Disney Debunk: Beauty & The Beast
Updated: Apr 13
April 11, 2023
By: Patrick Wu
“Think of the one thing that you’ve always wanted. Now find it in your mind’s eye and feel it in your heart.”
Those words seemed to leap off the screen and hang in the air. My popcorn breath coated each letter as they began to engrain themselves as a memory. As I replayed the magical moment in my mind, I couldn’t help feeling enlightened by the singing appliances, expressive animation, and captivating storyline. Beauty and the Beast was infused with the most Disney magic of any Disney movie I’d seen in my seven years of life and has stood the test of time as one of my favorite Disney movies to date.
Courtesy of Disney
Disney Romance Takes a Dark Turn
Yet, there’s always been a stormy cloud that attaches itself to the backend of Beauty and the Beast, which is the claim that the romance depicted is actually Stockholm Syndrome, the psychological phenomenon that occurs when a hostage bonds with, identifies with and sympathizes with their captor. Although it may sound quite far-fetched, forms of Stockholm Syndrome can often be seen in marriages, sports teams, and parenting. These examples are defined by a sort of ‘tough love’ gone haywire situation. The most famous case of Stockholm Syndrome was during a bank robbery in 1973, which was also the first instance of Stockholm Syndrome ever recorded. Four bank employees were held hostage for 131 hours in a bank vault following a heist attempt. However, upon their release, they developed positive feelings towards their captors and held sudden animosity towards the authorities. Soon, more and more reports of Stockholm Syndrome began popping up all over the world, and when Disney released Beauty and the Beast in 1991, critics were quick to smear it with the Stockholm Syndrome label. But, contrary to popular belief, Beauty and the Beast is not at all a fairy tale hinged upon Stockholm Syndrome, rather it's a progressive story about breaking societal norms and discovering one’s hidden worth.
Courtesy of Disney
According to the Farlex Medical Dictionary, one of Stockholm Syndrome’s defining traits is a hostage and captor. Although Belle is technically the Beast’s prisoner in Beauty and the Beast, she wound up in that position through a contract rather than a kidnapping. When she finds her father, Maurice, trapped in the Beast’s castle, she’s the one who proposes to be the Beast’s prisoner instead. Belle understands exactly what she was getting into and willingly involves herself in the affair, displaying her bravery and self-sacrifice rather than the Beast’s manipulation. Furthermore, Stockholm syndrome often occurs when the hostage and captor are in close contact with each other. At the beginning of her stay, the Beast simply leaves Belle to her own devices and even allows her to wander the entire castle (save for the West Wing). Belle spends most of her time alone in her room, walking up and down the empty hallways, and chatting with the enchanted objects around the castle. Having such little social interaction with the Beast, Belle never had the chance to connect with him. With just their first encounter to go off of, Belle’s impression of him only served to worsen over time.
Along that vein, Stockholm Syndrome hostages must show signs of sympathy for their captors. The Farlex Medical Dictionary also says that people with Stockholm Syndrome tend to misinterpret abuse as ‘tough love’. These people often have the belief that with enough love, their captor can change their ways. Today, we can often see signs of this in abusive relationships. Although Belle does begin to care for the Beast towards the end of her stay, it is only after the Beast consciously makes an effort to change his attitude does she show compassion towards him.
Courtesy of Disney
Prior to his major character growth, Belle viewed the Beast as a neglectful and ill-tempered creature, the same way he’s viewed himself for ten years. The Beast tries to force Belle to have dinner with him, but she actively refuses each time he offered. She even states that she wants nothing to do with the Beast after he pounds on her door and tells her to starve if she doesn’t come to dinner with him. She talks back to the Beast and uses her wit to throw snappy remarks when she’s had enough of his antics. His constant temper tantrums and plate-throwing never draw her to feel sympathy for him, and only push her further away from him. When she breaks his only rule and goes into the West Wing, he lashes out at her and frightens her so much that she ends up running away. Belle is never once disillusioned about her situation and establishes time and time again that she will not acknowledge the Beast’s bad behavior, which is something he hasn’t been confronted about in a long time. This defiance actually ends up pushing the Beast to realize that the way he acts is unacceptable, and he tries to be better as a result.
