Beauty and the Beast: NOT Stockholm Syndrome
Copyright: "Beauty and the Beast" is a product of Disney and all images and characters mentioned or used in this post belong to them.
You may have noticed that I especially love breaking down and dissecting Disney movies because there’s more to them than you might think. Disney is mostly identified by their line of animated princess films targeted toward kids and adults alike. The first installment of Disney’s princess lineup was “Snow White” in 1937, so many of us grew up watching these movies and eagerly waiting for the next princess and tale to be revealed. With each new one that was released, we were introduced to a variety of fairy tales from around the world. With each passing decade, we were given more and more diverse princesses and stories. We loved most, picked our favorites, and those stories became part of us and our childhood.
Of all the Disney princesses—both actual princesses and leading ladies who don’t get the actual title of royalty but are awesome just the same—the princess that I latched on to at a young age was Belle from “Beauty and the Beast.” She was the first princess with brown hair, she liked to read, and she was kind (well, they all were.) She was strong, and a little strange, and the princess I identified with most. My love for Belle and “Beauty and the Beast” has carried into adulthood and manifests in a variety of artwork, merchandise, and teapots. I own three versions of the fairy tale on DVD and Blu-ray: the Disney animated film, the Disney live-action, and the French live-action. Needless to say, I’m a fan.
As a fan, I have read the original fairy tales, watched as many versions of it that I can find, and absorbed as many of the details as possible which is why I am strongly against the claim that has circulated the past decade or so that Belle suffers from Stockholm Syndrome.
I call boo-hockey on this.
While I understand why the claim was initially made, there is so much more going on than that and reducing Belle’s character to novice, arm-chair psychology is devaluing her actual strength. In this post, I am going to develop and prove why Belle does not suffer from Stockholm Syndrome and why she is actually an amazing role model for everyone—young, old, male, or female.
For those who aren’t familiar, Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological condition in which a captive will form a bond with their captor out of survival. Patty Hearst is an excellent example of this. In the 1970’s, Patty was the daughter of a wealthy family with political connections and had been kidnapped by a domestic American terrorist and extremist group. After nineteen months missing, Patty was found participating in the crimes of the group that had kidnapped her. She claimed that she joined because they had physically hurt her and stopped once she did. So, even though her assimilation was voluntary, it was done out of survival to prevent her person from undergoing any more harm. There are other debates surrounding Patty Hearst, but that’s all I’m going to go into because that’s all that is necessary for understanding a real-life example of Stockholm Syndrome.
The claim against “Beauty and the Beast” is that Belle develops Stockholm Syndrome after the Beast imprisons her in the castle and that her feelings toward him—the ones that eventually break the curse—have nothing to do with actually loving him but developing a love as a tool for survival. By giving the Beast what he wants, she is sparing herself the danger of being locked in a cell to freeze or starve to death.
This is completely wrong and when you look at the story, characters, and progression of events, you will see that the case for Stockholm Syndrome has no ground to stand on.
First, Belle wasn’t kidnapped. Unlike Patty Hearst, Belle wasn’t taken against her will. After her father was lost on his way to the market, Belle grew worried and began a search for him (because she’s an intelligent woman and knows how to get stuff done.) She tracks her father’s wagon and finds the Beast’s seemingly abandoned castle. Entering the premises, Lumiere helps guide her to her father so she can help him.
Now here’s the important part: Belle was never a captive, she always had a choice. She found her father locked in a dungeon and tried to break him out. When she failed, her father told her to run, to go home, forget about him. He was old and had lived his life (dad for the sacrificial play.) Belle is given a window to run, but she doesn’t. She knows what waits for her if she returns to the cottage without her father: Gaston.
Gaston is a boisterous narcissist who, while charming and handsome, is an awful option for an independent woman. He cares only about himself and what others can do for him. In the case of Belle, he wants to marry her for some nice arm-candy who will make him look good in the eyes of others. He doesn’t care about her thoughts, opinions, or desires. He just wants the prettiest girl in town for his wife. If Belle returned without her father, she would have been forced to actually accept Gaston’s marriage proposal because she would not have been allowed to work and live independently in 18-19th century rural France. She had a choice, but it was slim pickings.
That’s when she tells her father she’s not leaving without him and the Beast makes his appearance. She has some choice words for the Beast, chastising him for imprisoning an old man who was clearly sick from the cold and just seeking shelter. You can see a flash of guilt in the Beast’s eyes, but his own ego puts him back on the defensive and he stands by his (poor) choice.
That’s when Belle has a thought, and it’s important to stress her time to think. This wasn’t super immediate, she wasn’t backed into a corner, she was standing in the dungeon before a brute of a man and her father in a prison. That’s when she made the choice to offer herself in exchange for her father’s freedom.
She was already free. She wasn’t going to be thrown into a cell with her father. She wasn’t in any danger. The only prison she faced was a marriage to Gaston back home. She didn’t offer herself for survival, she offered herself for the love she had for her family. Thus, the circumstances of her imprisonment are purely voluntary. This was something she actively, and knowingly, chose. Belle holds all the power here. Not the Beast.
