“Beauty and the Beast”: A Story of True Love or a Problematic Relationship?

Discussion Post

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?

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41 thoughts on ““Beauty and the Beast”: A Story of True Love or a Problematic Relationship?

  1. Sarah J. says:

    This is a really interesting Beauty and the Beast discussion! I personally don’t know any young child who watches a fairy tale like Beauty and the Beast and questions kidnapping or the prospects of Stockholm Syndrome. I didn’t know what kidnapping really was until I was old enough to walk and play by myself, but the implications of Stockholm Syndrome wasn’t introduced to me until I was a preteen. I don’t really think it really matters if it supports or discredits Stockholm Syndrome because fairytales are up for interpretation for little children and parents to make learning lessons. Sure college students could study and argue for or against it, but I don’t see the point. It’s a beloved classic and picking it a part just seems trivial to me. I personally love “Stockholm romances” because I feel they really question perception and reality of readers and I’ve read some interesting stories like Nine Minutes, Stolen: A Letter to My Captor, and Comfort Food (this one I don’t consider to be a romance at all because it scarred me mentally, but had great comparison themes to people who have been kidnapped being similar to animals in a zoo- they can’t live in the wild afterwards because they would die- and I think that really fits the Stockholm description). Beauty and the Beast doesn’t seem to suffer from Stockholm syndrome to me and I think that’s because it’s a kid’s fairytale so the context is different. Although retellings like A Court of Thorns and Roses (especially after reading the sequel) does credit the Stockholm Syndrome idea. I think it’s all up to interpretation of the reader. 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      That’s an excellent point–children often seem to read these fairy tales in a more innocent or positive light than many adults! I know that when I watched Disney movies as a child, I enjoyed the beautiful visuals, admired the princesses for their kindness and their strength, and rooted for the couple to fall in love and have their happily ever after. I had never heard of Stockholm Syndrome at that early age, of course, but I also never thought the lesson of “Beauty and the Beast” was to fall in love with mean people. I thought it was as Chesterton writes–to learn to see the goodness in people you might initially struggle to see. I think I was savvy enough even then to know this message is not equivalent to “Allow others to harm you” or “Be a doormat.”

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  2. cornreviewsbooks says:

    I defiantly don’t think it’s dangerous to children I doubt it would make them think it was okay for someone to kidnap them or anything, I love the movie I love that Belle calls the Beast out when he’s wrong. I would add some more depth and complexity to Bells feelings if I were to retell it. But it’s a good movie and Disney movies are primarily supposed to be fun, there never perfect.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I don’t think many children overthink Disney films the way adults do. They often tend to have very strong ideas of fairness and I think most would know that imprisoning another person is wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. luvtoread says:

    Great post! I don’t really see it as putting a positive spin on Stockholm Syndrome. As said in comments above, I don’t think kids see it the way adults might. I was in the 6th grade when the original Disney cartoon was released, and I never saw it that way.
    What I love about Beauty and the Beast which is different than many of the fairy tales out there, is that there is no insta-love between Beauty and the Beast. They fall in love over time. Beast doesn’t fall for her right away either, and I love how the movie portrays a lifelike relationship of change and respect and kindness. The Beast lets her go because he loves her, and recognizes his problems. She leaves and returns when he needs her – unasked, because of her love for him and her realization that others just see a monster, when she knows the man inside.
    I think sometimes we are too quick nowadays to attack and find offense in anything & everything.

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  4. littlebookynook says:

    Wow you make some really good points here! Honestly I had never seen the Stockholm Syndrome part of it, mostly because of what you said about how she doesn’t just start to love him because he is there. But I can see how people could look at it from that angle. I love Beauty and the Beast, it has always been one of my absolute favourites. And Belle doesn’t take Beast’s crap, which I love even more. A really well written post and very thought provoking 🙂

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  5. Briana says:

    I definitely think this is solidly in my category of “stories people don’t take that literally.” If we’re doing that, then maybe the weirdest part is that there’s a human falling in love with a beast, which I think would be disturbing to most people. But I think most of us get that it’s an interesting story and raises interesting questions, and it doesn’t have to be a model for how to live our lives or an apology for Stockholm Syndrome.

    I like the point about sometimes needing to be loved to be lovable. 1) It reminds me of Laura Ashe’s interpretation of Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale,” which is that the woman in the story makes her crazy husband’s actions good by believing they are good. and 2) I just generally think that people believing in you CAN be influential. Of course there are lines. You don’t want to encourage someone to stay with an abuser because “maybe I can change them.” But there are lots of stories out there of people who didn’t really believe in themselves (that they had talent, that they could be good people, whatever) until someone else believed in them first. This can be particularly true for children and is one of the reasons I think teachers should be encouraging. Kids might not be getting encouragement at home or from themselves.

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    • Krysta says:

      That’s quite true. The assumption behind the criticism seems to be that viewers will blindly begin to the emulate the behavior of characters. If that is the case, then it would seem that stories must stop being told because a good story often has characters who do problematic things or who make mistakes.

