Beauty and the Beast Is Not Stockholm Syndrome
As I prepare to teach on Beauty and the Beast, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe this weekend, one of the questions that commonly comes up is whether Belle suffers from Stockholm Syndrome in the tale as old as time.
Others have covered the ins and outs of how this is not Stockholm Syndrome, so I won't go through the medical definition and myriad reasons in the original fairy tale (and the cartoon movie from 1991) that show that Belle is not a captive who has fallen in love with her abusive captor. Instead, I want to discuss how, from a storycraft perspective, it is not a case of Stockholm Syndrome - and why that is absolutely essential to the themes of the movie.
1. Belle Is Not a Captive
Essential to the argument that this is a case of Stockholm Syndrome is that Belle is a captive who is being held hostage by the captor (as the definition of Stockholm Syndrome requires a hostage situation). And to be clear, there is a captive in the story (more about that later), but it's not Belle. We even get a glimpse into how the Beast treats his prisoners with the capture of Maurice (he is sick, his hands are like ice, he's restricted to his cell, etc.). When the Beast imprisons Maurice, there is literally no other way to describe his treatment of him than monstrous.
Compare this with his treatment of Belle. She is fed, given a warm place to sleep, and cared for by the servants of the house. She is not locked up - in fact, beyond the West Wing (more on that later), she is allowed complete freedom in the castle. She's even allowed to leave, and does leave the castle twice (once to run from the Beast, and once at his encouragement). Belle is given some limitations, but she is actually very free in the castle, and this is important for the story.
Since the castle is under a curse, those who are under the curse are bound to the castle: we only see one instance of someone in the castle leaving (Chip), and this character does this not to escape the castle, but to encourage Belle to come back to it. If Belle were not free to leave, the castle would be a curse for her, and she would be bound by it. And one who is bound by the curse cannot break it.
No - in this story Belle is not the captive. The Beast is the captive, and he needs to warm not to a captor (which is the curse), but to a redeemer who is not tied to the curse.
2. Belle Does Not Change
Belle is one of my favorite heroines in all of literature (up there with Priscilla Lapham, Vin, and a delightful girl named Anne); the "why" requires me to explain fairy tale theory to you briefly. In a fairy tale, heroes and heroines do not face the same challenges: heroes are usually denoted by what they defeat (usually through combat - see Prince Philip, Prince Eric, and Prince Adam as the Beast), while heroines are denoted by what they endure (with Belle and Cinderella usually regarded as the best in this regard, though Snow White and Rapunzel give them a good run for their money).
Belle endures a lot during the course of the story. She starts as a person wholly different from everyone else in her village (one of the things I love about the way they did this in the animated version is that she's the only person who wears blue - she's set apart even in her color scheme to help capture this feeling). She cares for her father, who ought to be caring for her, and when he finds himself imprisoned by the Beast she is willing to risk everything to save him from captivity.
She then faces the long and arduous task of helping the Beast find who he was made to be: a person, not a monster. She never changes in her expectations, her exhortations to the Beast, or her moral center. She does not start falling for Prince Adam until after he begins to change: she found the Beast - the self-focused brute whose love was completely inwardly focused - reprehensible. But when he begins to change - first risking his life to save her in the woods from the wolves, and then from his growing gentility - then she begins to fall in love with him.
Belle does not change. She does not embrace her captor, but instead gently yet firmly aids in his transformation. She is not the captive of Stockholm Syndrome: she sets the Beast free from his captivity.
3. The Changes of the Beast
And his changes are marked. The Beast is punished because "she could see that there was no love in his heart." This is telling: in Greek culture they would say that he lacked arete, which is arguably the greatest offense in their culture. In medieval Europe this is even more telling as fairy tale plots often revolve around someone not treating another with love, resulting in a curse of some sort.
To lack love - especially sacrificial love for another - is a cardinal offense in a fairy tale, so when the Beast starts the story transformed because of his self-focused love, he is starting at the very bottom. What Belle is walking into, unknown to her, is the lowest of the low persons in the fairy tale world, making her triumph even more glorious.
And his transformation back into a person is not without its loss of blood. It is fitting that his first act of sacrifice involves him getting mauled by wolves. The Beast goes up against the beasts and attacks them, well, as a beast. But now he is a beast with purpose, looking out for someone who is not himself. This earns Belle's respect, but she does not love him yet.
And that is fitting - he is not a man yet.
He then begins recovering his humanity, doing good for her and treating her with gentility and respect. Note again that this is not a captor-captive scenario: he is treating her as an equal, if not his superior, and in many ways the one who holds the keys to his release from captivity. This earns her admiration, but not yet her love.
It is not until he releases her and encourages her to find her father and save his life that she loves him. We also find her by her father's bedside reflecting on how "he's changed, somehow," and is so convinced of his transformation that she is willing to stand against the town in declaring that "he is kind and gentle - he's my friend." And in exceptional fashion, she uses this as the springboard for declaring one of the important parallels in the story: "He's no monster Gaston: you are."
The Beast has changed - just over an hour of screentime before and she would not have said that. Yet here we glimpse the Beast in the mirror, just as fanged as ever, but gentle and kind.
And when the war comes to his castle, he does not fight back - the ravager of the wolf pack is not hounding the peasants. He takes a beating - almost death - with hardly even a whimper until Belle returns.
Now we see a Beast empowered, but not by rage or despair as he was at the beginning of the movie. He is empowered by love for another, and his desire to live is motivated by his desire to live in fellowship with another (not even marriage at this point!).
Through all of this, Belle is the same: she has not changed, as we would expect her to in the case of Stockholm Syndrome. The Beast has changed - his shackles are breaking.
4. The Call to Endure
And this is why we find the ending so powerful in the story. As the Beast demonstrates sacrificial love at its finest, we understand why Belle loves him. She does not love the beast who imprisoned her father, but the man who gave his life to care for her, saving her from the monster that is Gaston.
And thus it is fitting that the Beast should die - for upon his death the First Adam (the cursed prince) can be replaced with the Second Adam (the transformed prince), who is a right companion for Belle. We want nothing but the best for Belle (as she's the best, let's be real here), and she gets nothing but the best in the new Prince Adam. And that makes the story powerful.
In a few hours I'll be teaching on this, and there is so much more that should be said about this story than I can convey in a blog post. But who knows: perhaps we will spend some time doing a Beauty series much like we did our Rogue One series. We'll see.
Until next time,