When Emma Watson was given the lead role in Disney's upcoming live action Beauty and the Beast, there were mixed reactions. Some rejoiced, some groaned, and some were baffled. The confused reactions stemmed not from a place of judgement in regards to Watson's acting abilities, but her choice to take the main part in one of Disney's more controversial stories.
Emma Watson's a loud and proud feminist, and yet she's starring in a film that's been accused of not only glorifying abusive relationships, but what looks to be a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome.
True to her form, Watson responded to concerns regarding her character Belle's relationship with her captor/roommate, the Beast. She vehemently denied the idea of Belle suffering from Stockholm Syndrome due to one important detail— her independence:
"Stockholm syndrome is where a prisoner will take on the characteristics of, and fall in love with, in this really strange way, their captor. Belle actively argues and disagrees with [the Beast] constantly. She has none of the characteristics of someone with Stockholm syndrome. Because she keeps her independence. She keeps her independence of mind."
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While Watson does make a valid distinction between the stubborn, feisty Belle and a dependent prisoner, her definition of Stockholm Syndrome is oversimplified at best. The fact is, like most mental disorders, Stockholm Syndrome is complex and varies a lot from case to case— and diagnosing fictional characters with mental disorders isn't as straightforward as you might think.
What Is Stockholm Syndrome?
Stockholm Syndrome is a mental disorder known to affect hostage or kidnap victims. Those suffering from Stockholm Syndrome become sympathetic and even attached to their captors, often believing they have their best interest at heart. It's an irrational emotional bond resulting from an urge to survive.
There criteria for diagnosis varies, though the following symptoms are common:
- Forming positive feelings for captor
- Mistrust of anyone who can help, such as authorities
- A reluctance to escape, even when the opportunity is presented
As bizarre as it sounds, Stockholm Syndrome is often a result of a victim's feigned sympathetic behavior towards their captor evolving into legitimate feelings as their mind attempts to cope with the situation.
Could there be a chance that the relationship in #BeautyAndTheBeast bears any similarity to a Stockholm Syndrome-type situation, despite what Watson claims? Let's break it down.
The Beast As A Captor
Everyone's been guilty of nicking a cheeky flower from their neighbor's front yard, but how often is that sort of petty thievery punished by eternal imprisonment? Our introduction to the Beast demonstrates his tendency to intensely overreact to the slightest offense— a characteristic that's carried throughout the film.
The Beast is incredibly controlling, with out-of-control anger issues. He often uses his stature to tower over Belle and intimidate her. In fact, their interactions are very similar to an abusive relationship. Watson claims to "give as good as she gets", but that doesn't excuse the disturbing way she's treated.
Abusive dynamics aside, there's no denying that Belle is a prisoner. Upon trading places with her father, the Beast warns Belle that "once this door closes, it will not open again." He also constantly refers to her as "the prisoner", is enraged when he finds out she's been released from her cell and given a bedroom, and threatens to let her starve if she doesn't have dinner with him. It's not just an abusive relationship— it's a classic prisoner scenario.
Belle's Choice To Stay
The biggest argument against the Beauty and the Beast Stockholm Syndrome theory is Belle's choice to stay. She willingly trades places with her father, volunteering to serve his sentence for the crime of stealing from the Beast. She even returns after leaving— all of her own volition.
But was Belle's decision to be locked up really her own choice? If anything, she was given an ultimatum and did what she had to in order to save her father. The effect of imprisonment at his age could have fatal consequences; how far would you go to save your family?
More importantly, Belle says the following to her father before he leaves:
"I will escape, I promise."
And escape is exactly what she tries to do:
Belle was buying time for her father, and had no intention of staying. She was doing the best she could with a desperate situation.
Unfortunately, playing along with what her captor wanted — a willing prisoner — evolved into something far worse: love.
Falling In Love With The Beast
People aren't objects to be traded or bargained with, and yet this sentiment is lost on the residents of the castle. To the Beast, she's worthless; but to his servants-turned-household objects, she's something to be used— a key to "breaking the spell".
They encourage the Beast to "charm her", and that's exactly what he does. They don't want the best for Belle. They just want the curse to be broken so they can return to their true human form. It's a selfish agenda, and one that completely ignores the wellbeing of Belle as a victim.
Of course, the "charming" works. Belle's hostility towards the Beast is replaced by wonder stemming from the magic of the castle, and the things he can offer her— opulent feasts, ball gowns, and an impressive library. Slowly but surely, she falls in love with her captor.
What's even more disturbing is how much her opinion of him changes. Mrs. Potts insists he's "not as terrible as he appears", and Belle begins to believe her. The 1991 animated version shows Belle trying to reassure her father that her captor isn't the bad guy:
"But he's different now, Papa. He's... changed somehow."
It's a sentiment echoed by plenty of women in abusive relationships. They focus on the rare snippets of compassion their abusers show them, constantly holding on to that image rather than leaving. It's called the cycle of abuse, and it's the reason so many choose to stay in abusive situations. You can't expect someone in an abusive relationship to make the best choices for themselves— something that's been shown time and time again in cases of Stockholm Syndrome.
Is 'Beauty And The Beast' Really About Stockholm Syndrome?
So is Beauty and the Beast really a glorification of Stockholm Syndrome? It's highly likely. Belle definitely exhibits many of the symptoms, and the Beast is without a doubt her captor.
In fact, as heinous as the villainous Gaston may appear, he's almost on par with the Beast. They both want to use Belle as a bargaining chip in order to gain unwilling companionship with her— either as a captive in the Beast's castle, or as Gaston's trophy wife. To them, Belle is nothing more than a prize prisoner.
Nevertheless, the issue of Stockholm Syndrome isn't even the biggest problem with Beauty and the Beast. The dynamic between Belle and the Beast is undoubtedly an abusive one. The idea that you should overlook your partner's threatening behavior because you have strong feelings for them is not okay. Stockholm Syndrome or not, Beauty and the Beast not only glorifies unhealthy relationships, but sends the message that abusive behavior is completely acceptable.
What do you think about Belle and the Beast's relationship in Beauty and the Beast?