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    • Krysta says:

      To be fair, I am not sure if Disney referred to the Lang version or another source, but I am guessing that Lang’s version is close to/a mix of his own sources. (He also probably cleaned up those sources a little.)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. thebookishjinni says:

    Personally, I never really thought of Stockholm Syndrome when I watched the movie. As their relationship progressed I was thinking the whole time that the Beast’s anger would always resurface once they got married, because, let’s be real here, nobody ever changes their attitude that drastically once they got married. I was more concerned for Belle’s well-being, because no one would ever know when the Beast would suddenly erupt into a fury and possibly hurt her or worse.

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    • Krysta says:

      The Beast does seem to have anger management problems, which the film has to resolve pretty speedily due to the short run time. It seems to be implied that he’s like that because he’s scared and unaccustomed to interacting with people, but…his castle is full of people. So he doesn’t treat his servants like people? There are potential issues with his anger for sure!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. salmahsbookshelf says:

    Interesting discussion. I never knew about Langs version and would agree this one isn’t problematic. I can see how people would have a problem with the Disney version especially knowing how much they changed. I do agree though, it isn’t meant to be taken literally . It can be problematic but as long as parents have a talk with their kids and help them understand the message it shouldn’t be a big deal.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, children are smarter than we give them credit for and adults should be there to talk over anything they find troubling. But children have very strong sense of fairness and I think most don’t think the movie means it’s okay to imprison other people.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Holly says:

    I’m planning on seeing the new Disney movie tomorrow, and I’m really intrigued to see how I perceive it when watching the film. At this point I think a case could be made for either side of the argument, depending on which evidence you weigh more than others. You bring up some really great points, though, and you can be sure that I’ll be turning this over in my brain while watching it tomorrow!

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    • Krysta says:

      I’ve never been convinced that it’s a representation of Stockholm Syndrome since the Beast really isn’t abusive and Belle doesn’t identify him in order to survive. I’m pretty sure she’d have been able to sneak out of the castle fairly easily without anyone noticing or having much ability to stop her, actually. It seems to be the wolves outside that are the real obstacle. But I can see where others might read Stockholm Syndrome into it.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. May Everly says:

    Interesting discussion, Krysta! I’m super excited to see the movie, but I do think that it’s a powerful story for kids, teaching them that appearance is not everything. However, you bring up very good points and I’ll sure be thinking about them when I watch the new movie! 😉

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    • Krysta says:

      For me, the Stockholm Syndrome isn’t really there. I think Beast has anger management problems, but he doesn’t seem to be abusive or threatening in any way, and Belle does not begin to identify with him in order to survive. I sometimes think we are too quick to try to tear apart media.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Dennis says:

    I agree with you and most of the comments that children don’t tend to see beyond the simplest aspects. But one thing I appreciated about the Disney version is how it twisted the original. In the original we can see in allegory the betrothal of a woman to a man. It’s told as a sort of entrapment due to her father’s carelessness, but it’s a betrothal. All Beauty can see is the monstrous qualities of the man and must learn to understand that he is indeed ultimately a prince. In the Disney version he is a beast and the longer he remains a beast the more likely he will remain one. Only the calming influence of Beauty allows him to revert to his truer nature as prince. This neat reversal moves the power away from male dominance (ie. she has to reform her vision to understand his true nature) to female dominance (ie. she has the power to transform him). It’s one of the few Disney films where the woman doesn’t automatically fall in love with the handsome prince and, in fact, rejects the handsome Gaston.

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    • Krysta says:

      I appreciated the choice the woman seems to be given a degree of agency in Lang’s version. Belle agrees to take her father’s place in the palace because she believes she is responsible for his going there in the first place to get her the rose she requested. And each night the Beast asks if her she will marry him and she says no, which he sadly accepts, because she is in love with the prince who appears to her in her dreams at night. When Belle finally agrees to marry the Beast, it’s not because she recognizes the prince in him but because she has come to love the Beast for who he is. She actually seems to be given some more agency in marriage choices because she is not living with her family and her father isn’t around to approve or disapprove of the man she selects.

      I think it is important, too, that Belle has to come to know the Beast before she falls in love with him. There is a sense of elapsed time, whereas Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White all seem to accept their marriage choices after one or two meetings! And I do appreciate that Gaston is represented as the villain in part because he’s sexist. Belle doesn’t put up with that just because he’s handsome and the village admires him for his brawn.

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  11. ikramreads says:

    Great Post!! I definitely think people are reading to much into Beauty and the Beast with the accusations of it romanticizing Stockholm syndrome, I don’t think it’s dangerous for children. The message they’ll likely take away from it, is that love is blind and appearances don’t matter rather than that Belle only fell in love with the Beast because she had no choice.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, it seems that children may be taking away the simple message Disney intends. It’s the adult viewers who are worried about this other message. And those adult viewers aren’t giving children much credit. Kids know imprisoning people is wrong!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    Most fairy tales were not originally created as whimsical feel good stories that all had happy endings. In fact, many of them were pretty dark. I feel that Disney and others have done a beautiful job of placing an inviting and healthy spin on these tales that adequately targets the younger audiences appropriately.

