It is now only a couple weeks until the monstrosity of a movie Fifty Shades of Grey hits theaters—which has gotten me thinking about a lot of different “love” stories we’re fed that are actually abusive. Of course, probably the most famous, and even my personal favorite, is Beauty and the Beast. We had a post on this quite a while ago, but I figured it would be best to go over once again what about this relationship makes it so bad, especially since so many people seem to be unaware of what abuse actually is. I also find Beauty and the Beast interesting because by the time the movie ends, the relationship between the two titular characters could be seen as healthy. Sadly, it doesn’t start off this way, and the movie never feels the need to address the abuse their relationship was founded on.
For the whole three of you who have never seen this movie, Beauty and the Beast is about a young woman named Belle living in the captivity of a hideous monster, the Beast. The Beast is a cursed prince and he won’t turn back into a human unless he can find someone who loves him—and he only has a short amount of time. His curse is tied to a dying magical rose. Once the rose loses all its petals, the curse will become permanent. Thankfully for the Beast, Belle realizes she loves him just in the nick of time, he transforms back into a handsome prince, and the two of them live happily ever after.
The biggest criticism of the movie is that the relationship is indicative of Stockholm syndrome, a condition in which a captive sympathizes with and even falls in love with his or her captor. This tends to be the part of their abusive relationship that some people disagree with, and I can see the argument. Does Belle really have Stockholm syndrome? Yes, she falls in love and sympathizes with her captor, but at the same time, at no point in the movie—the first movie, at least—does she accept his violent personality or sympathize with him while he’s acting like a brute. The Beast’s own servants convince him to treat her fairly, and she only starts coming around to him once he does. But most tellingly, later on in the movie, the Beast sets her free and she takes the opportunity. Most Stockholm syndrome sufferers won’t want to leave their captors, and as far as we know, it’s possible that Belle never planned to return to him until other forces in the movie made her. She chooses to go back to his castle to save his life, which lets us know that she cares about him and it’s at about that point in the movie that we can see that she loves him. However, during an exchange with Chip, an animated teacup, right before Beast’s life is threatened, it’s possible to infer that she planned to stay away from the castle entirely, despite her feelings for the Beast:
Chip: Belle, why’d you go away? Don’t you like us anymore?
Belle: Oh, Chip. Of course I do. It’s just that—
*Interrupting knock on door*
So in this regard, your mileage may vary. Whether or not you think she suffers from Stockholm syndrome is a matter of opinion—the movie clearly didn’t intend for their relationship to be taken that way, which is why Belle doesn’t exhibit most of the traits. But even if she doesn’t suffer from Stockholm—and she probably does, because she still falls in love with him—their relationship still starts off as abusive because of what the Beast puts her through.
Belle and the Beast don’t begin the movie on equal footing. She is his prisoner. The first few days of her captivity, the Beast attempts to force her on dates, and even gets angry and goes on a violent rampage when she refuses to eat a meal with him. His servants tell him that he should ask her politely, which he clearly doesn’t think he should have to do, and when she still refuses him, he gets mad again. In short, the first few nights, the Beast actively acts out his position as her jailer. It’s only later on that he starts to respect and treat her like a person, but it is still with the idea that she will fall in love with him.
He has power and she does not. He is the one forcing her to stay with him, and she cannot leave or do anything that he doesn’t want her to. At the very least, when she refuses to eat with him, he doesn’t drag her out of her room—but that’s not saying much, especially when you remember that he threatens to starve her in response. She chose to be his prisoner, but that was a choice she was coerced into making under duress. The Beast took her father captive and refused to set him free unless she agreed to take his place. Whatever relationship they have is also based on a lie. Beast keeps her around because he’s running out of time and the curse is about to become permanent. His servants remind him that he needs someone to love him, and so he coerces Belle into staying. He doesn’t do this because he genuinely wants to have feelings for her or hopes that she will for him—and even if he did, that still wouldn’t excuse his actions. He does it because he sees her as a means to an end. He wants her to love him, not because he wants to be in a relationship, but because he wants to be a human again. This is not a motivation that Belle learns about until later on in the movie, after she’s started developing feelings for him.
Despite his initial reasons for keeping her around, the Beast does fall in love with her, and in a move uncharacteristic of abusers, he sets her free. This is probably the nicest thing he ever does for her, and it does show he cares, since he starts putting her needs before his own—but this is a situation he never should have forced her into in the first place. All in all, the Beast does not display many traits of abusers—he never blames Belle for his own shortcomings, he doesn’t want her to be afraid of him, and other than preventing her from leaving—something he changes his mind about—he doesn’t attempt to isolate her the same way most abusers do. In fact, he doesn’t mind or even think to stop her from making friends with his servants, so Belle is exposed to people other than him, which is needed in a healthy relationship. These are also some of the reasons I don’t always prescribe to the Stockholm syndrome theory and I’m not that upset that she does love him. A lot of this also tells me that deep down the Beast is a good person reacting to a bad situation. Unfortunately, that still doesn’t mean that their relationship is a healthy one.
The Beast may have set her free, he may have treated her as much as an equal as one can a captive, and he may have fallen in love with her and genuinely grown to care about her happiness, wants, and needs, but their relationship started out as abusive, and the movie never addresses that. Nor does it address the fact that the Beast initially wanted to use Belle as a means to an end. At the end of the movie, she goes back to him, and they end up with a happily ever after. Her captivity and the awfulness of her situation are forgotten. Also, now that the Beast is human, I suppose we’re just meant to conclude that all his anger issues are over and done with, because he and Belle never bring that up again either. Hell, when I see my boyfriend yell at someone over the phone, I feel the need to talk to him about it afterward, so I find it a little odd that no one in this castle was like, “hey, you know how when little things piss you off and you feel the need to throw furniture and slash up priceless works of art in response? We’re going to address that right now.”
Beauty and Beast walks a very fine line, and it sadly doesn’t do it very well. It doesn’t matter that the Beast and Belle genuinely fall in love. It doesn’t matter that he was in a bad situation. And it doesn’t matter that they get a happy ending. None of those things erase the fact that their relationship started off abusive and that the movie writes those issues off and never addresses them.