Or, In Defense of A Widely Misunderstood Movie
I freaking love Beauty and the Beast. In addition to the wonderful music, beautiful animation, and good story, what I really love about the movie is the relationship of the titular characters.It’s a heartwarming tale of two misfits who find each other, discover they have a lot of common, and eventually overcome their difference and find true love in one another.
So why is it that it’s often disparaged as a story of ‘abuse’ and/or ‘Stockholm Syndrome’?
I can definitely see how the first act or so would come across this way. At this point, Belle is sad and alone, the Beast is aggressive, and neither of them are happy together. And if you stop watching at that point and live with the knowledge that they get together, yeah, it sounds like a bad relationship. But after the Beast saves Belle from the wolves, their relationship takes a turn for the better.
When the Belle tends to the Beast’s wounds, she does not flinch or cower or look remotely scared or sad when the Beast yells at her. She stands up for herself and calls him out. She also thanks the Beast for saving her life.
See this screenshot? This is the Beast realizing “hey, this is someone who actually doesn’t hate me or think I’m nothing but a hideous beast. this is the first time someone has given me a genuine thank you. Maybe I should change” and then he replies with “You’re welcome”.
Soon after that, he decides he wants to do something for her because he’s “never felt this way about anyone”. NOT because “how do I get this woman to fall in love with me and never leave me?” Because he is smitten by how kind and caring Belle is, and he’s going to become the same for her. And then he encourages her love of books by giving her a library.
Now look at this screenshot:
Look at that face. Look at how genuinely HAPPY he is. This is the first time he’s been so happy in such a long time. Again, not because ‘I’m going to have this girl be mine forever’, but ‘I’m going to do something that will make someone ELSE happy’. And sure enough, Belle is overjoyed.
That’s when the gap between them closes and realizes that they both have a shared love of storytelling, dancing, the arts, and nature. They play with each other, read together, and have dinner and dance together. All the while, the Beast never once raises his voice or antagonizes her. They become kindred spirits with one another, culminating in love. It’s important to note that, during the famous dance scene, Mrs. Potts sings: “Bittersweet and Strange / Finding You Can Change / Learning You Were Wrong” (emphasis mine). The Beast realizes he can change; he doesn’t have to be the monster he looks like. Belle also learns that she can be wrong about others and can look past people’s appearance and initial behaviour to find something good underneath.
But what really dispels the whole Stockholm Syndrome/Abusive relationship theory is that, when Belle finds out that her father is sick, instead of saying “no, stay here” or “go get him, bring him back here”, HE LETS HER GO. And doesn’t even try to guilt trip her into coming back or make Belle think she’s abandoning him. He sets her free, and she LEAVES. That doesn’t sound like an abuser or a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. Belle only comes back when the Beast is in danger and that’s when she realizes she loves him back. And then they can be together.
It’s actually baffling to ignore all the character and relationship development (and genuine displays of affection; I get intense feels whenever the Beast strokes Belle’s face and hair, and she isn’t remotely creeped out by it) and label it as something it is not. I understand not liking the BEGINNING of the relationship, but people act like that’s the ONLY extent of their relationship. It’s kind of gross.
But you know the REAL reason why you shouldn’t dismiss the Belle/Beast relationship (and the movie in general) as a textbook example of Stockholm Syndrome?
Because it’s disrespectful to Howard Ashman.
Howard Ashman was heavily involved with this movie. When he and Alan Menken were brought in to reinvigorate the film (which was going through production problems), Ashman’s health was failing. He was a gay man dying of AIDS (and in the 9os, homosexuality and gay rights were still a bit of a taboo, and the AIDS epidemic was rampant and not properly dealt with) and had been unlucky in love, and he worked on the songs and had some input on the story, heavily basing it on his own life. It’s easy to see what Beauty and the Beast is actually about.
You have the Prince, who is not a nice person, but was only an 11 year old boy (apparently Ashman did intend for the Prince to be child when he was cursed; the reason why the paintings depict him as a lot older is because the animators and other story artists didn’t like the idea), and is punished for behaving badly by being cursed with a ‘disease’ that would wear away at his body and mind. He has to live like this for years on end, and can’t go out without being rejected. The only company he has are his servants, who are no longer human and who can’t interact with him beyond obeying his orders and giving him advice. He languishes for years, hating himself, until he meets someone who is also an outcast (note how, in the song Belle, there are the lyrics “it’s a pity and a sin / she doesn’t quite fit in”) but doesn’t find him repulsive. They bond together, but she has to leave. Then the Beast accepts he is going to succumb to his ailment forever, doesn’t fight back when an angry mob goes after him simply for who he is and what he looks like, and accepts his death, knowing at least that he saw his beloved one last time. But because their love for one another was so powerful, the Beast is free from his spell and they live happily ever after.
There are a lot of analyses of Howard Ashman’s influence on the film that you can read for yourself (I’ll link you to some at the bottom), but it’s pretty obvious that the Beast’s life is an indirect parallel to Ashman’s. The Beast can be seen as a metaphor for someone living with AIDS and is a social recluse because of it, but, unlike Ashman, is cured of his AIDS, finds true love, and is happy, successful, and loved. The entire point of the Beast’s character is not that he’s an angry and bitter creature; he’s someone who’s sick and alone and only gets better when someone puts aside their prejudice and helps him. Even if you don’t think the film is exactly a metaphor for homosexuality since Belle isn’t persecuted and it ends with a (presumably cis) man and woman together, it’s pretty clear that the social outcast and illness parts of Howard’s life are reflected in this movie.
As you can see, reducing Beauty and the Beast to simply a narrative about abusive is really disrespectful, not to mention baseless. You don’t have to like this movie or the relationship, but keep Howard Ashman’s impact on the film in mind before you analyse it or try to rip it apart.
Links for reference:
I also highly recommend watching the “Beyond Beauty” Untold Stories documentary on the Blu-Ray.