    I am not particularly a fan of critics picking films such as this apart. I think that too often people are too quick to dig for something negative and it is sad. It almost feels as though it is just for sake of argument. These are fictional works meant to be approached with a light heart.

    I think that Disney has learned to handle each intended audience age wonderfully and do not see fans walking away with thoughts of Stockholm Syndrome or images of victims and abuse to be an issue. But I am a simple person who just likes to enjoy something. If there is a concern with anything or a negative message, I will make the decision to not allow my children to watch.

    Great post as always!

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    • Krysta says:

      I have to agree. I am not afraid to critique things I enjoy, but somehow reading Stockholm Syndrome into this film isn’t convincing. Generally the victim begins to identify with the abuser in order to survive. I’d say Beast is mean and angry, but not abusive. And Belle isn’t really in much danger. She has a candlestick guarding her door. It’s not like he can stop her from leaving if she made a real effort.

      And that is very true! If Disney were telling the original Grimms’ fairy tales, parents might have much more to worry about! Even so, children often seem to be able to handle things adults find disturbing–such as Roald Dahl. Sometimes it seems like adult audiences aren’t giving children enough credit for being mature and capable of reason.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    I really agree with you on everything here! Particularly that Belle grows to love him for the right reasons and most importantly that these stories are not meant to be taken so literally. The core of the story and its message, in my opinion, go far beyond issues like Stockholm syndrome, and tap into complex ideas about overcoming the beast within ourselves and learning to accept people beyond their appearance. It would be a shame if people rejected this message on the grounds of one retelling (and in my opinion misunderstanding that retelling anyway)

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  14. Greg Hill says:

    To be honest I didn’t know about the source text so I’ve learned something. I have always had a certain uncomfortableness with the Disney version, exactly because she was a prisoner. That always bothered me a little before I’d even thought about things like agency or Stockholm Syndrome or whatever. Now that I’m older I can parse these things a little better and I see your point- and I would agree with you on the source material. I may even agree about the Disney version, although TBH I still might have a twinge when I see it. Although I’m not a huge fan so it’s not like I have to see it. But if I were taking kids or something I would probably just talk to them about to make sure they were comfortable with what they had seen, and answer any questions they might have.

    I also agree w/ the comments that say kids probably don’t even think of this stuff. All this over- analysis is by us adults ha ha.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think it can be fun to analyze texts that are popular or that we love, but even though I agree that Belle’s being a prisoner is uncomfortable, I’m not entirely sure I want to use “Stockholm Syndrome” to label the problem. Belle doesn’t seem to be identifying with the Beast to survive–that’s not the issue for me. The issue for me is that 1) the Beast is a terrible person for imprisoning random travellers and 2) he has some anger issues to resolve. And anyone should recognize those red flags before they start a relationship with him, regardless of whether they are in his castle as a prisoner or a guest.

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      • Greg Hill says:

        Very good point! I think he is a terrible person initially, for those reasons- there’s a reason after all that he was cursed (not that I’m justifying the curse necessarily, but if I remember the story right didn’t he bring it on by being rude to the wrong person?) So yeah it’s about his redemption and I get that- but he’s a jerk at first and maybe that’s why I never loved the story? I only knew Belle as a prisoner because of the Disney version, but if she was only a guest I’d be like, just leave Belle the guy’s a jerk! But I guess getting to know her saves him, and I think I’m in the minority. Lots of people love it.

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        • Krysta says:

          Well, I guess if we look at just about any Disney princess film too closely it gets a little weird. Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty all run off to marry a man they’ve met one time! I guess Belle has something going for her in that she at least has talked to the Beast before deciding she loves him!

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  15. Cait @ Paper Fury says:

    Ooh, I really liked reading this and I REALLY like that quote from GK Chesterton! I actually always just kind of filed this in the back of my mind as a bit of romanticised Stockholme syndrome. But I think it’s really interested what you’ve said here, and I tend to learn towards thinking it’s not anymore! I didn’t know the original was different too! That makes me want to go actually read the original haha. (I have the Red Fairy Book but I should find the blue one?) I’m not reeeeally a fan of this tale particularly but I do love the Beast’s library. Of course.😂

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  16. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says:

    I had never really thought of Beauty and the Beast as Stockholm Syndrome, but I agree that it doesn’t really seem to fit that mold. Like you pointed out, Belle falls in love with Beast when he shows his kindness and humanity and she calls him out in the beginning when he doesn’t show those qualities. I do agree that pretty much all Disney fairy tale romances have some problematic elements when we overanalyze them. 🙂

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  17. Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight says:

    “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.” I had never thought of it that way, but that’s a really good point. I’ve even noticed that, in other books I’ve read recently, a character can do bad things, and I’ll dislike them, but if they actually learn and grow and change and show themselves to be capable of that, I can forgive and like them. And I also understand when another character ends up liking them at that point. And that holds fairly true for me in real life, although I’d probably still not like someone who imprisoned me lol. But you’re right, fairy tales are probably not meant to be taken too literally.

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    • Krysta says:

      Haha. Well, yeah, I’m not sure if I could marry someone who had imprisoned me, but I guess that Belle’s story is at least fleshed out more than some of the other Disney princesses’!

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