Courtesy of Disney
Once the Beast begins to do things for Belle, such as saving her from the wolves, we see Belle give him some respect in return. After he saves her, she takes him back to the castle to tend to his wounds. The Beast now understands that the only way Belle will treat him nicely is if he does the same for her. Stockholm Syndrome indicates that the captor is the one imposing themselves onto the hostage, but in Beauty and the Beast, Belle is the one who’s impressing her traits and ideals onto the Beast. She’s the one who inspires him to be more compassionate and understanding, which we see when he gives her his library, dances with her, and has a playful snowball fight. Now, although providing extravagant gifts to make up for one’s bad behavior is something that Stockholm Syndrome captors often do, it is only to prolong and deepen the effects of Stockholm Syndrome on the hostage.
The Beast clearly isn’t trying to build up and break down Belle by putting up a ‘nice’ facade; he’s genuinely turning over a new leaf because he never goes back to his ruthless ways. From here on out, Belle’s sincerity only grows on the Beast more and more. Yet it never consumes him, as neither Belle nor the Beast gives themselves up completely for one another. In the oatmeal scene (one of my absolute favorite scenes of all time), we see the Beast stuff his face into his bowl of oatmeal while Belle eats hers with a spoon. When the Beast tries to eat with a spoon, he struggles, so Belle puts down her spoon, and raises her bowl to drink the oatmeal, and the Beast follows suit. Neither Belle nor the Beast is willing to fully conform to the other, so they meet halfway instead. They’ve built upon each other rather than one dominating the other.
Courtesy of Disney
Stockholm Syndrome’s effects continue even after they’ve left their captors. Some people actually want to remain with their captors or stay around them for an extended period of time which can stem from feeling indebted to their captor. However, when Belle finds out that her father is dying in the forest, she pleads with the Beast to let her leave and take care of her father. The Beast allows Belle to go, and she does. Given the choice between family and the Beast, Belle chose family. Belle isn’t subject to a distorted sense of bondage but is able to make decisions that are in her best interests alone. Upon leaving the castle, Belle tells Chip she doesn’t really have plans to go back, and that her priority is taking care of her ailing father. It’s only when Gaston rallies the villagers to hunt down and kill the Beast, that Belle has no choice but to go back and save him.
Now, many people point to her return to the castle as a major sign of her Stockholm Syndrome, but Belle’s return was actually incited by Gaston and the villagers’ bloodlust rather than an unnatural dependence on the Beast. She knows that the Beast has changed and isn’t the malicious monster everyone thinks he is. She isn’t running back to the aggressive and sulky bully she once met, she’s jumping into the fray to save her reformed and kind friend. Furthermore, Belle never even knew she loved the Beast until he was on his deathbed. She’d just begun to realize that the Beast was the only person (besides her father) who’d gotten to know her for who she was and truly appreciate her. As such, her return to the castle couldn’t have been out of faulty and blind love, it was because Belle was courageous enough to do the right thing and prevent unnecessary bloodshed.
Courtesy of Disney
The True Beauty Behind "Beauty and the Beast"
Beauty and the Beast tells the story of two unlikely lovers, each of whom challenges societal views in their own way. The Beast is shunned for what he looks like, a brutish behemoth, and Belle is an outcast for who she is, a total nerd in the best sense. Yet, the Beast lets his insecurities and differences consume him to the point where he begins to act like a monster, whereas Belle embraces who she is and throws herself into the world of literature. Belle teaches us that there is strength in compassion and mercy and that you can stand up for yourself with words and ideas. Her effect on the Beast teaches us that humanity comes from vulnerability and that a cold heart just needs a warm smile to help it thaw. Though their love may seem like twisted psychology at first, a closer look reveals that it's deeply rooted in compromise, growth, and genuine admiration for one another. Critics and pessimists may try to bring down this ‘tale as old as time’, but their broad assumptions often overlook the truth, which is ironic considering the movie’s main moral: not to judge a book by its cover.
Patrick Wu is a sophomore studying Finance at NYU Stern with a minor in BEMT. He’s an avid sports fan and you can always find him catching the latest basketball, football, soccer, or e-sports match.