Beauty and the Beast: Power Imbalances, Captivity, and Abuse—The Makings of True Love?

Beauty-and-the-BeastIt 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.

beauty-and-beast-belle-father-dungeonThe 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.

Belle, refusing to put up with the Beast's shit.

Belle, refusing to put up with the Beast’s shit.

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.”

Nothing could possibly go wrong.

Nothing could possibly go wrong.

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.


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About MadameAce

I draw, I write, I paint, and I read. I used to be really into anime and manga until college, where I fell out of a lot of my fandoms to pursue my studies. College was also the time I discovered my asexuality, and I have been fascinated by different sexualities ever since. I grew up in various parts of the world, and I've met my fair share of experiences and cultures along the way. Sure, I'm a bit socially awkward and not the easiest person to get along with, but I do hold great passion for my interests, and I can only hope that the things I have to talk about interest you as well.

8 thoughts on “Beauty and the Beast: Power Imbalances, Captivity, and Abuse—The Makings of True Love?

  1. You might want to read this post (and the comments):
    http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com/2013/02/dont-blame-beauty-and-beast.html

    I saw some other post a few months ago on some blog and I was trying to find it again, but I can’t, but I did stumble across this again. It’s somewhat similar to the one I was searching for because it too disagrees that the film’s heart is about an abusive relationship. The idea is that Beauty didn’t even start “dating” the Beast until after HE had taken steps on his own to change and until she had realized that… maybe looks (huge hairy beast) can be deceiving and actually gotten to know him.

    BUT… I’m not sure what side of the fence I’m on, because I think you make a lot of great points.

  2. Another point: Considering the fact that Beauty and the Beast was originally meant to teach girls that arranged marriages to ugly old men weren’t so bad after all, the movie doesn’t do much to update that particular message. Belle gets stuck with the Beast for her father’s sake, much as arranged marriages were meant to benefit the families of the marriage partners, and not always those partners themselves. Both times Belle tries to leave the Beast, she gets punished, first by getting attacked by wolves when she runs away, and second when the Beast lets her go and she finds that her whole village has turned against her and her father, and later finds that her beloved Beast got hurt without her. So it’s still reinforcing the message that girls *should* remain in their arranged marriages, and bad things will happen if they try to return to their families instead.

    • Yeah – on top of anything else, there’s the added coercive element that if Belle make herself love the Beast, she condemns his entire household. You know, all of her friends.

      At the same time, I’m not sure the Beast’s personality is real – does the spell distort him mentally/emotionally as well as physically? Plus, even if not, he was cursed by a witch as a child, and apparently raised by nobody (parents? a name? no?)

      Which isn’t necessarily better, because it exonerates him without making anything better, and distorting the morality of leaving an abusive situation.

  3. I’m curious as to how the new live action version of this movie is going to address these issues. I loved the sleeping beauty remake Malnificent, and have high hopes for this new movie.
    Interesting note on the beast’s upbringing…in the scene where they are reading Romeo and Juliet beast can not very read well, showing that Belle is better educated than him. Books in general are a common theme in the movie and I think Disney was trying to say don’t judge a book by its cover. And that is something to consider is the Disney-ification of these brutal dark age fairy tales. We need to ask what “lesson” are the modern writers trying to convey in the retelling.

  4. Pingback: Note To Disney: Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

  5. I wish this article addressed two things: 1) that the beast would spy on her through the mirror, invading all privacy rights and boundaries. And 2) that the servants acted much like enabling and coercive family members to the beast not true friends to Belle. . . . .

    • Hey, thanks for pointing those out. I totally forgot about those things when writing this. Pretty much, everything the Beast does to Belle throughout the movie is completely and utterly selfish, and through his actions, he dehumanizes her so much. As I said in the article, his initial intentions for Belle are based around himself and not out of any love for her. She is just the means to an end for him. Spying on her through the mirror just goes to show that, and I don’t remember at any point Beast ever really feeling bad about a lot of the things he does. But even if he did, becoming a better person in the end also doesn’t change the shitty things he does to her. Now that you bring up the spying thing, it really bothers me. That is just so completely invasive. He definitely doesn’t think of Belle as another person deserving of respect. It reminds me a lot of Twilight and how Edward would spy on Bella at night. Beast is a creepy stalker, and I doubt that their happily ever after is going to be that happy, considering all the shit Beast pulls and normalizes.

      And what you pointed out about the servants is also spot on, which is probably why Beast didn’t have a problem when Belle interacted with them. They spend the movie attempting to shove the two of them together and humanize Beast to Belle. It’s been forever since I’ve watched this movie, but I don’t remember any of them really taking Belle’s side at all. There’s one point where the dresser tries to make her feel better, and other parts where the servants tell Beast to be nice, but at no point at they like, “hey, this is kidnapping and coercion.” Most of their actions are also selfishly motivated. I understand wanting the curse broken, but they definitely encourage what the Beast is doing when they shouldn’t. They are prioritizing themselves and what they want over the needs of another person, and that is always reprehensible. Also alarming, the movie paints all these actions as signs of true love. It’s pretty much a narrative about a girl changing her abusive partner through love, which is a dangerous message to send because it’s so inapplicable to real life. People do get hurt because of things like these. True love cannot be founded on abuse.

      Sorry I didn’t talk about those in the article. I guess they must have slipped my mind, and unfortunately, those acts are things I should have realized when writing this post. I find it very alarming all the ways this movie attempts to normalize and idolize abusive relationships, so thank you so much for pointing those out to me. I’m keep those things in mind in the future for the next time something like this comes up in a post I’m writing.

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