Now, after her father is released, the Beast takes Belle to her room which will be her (nicer) prison. Now, some people who are real sticklers for the arm-chair psychology might be trying to say that there is still room for Stockholm Syndrome to manifest now that she’s actually his captive—voluntarily or not. To those people I say: sit down, I’m not done yet.
Through her entire captivity, Belle holds all the power. She started off that way, and she left that way.
The Beast, through the guidance of Lumiere and Cogsworth, is trying to “woo” Belle so that she will break his curse. He’s gruff, he’s got anger issues, and he clearly hasn’t had to use his manners in a good decade. He’s rough around the edges and his emotional maturity was stunted around the age of twelve, but he is making an attempt not to isolate Belle too much from the beginning.
However, his attempts are pretty half-assed and are really only because his cursed furniture friends are begging him to.
As part of this attempt to reach out and still be in power, Beast asks Belle to join him for dinner.
He asks again, politely.
She declines again, politely. (With a very mature, “no thank you.”)
Not used to asking twice and being told “no,” Beast freaks out and his emotional immaturity and anger issues are exposed. Grasping at straws, he commands her to join him for dinner and storms away. (“That was not a request!” So romantic, good job, Beasty.)
Now, if Belle was truly suffering from Stockholm Syndrome she would have accepted this angry invitation. She would have joined him for dinner and tried to please him so that he wouldn’t freak out at her again.
But what does she do? She stands him up.
That’s right. She leaves his punk ass sitting at the big table all by himself. She holds the power here, not him, and he knows it! That’s why he storms back up to her room and yells at her. That’s why she yells back! She’s not afraid of him. She stands her ground and refuses him, even when he’s hollering up a storm on the other side of her door. If she had Stockholm Syndrome, she would have apologized and gone to dinner with him. But she doesn’t. She basically tells him to f-off and she refuses to compromise herself just to appease him. That’s why he gets all upset and tells his staff that if she doesn’t eat with him, she doesn’t eat at all. Ha, that doesn’t work out so well.
In another act of defiance, Belle sneaks out of her room and ventures down to the kitchen for food, clearly breaking the Beast’s decree. (Belle don’t give af.) Her rebellion gives us one of the greatest songs in the entire movie and only further establishes her power over the situation.
After her “meal” (did she actually eat anything? I’m pretty sure Lumiere just showed her everything and whisked it away before she could take a decent bite,) she’s given a tour of the castle and the foreboding West Wing is pointed out to her. If she had even the beginning stages of Stockholm Syndrome she would have turned away and obeyed the Beast’s stern command that her access to it was forbidden. She would have gone back to her room to avoid upsetting him and risking his wrath. Instead, she tricks Lumiere and Cogsworth to leave and steals into the West Wing to do some snooping.
In the West Wing, she stumbles upon the cursed rose and the Beast loses his sh*t. He screams at her, shouting at her to “get out” and she does. She doesn’t just go back to her room, though. No, she grabs her cloak and gets the hell out of that castle. Lumiere and Cogsworth try to stop her, but she tells them that she “won’t spend another minute with [the beast.]” SHE’S NOT A PRISONER. She straight up doesn’t see herself as his prisoner because she knows she can walk out whenever she wants. AND SHE DOES. She grabs her horse and LEAVES.
Yes, there were wolves and the Beast was most timely in his rescue, but that only left Belle with another choice: to continue her escape and leave the Beast (who just saved her) to die, or help him and take him back to the castle to recover?
She, again, chooses to return to the castle.
Because the Beast finally showed her something other than his temperament, she made the choice to help him. While she is nursing him, she even chastises him for his anger issues and criticizes the way that he was treating her. She makes it very clear that if he wants her to behave differently then he needs to act differently. She never compromises her strength or self-worth for him. Instead, she makes him change his dastardly behavior to accommodate her standards.
You can't tell me the Beast doesn't know who's in charge here, he sure does and it isn't him.
That’s when we see something there that wasn’t there before.
Belle holds her ground and it is only when the Beast starts to make a genuine effort at being kinder and gentler that she starts to reevaluate her opinion of him. He changes to appease her, she doesn’t change to appease him. It is the exact OPPOSITE of Stockholm Syndrome. Her feelings only develop because he’s finally showing her his true self and because he made the choice to grow to reach her standards and expectations of how a person should treat others.
When Belle is finally “released,” it’s not because she was ever really his prisoner. It was just the final proof that the Beast had changed and no longer wanted to hold on to his bravado and false power over her. It was the moment he agreed that they were equals and she was free to do what she wanted.
That’s why she came back.
That’s why she broke the curse.
That’s why she’s freaking awesome.
She held fast in herself, her beliefs, and she didn’t compromise out of fear or desperation. She is too strong to bend to Stockholm Syndrome. She’s too powerful. She holds all the cards when it comes to her life and future the entire movie; it isn’t until the Beast accepts that, that the curse is finally broken. It isn’t until everyone accepts that, that there is peace in the town.
Belle doesn’t have Stockholm Syndrome. She has power. She has strength. She has choice. Don’t reduce her to a mere victim who has no control over her destiny or well-being. She has all the control and she uses that control to build kindness, love, and compassion. That’s what makes her the most beautiful person in her village and the girl to break the spell.