There have been many complaints about Disney and its tendency to cause controversy. Lately, however, movies like Zootopia, Moana, and Frozen have been praised for their feminist heroines and powerful themes about acceptance. It is my belief that this new wave of empowering Disney role models actually began several years ago with Belle from Beauty and the Beast, but many argue that Beauty and the Beast is a actually a bad influence on children because it promotes abusive relationships. These arguments have led people to believe that Belle’s feelings for the Beast are not actually feelings of love and are in fact symptoms of stockholm syndrome. Keep in mind, however, that most of the people criticizing the movie have only based their arguments on simplified definitions of stockholm syndrome and abusive relationships. Psychologists, on the other hand, would disagree with these claims. In fact, preventing children from watching movies like Beauty and the Beast because of a “bad” female role model is an example of how common it is for people to skim the surface of a concept until they have enough information to place the blame on the woman. Or if not that, they at least make Belle appear to be a victim. The people criticizing this movie for the sake of sounding educated are actually part of the problem when it comes to oppression. They dismiss the moments when the Beast displays emotion and vulnerability because those traits are not considered “masculine” enough. Then they place Belle as a helpless victim, rather than a determined woman who makes conscious decisions about how to live her life. These critics point out issues in the pretense of wanting to prevent children from being exposed to a passive female role model, but do so by dismissing the entire point of the movie.
While I will mostly be referencing the original 1991 film, I would like to mention that many of my points also apply to the recent live action remake of the movie with Emma Watson, a devoted feminist, who also believes that the stockholm syndrome theory in Beauty and the Beast is invalid.
The most basic definition of stockholm syndrome, according to the Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary, states that it is “a form of bonding between a captive and captor in which the captive begins to identify with, and may even sympathize with, the captor.” If this simplified definition is one’s only resource, I can understand why someone may conclude that Beauty and the Beast promotes stockholm syndrome. However, most know that sufficient research on any subject requires much more than a short definition from a single source. Simplification of disorders is actually one of the reasons mental illnesses are stigmatized and why people with disorders are often considered “silly” at best, and “crazy” at worst. Even people who do more research tend to take the story out of context in order to prove their point in classic Fox News style. Here, I will be debunking several of the reasons people believe Belle has stockholm syndrome.
One of the most common arguments is that Belle has stockholm syndrome because she decides to stay in Beast’s castle and has no intention of leaving. This argument does not take into account Belle’s reason for staying: Belle made an agreement with the Beast in order to save her father. She is not obeying for the sake of her own survival and she does not obey any of his other requests. He insists that she joins him for dinner and she refuses, having dinner on her own terms without his permission. She then proceeds to disobey his biggest rule, which is to stay out of the West Wing. The minute she has a chance to explore, Belle investigates the forbidden room. Then when the Beast responds violently to this, she immediately escapes. And the reason she returns is because the Beast saved her life, proving that he does not want harm to come her way. And even then, she considers leaving him in the snow to die, but instead saves his life, not because she has stockholm syndrome, but because she is a decent human being who can empathize.
An article by Brooke Geller argues that “Belle’s hostility towards the Beast is replaced by wonder stemming from the magic of the castle, and the things he can offer her — opulent feasts, ball gowns, and an impressive library.” However, in no way does the movie imply that these are the reasons Belle decides to stay with the Beast. Naturally, I responded with a long comment, explaining my own take: “The Beast didn’t even know that his servants threw a magnificent dinner for Belle, so there’s no way she could assume that this is something he offered her. When it comes to the gowns, Belle even refuses to wear the gown that Madame de la Grande Bouche tells her to wear. And when she wears the yellow ball gown, there’s no indication that she’s attached to it. It’s just what she happened to choose to wear for the dance. Also keep in mind that this is the gown she wears when she leaves for the second time because the Beast lets her go.” A video by Plaid and Prejudice even mentions that in the Broadway musical, the Beast says, ‘You are no longer my prisoner. You haven’t been for a long time.’
The library, obviously, is something Belle loves about the castle, but if you really pay attention to the scene, she is more affected by the Beast’s kind gesture. This is key because after this point, the Beast never goes back to mistreating Belle. From this point on, his priority is her happiness.
Yes, the initial plan was to charm Belle, but after ‘Something There’ you begin to see that the Beast no longer cares about his own happiness and instead puts Belle first. He does nothing to attempt to bring her back once she leaves. As far as he knows, Belle is gone forever and as much as it hurts him, he wants what’s best for her.
The cycle of abuse that is present in unhealthy relationships does not happen in Beauty and the Beast. Yes, the Beast is cruel at first, but that is why Belle initially resents him. She only changes her mind after he stops his abusive behavior entirely and does not return to that behavior. This, therefore, is not a cycle. The cycle of abuse is when the abuser traps their partner by showing kindness, true, but it is always followed by abuse, then more kindness, then more abuse. And each time, the abuse escalates, but the affected partner holds onto the memory of that kindness and hopes that it will remain. This is not the case in Beauty and the Beast.
So what is Beauty and the Beast truly about?
The main theme, of course, is that one must not make judgements based on appearances, but that does not make it the most powerful theme, seeing as Belle never once considered anything but the Beast’s personality when deciding what to think of him. What is most moving about this story is the way it accurately represents the way society treats those who are different. An article by Beeftony says, “We ignore how much violence and oppression are normalized, especially against people whom we’ve been told ‘don’t belong.’ We end up with stereotypes about how black people are thieves and murderers, how gay people are coming to seduce and rape children, and how mentally ill people are unhinged and violent when they are far more likely to be the victims of violence that results from this kind of rhetoric.” This movie is about demolishing stereotypes and showing that the patriarchy (which is personified by the character Gaston) is harmful to both men and women: Beast’s “unmanly” weakness and despair are mocked by Gaston, and Belle is rejected by her town because she is not passive and obedient. People like Gaston can end up in power, but that doesn’t make them good people. This is so relevant considering the similarities between Gaston and the current President of the United States.
If you’re considering whether or not to expose your children to the message of Beauty and the Beast, take a moment to reconsider the stockholm syndrome theory and to understand what the tale as old as time is truly about.