rather than her fists. That takes her so far beyond what we normally expect an abuser to look like that she is effectively camouflaged, and even though everyone knows what she does nobody takes it all that seriously.

This ties back to my original series about Beauty and the Beast and my whole motivation for writing this series. You can’t deal with a problem if you can’t even recognize it. If you try to judge people by their appearance instead of their actions, you end up following Gaston’s mob to the Beast’s castle, and ignoring the real devil because she’s wearing Prada.

Stockholm Syndrome and The Devil Wears Prada, Part 2

Part 1 here

Trigger warning; discussion of abuse continues

Also I absolutely can’t make the points I’m making without spoiling the crap out of the end, so beware.

In the movie, Andy is repeatedly described as “losing her soul.” Most fans of the movie who I have talked to have accepted that interpretation, but I’ve also known of a few who disagree.  It’s actually quite difficult to name things Andy does that are truly wrong. There is nothing wrong with either developing an interest in fashion, or trying to well at a difficult, demanding job. Stealing an unpublished manuscript is a crime, but given how huge Harry Potter is and that the twins would most likely get their own hardcover copy when the real one comes out, along with tons of merchandise, it is a victimless crime. She feels somewhat attracted to a cute writer who flirts with her, while she’s dating somebody else, but nothing happens until she and her boyfriend split up. In fact, there is only one situation where Andy does anything I can even begin to consider wrong, and its done under extreme coercion.

At one point, Andy’s coworker Emily is sick. Unlike any reasonable boss in the world, Miranda does not send Emily home. In fact, Emily is supposed to accompany Miranda to a gala, where her primary duty will be to remind Miranda of the names of each and every guest. See, Miranda doesn’t want to have to deal with the embarrassment and awkwardness of “sorry, I forgot your name,” but neither does she want to go to the trouble of learning who her own guests are. Instead Emily has to not only work but work late into the night, while she is coughing and sneezing and clinging to tissues like they’re life preservers, or perhaps a talisman of protection against people like Miranda. That’s bad but not as bad as it gets. Miranda tells Andy that even though she had the night off, she has to come to the gala as a backup for Emily. Andy has to spend the rest of the afternoon learning as many names and faces as she can. But you know, sending Emily home entirely and making do with just Andy would be unthinkable.

It's like having Huginn and Muninn, except they are telling me things that I'm perfectly capable of figuring out myself, and one of them should be home.
It’s like Huginn and Muninn, except they are telling me things I’m fully capable of learning myself, and one of them should be home.

During the night, Emily makes one mistake, and Andy covers for her. Miranda’s response is to kick Emily off of fashion week in Paris, in favor of Andy.

This is a big deal because, like everyone else, Emily hates working for Miranda. She experiences daily humiliations, terrifyingly high expectations and verbal abuse. Emily puts up with it because fashion genuinely is her dream. The week in Paris, for Emily, makes all the shit she deals with worth it. Think of how Hogwarts gave Harry the ability to deal with the Dursleys all summer, and imagine that Hogwarts only lasted a week. That’s Paris for Emily.

Miranda makes it clear that if Andy turns down the Paris job, she will get that whole “fired with an incendiary reference” thing that everyone is so scared of.

This whole dialog hinges on a weird contradiction. On the one hand, Miranda claims this isn’t a personal vendetta against Emily, nor is it a way to maintain her image as terrifying and capricious, and thus motivate everyone to continue working themselves to death. Oh no, this is because it is just so important to Miranda that she have the best people on her Paris team, and Andy, not Emily, is the best. And yet, while Andy is so much better than Emily that she is indispensable on the Paris trip, she is not also so much better that it would be stupid to fire her over turning down one opportunity. Its impossible to know what exactly Miranda’s game here is, but whatever it is, my mean-spirited bullshit meter is flashing red.

Andy accepts the job, even though it breaks Emily’s heart, and doing so clearly hurts Andy as well. For the record, coercing somebody into doing something abusive for you is also abuse. Andy is being made an accomplice here, but she is also being victimized. However, character after character holds Andy responsible for what happens, including Miranda.

In a beautiful ironic twist, though, it’s Miranda’s insistence that Andy had a choice that breaks the spell. Andy suddenly decides this career path is no longer worth it, if the price is becoming somebody like Miranda. She ditches her abuser in the middle of the Paris, and everybody in the audience cheers.

