With the anticipated release of Disney’s live-remake of Beauty and the Beast, discussions have been renewed about the potentially problematic nature of the plot. Critics worry that the story celebrates Stockholm Syndrome and that it teaches girls and women to forgive the men who hurt them, because the message is that if they only love a man enough, the man will change. Others however, bristle at the thought that a beloved classic should be read this way. The story is, in their eyes, about the transformative nature of love.
To be fair to the critics who read Stockholm Syndrome into the plot, Disney’s version does make changes to the fairy tale that make Belle into more of a prisoner than a guest. The version told by Andrew Lang in his Blue Fairy Book features a Belle who willingly goes to the Beast’s palace because it was her request for a rose that got her father into trouble there. She is treated respectfully by the Beast, roams freely about the palace, and enjoys talking with the Beast. She understands him as kind and argues that his ugly appearance is not his fault and does not reflect his personality. When she requests a visit home, he immediately agrees, though sadly. She returns willingly because she is worried about him and his well-being.
In contrast, Disney’s Belle is at first locked in a cell, then understood to be a prisoner of the palace with limited movement. She does not initially like the Beast because he is angry and rude (though, to her credit, she does not put up with his behavior but rather calls him out on it.) She seems, on the whole, to be more at the mercy of the Beast in terms of her physical agency, though she is not a passive character and makes small resistances throughout the film from refusing to dine with the Beast to arguing her way home. In trying to make their story more dramatic, Disney does in fact introduce elements that viewers can find troubling and that complicate the narrative of the transformative power of love.
These changes illustrate the challenge inherent in determining what kind of story Beauty and the Beast is, and whether it is productive to think of the story in terms of frames such as Stockholm Syndrome. The source text for Disney’s version focuses on Belle’s learning to recognize how kind the Beast is, despite his appearance. Because it is shorter and somewhat sparser (and because Lang’s version at least contains a good amount of dialogue about learning to see past appearances, just in case readers missed the memo), it lends itself much more readily to the somewhat allegorical interpretation favored by those who defend it. (An attitude that mirrors that of G. K. Chesterton, who writes in Orthodoxy that: “There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.”) But that message can be lost in translation once Disney makes changes to the story.
In a way, the debate about the possible ramifications of romanticizing Stockholm Syndrome seems to be about two distinctly different texts–one argument is focusing on Disney’s very specific adaptation and the other argument is recognizing the embedded message that is carried over into Disney’s version from the source text. However, I would go farther and suggest that Disney’s version ultimately does not romanticize Stockholm Syndrome for the simple reason that Belle does not begin to love the Beast until he begins to show he is capable of change. That is, she does not commit herself emotionally or begin to fall in love until he stops throwing tantrums and shouting and generally being awful and uncouth.
Yes, she is still a prisoner in his castle and, yes, that is a problem. However, she does not fall in love with the Beast simply because he is there or because she sympathizes with him or his reasons for doing what he does. She does not make excuses for his actions or wave aside his anger management issues because he is just “misunderstood” or had a hard childhood or just has some things going on emotionally because it’s difficult being a hideous monster. She falls in love because he shows himself capable of gentleness and heroism, and because he is willing to learn and to grow.
It’s not a perfect story and if I were to retell it, I would hesitate to make the Beast imprison Belle as he does in the Disney version–not without a more in-depth exploration of how this could impact Belle as she tries to decipher her feelings towards the Beast. However, I do not think fairy tales are really meant to be taken literally. They operate on an allegorical level through their sparsity--and the short run time of Disney films mimics that sparsity to an extent. These movies are not psychological explorations. They assume that their viewers will take away, in good faith, the idea that qualities such as kindness, caring, and sacrifice are noble things that can make positive impacts on the world. That’s a message I still believe–and so I can still love Beauty and the Beast after all these years.
What do you think? Is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast dangerous for children or a positive story about the power of love and looking beyond appearances?