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.