As so often happens after abuse, all the worst predictions about what would happen if Andy leaves do not come true. Andy finds a job with a small newspaper, doing the kind of work she wanted to do in the first place, with people who seem to be, you know, reasonable and decent human beings.

This leaves the audience with an interesting question. Was Andy really being corrupted? The movie wants to say yes, but I’m inclined to say no. She’s a victim in this situation, and she consistently tries to do the right thing. Still, within that incorrect characterization of Andy’s situation is a point that I think has some truth to it.

There are two different reactions given to Andy’s character arc. One is “you are changing, right now, for the worse.” This reaction comes from Emily, who gives her a rant that is primarily understandable rage and venting, but also from her friends. I’ll get into that reaction in the third and final piece of this series. The other one is that she is nice, that she hasn’t done anything wrong, but that she is on a path that will inevitably turn her into somebody she doesn’t want to be. The first person who gives her this perspective is the cute writer. The second is Miranda herself, in the dialog that convinces Andy to ditch the job.

There is something interesting going on in the culture of people who work with Miranda. Everybody gives in to her. Everybody treats her behavior as normal, defends her as a woman whose abusive treatment of her employees is the reason she is so powerful, and even idolizes her. In short, there is not a person there who does not demonstrate some Stockholm-y behaviors. Sometimes, this translates into mimicking Miranda’s behaviors. As I said last time, when Andy starts work everyone brutally mocks her size and her clothing. Emily, the character we feel so bad for when she misses out on Paris, is the primary perpetrator.

"I'm going to hate you on sight because that distracts me from the misery of my own existence, ok?"
“I’m going to hate you on sight because that distracts me from the misery of my own existence, ok?”

This is called identification with the aggressor, where mimicking an abuser’s behavior makes the victim feel more powerful and relieves anxiety. All this makes it even easier for Andy to get sucked into that mindset. No doubt every year newbies come to Runway, passionate about fashion and hopeful about their futures, only to have their spirits crushed, whether they stay or leave.

Even characters who are nicer than Emily still reinforce the abuse in smaller ways. For example Nigel, who is the one who befriends Andy and actually helps her fit in, also gives speeches justifying the importance of the work they do and belittling Andy’s complaints.

In this scene he is defending Miranda. By the end of the movie Miranda will have ruined his life.
In this scene he is defending Miranda. By the end of the movie Miranda will have ruined his life.

This is something I have also observed in both of the verbally abusive environments I’ve experienced (one directly, one from the sidelines). It isn’t just about what the main abuser does. It’s also about what the people around them do. It’s about the fellow victims who don’t want to believe they are victims, so they gaslight anyone who dares suggest that something twisted might be going on. It’s about the justifications that get passed around. It’s about the creation of a myth that “everyone who would put us down just doesn’t get how wonderful we are.”

As I mentioned in the previous piece, Miranda regularly violates laws and basic ethics with her employees. So why isn’t she facing any lawsuits? I’m sure part of it is that people are scared. No doubt her lawyers are the best money can buy. Still, there isn’t even a mention of anybody trying, even as they complain about her and share stories that would make any competent HR department weep. They could pool their resources on a lawsuit, and also dump documentation of past abuses on the press. Miranda is powerful, but so is public outrage, and the employees at Runway could do some serious damage. But they aren’t going to do that, because they don’t see her as their abuser.

Individually, everyone is only trying to survive a terrible environment. Collectively, they have created an environment where the abuse of everybody else is enabled. Is that corruption?

I think that’s the wrong question. Wrong here meaning “unlikely to actually help people get out of abuse.” Because, see, stigmatizing people who are in abusive situations does not help them get out at all. It only makes them more afraid to seek help. On the other hand, I don’t think ignoring the role their choices make helps either. People are more likely to take control of their lives if their ability to make choices is affirmed, just as Andy leaves Miranda when Miranda emphasizes to Andy that she is making choices to get ahead. But going back to the original hand, pretending that anybody with sufficient force of will can break free of their situation without any consequences… that’s a fantasy.

I think there are two right questions. The first is “how can we better teach each other to recognize abusive situations?” The second is “how can people outside the situation offer support to people who are being abused?” I’ll talk about both of those in my final piece, which should be up shortly.

Stockholm Syndrome and The Devil Wears Prada, Part 1

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.

Andy Before
Andy Before
Andy After
Andy After

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.

No, no, people have to earn basic human interaction from me.
No, no, people have to earn basic human interaction from me.

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.

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.