I’ve heard the criticism of the Disney 1991 Beauty and the Beast countless times – that it teaches girls to stay in abusive relationships, that it’s an example of Stockholm Syndrome, etc. So I was a little surprised when I sat down and actually watched it recently.
When the movie first came out, I enjoyed it moderately. As a fairy tale aficionado, I was disappointed in the needless subplot Disney added in the form of Gaston, as well as the ways in which Disney deviated from the traditional tale. Still, overall, I found it to be an acceptable cartoon adaptation of one of my favorite tales. I never thought it encouraged women to stay in abusive relationships, and I’m happy to say that I was right back then. Beauty and the Beast, the Disney version, is NOT a defense of an abusive relationship, and here are 10 reasons why.
10. Belle volunteers to stay with the Beast, knowing he is a Beast. In Stockholm Syndrome, the victim is held against her will. As far as abusive relationships, people don’t start them with abusive jerks – they start them with people who pretend to be kind.
9. The Beast never restrains Belle. At one point she runs away, and the Beast shows up to rescue her. When Belle asks to go see her father, the Beast lets her go. Again, this is the opposite of the situation with Stockholm Syndrome. And most abusers won’t let their targets maintain family relationships.
8. The Beast never uses abusive language towards Belle. He never calls her names. He never criticizes her personal opinions or choices.
7. The Beast never gaslights Belle. He doesn’t deny her situation, or tell her she’s imagining things. He never deliberately leads her to believe one story, only to tell another totally different story.
6. The Beast allows Belle to make her own choices. When she says “No” to his dinner invitation he is furious, yes. He rages and throws a tantrum about it. But ultimately, he accepts her answer. He doesn’t force her to leave her room, even though he easily could.
5. The Beast gives Belle a gift with no strings attached. He gives her the entire library to read, and expects nothing in return.
4. The Beast accepts responsibility for his own actions. After he is injured rescuing Belle, he initially blames her for his injuries. But when she points out the truth of the matter, he sees that she is right and acknowledges it. When the servants coach Beast in modifying his behavior in order to be more polite, he makes an effort rather than expecting everyone to just accept him.
3. The Beast changes his behavior. This is probably the biggest way in which people THINK that the movie shows an abusive relationship. In domestic abuse, the target (and bystanders) often believe that the target is capable of motivating the abuser to change his behavior. This is why is can take 7 or more attempts to leave an abusive situation – because an abuser CAN control the abuse when s/he chooses too. The misunderstanding is that the target is the one in control. The abuser is in control. Always. In Beauty and the Beast, we see that Belle truly does influence Beast’s behavior. He allows her to influence him.
2. The Beast sacrifices his own desires on Belle’s behalf. He doesn’t want Belle to leave him, especially since he’s so close to the moment when his transformation into a Beast will become permanent. But he doesn’t tell Belle what is happening, or guilt trip her. He simply puts her desires ahead of his own.
1. At the end, Belle comes to see the good character within the gruff shell of the Beast, and she is correct. We like to blame targets for believing the best about their abusers, so when a woman defends a man who seems unattractive or unkind, we assume she is delusional and the man is abusive. But in this case, Belle is completely correct. The Beast truly is a good man. Not a perfect man. But a good one.
A final thought. I recently found a retelling of this lovely story in my Blue Fairy Book, and read it to my 5 year old. I found this retelling to be even more fascinating and enjoyable than the Disney version. When it come to fairy tales, the book is always better than the movie!