Is Beauty and the Beast About Stockholm Syndrome? My Answer

As a major Beauty and the Beast geek, and re-telling writer, I thought I’d tackle this question:

In the past few years I’ve seen several articles accusing Beauty and the Beast of being a depiction of Stockholm Syndrome. For those unfamiliar, Stockholm Syndrome is a condition in which a hostage forms feelings of affection for his/her captor. While it’s easy to see parallels if we look at Belle as the Beast’s hostage, the diagnoses of Stockholm Syndrome don’t hold up upon a closer look.

Just a few disclaimers:  1) I am not a psychologist, and this is a layperson’s opinion 2) I am basing this on the popular, well known versions of the tale. I am sure that there are variations on the story where this isn’t applicable.

Stockholm Syndrome is the result of a bond that forms between hostage and captor. It consists of “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.”* It is, generally speaking,  a survival strategy;  “the victim’s need to survive is stronger than his impulse to hate the person who has created the dilemma.”** It often begins from a fear that the hostage’s positive demonstrations toward the captor will be perceive as fake. Therefore the hostage convinces him/herself that the feelings are genuine.  It typically develops when the hostage and captor have up close contact, long term, and the captor makes the hostage feel “helpless, powerless, and submissive”. When the captor doesn’t beat, abuse, or rape the captive, it’s seen by the captive as kindness.

In most versions of Beauty and the Beast, the Beast makes it clear that Belle’s life is not in danger. All of her basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc) are seen to. Belle doesn’t see her survival as dependent on pleasing the beast. In many incarnations she does things that could potentially make him angry (from refusing marriage proposals to just telling him off). She clearly doesn’t see her physical safety as being at risk.

Also, Stockholm Syndrome tends to occur when  a hostage and a captor are together constantly in close quarters.  Belle is usually alone for long periods when she chooses to be. She has a general freedom to roam around the castle and the grounds. If she so chooses, she almost never has to see the Beast. Yes, the Beast in the Disney film says “if she doesn’t eat with me, she doesn’t eat”, but she quickly discovers that eating is a matter of going downstairs and getting some food. In some versions of the tale she and the Beast are alone in the castle. In others there are servants around. This is also an argument against Stockholm Syndrome which usually forms when a hostage and captor are alone together.

In fact, Belle’s status as a hostage is arguable. She chooses to take her father’s punishment (whatever that may be) in his place. She agrees to the Beast’s terms for their lives together. When she is released from those terms, she leaves. She returns, in most versions, to prevent some kind of harm from coming to the Beast. She has agency in all of these circumstances. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that she’s with the Beast because she wants to be, right from the beginning, she is there based on her own choices.

In the Disney film, Belle even breaks the terms of their agreement at the first sign of potential violence from the Beast. This makes it clear to him that she will not stand for that behavior. When the Beast is hurt saving Belle from the wolves, she returns the favor by saving him. He is injured and vulnerable. She is in the position of power. She could leave him there and head home. She doesn’t. At this point, the hostage/captor relationship hasn’t gone on long enough for Stockholm Syndrome to develop. She’s been in the castle for only a few hours and spent all of about 15 minutes with the Beast. It is a conscious, rational decision to return and help the Beast, in exchange for his help to her.

In most versions Belle makes a choice to befriend the Beast based on the changes in his behavior. Someone experiencing Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t make this decision on a conscious level.  It’s a survival instinct, that is  unnecessary based on the terms of Belle’s captivity. If she had Stockholm Syndrome she would believe that the Beast is kind simply because he doesn’t beat/rape/abuse her. That isn’t the case here.  She makes the Beast work harder than that for her friendship. In most versions he needs to extend kindness and consideration on a regular basis. In some versions the Beast is never very beastly to Belle and always treats her with kindness and consideration. In these, the change comes when Belle is able to see that for what it is- a kind nature.

That’s not to say that the Beast and Belle have a healthy relationship in a contemporary, real world context. But it doesn’t take place in the real world.

When I wrote Beautiful (coming soon!), some of the accusations of Stockholm Syndrome were on my mind. I wanted to write something that would be very hard to interpret that way. I’m very interested in how readers feel I did with this!

 

*Mackenzie, Ian K. “The Stockholm Syndrome Revisited: Hostages, Relationships, Prediction, Control, and Psychological Science”. Journal For Police Crisis Negotiations. 4: 5–21 – via Elsevior.

**Adorjan, Michael, Tony Christensen, Benjamin Kelly, and Dorothy Pawluch. “Stockholm Syndrome As Vernacular Resource.” The Sociological Quarterly 53.3 (2012): 454-74. SocINDEX with Full Text [EBSCO]. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.