The message of the story of “Beauty and the Beast” seems immediately obvious: real beauty lies within, and we should never judge another by their appearance. The person who frightens or repels us because of their looks may be kind and thoughtful and loving, while the person who draws all eyes with their physical beauty may be a monster at heart.
But there’s more, much more. As with all “tales as old as time” that continue to be told over and over, the power of the story lies within its many layers of meaning. Besides the contrast between the handsome, selfish and thoughtless Gaston and the ugly, but generous and loving Beast, the story contrasts the small-minded, easily fooled villagers and the courageous, independent thinker Belle. The story touches on various ways that power can corrupt, as well as on the power in the two-way dynamic of loyalty. And of course it tells us that acting out of love is always the right thing to do.
Many have criticized the story for what they see as a glorification of “Stockholm Syndrome,” when a kidnapped person comes to identify with and even think they love their captor. The film addresses this indirectly, in the scene where the Beast asks Belle if she could ever be happy staying with him, and she says “can anyone be truly happy if they are not free?” Even though she has come to care for the Beast, the fact that she’s his prisoner is never out of her mind. The same desire for independence that made her chafe at life in her provincial village and refuse to marry Gaston still motivates her. The Beast, recognizing this, frees her, which is the act that finally wins her heart.
Still, she began to care for him while she was his prisoner, and this needs explaining. Was it Stockholm Syndrome, or is there something else at work? I think so.
Maurice, Belle’s father, has done his best to protect his daughter from danger all her life. Their little town is small-minded, he admits, “but also safe.” Safety is this loving father’s first concern when it comes to his daughter. Belle has grown up knowing she is loved, supported as much as Maurice can in her aspirations–she can read, a rarity for women at the time–and that she is safe. Gaston reminds her, cruelly, that this safety will die when her father does unless she marries.
But Belle does not want to be safe.
Girls who have been protected from the nastiness of life often have a sense that they are missing out on something, that they’re not experiencing the full richness of life. This sense may be unconscious, but spurs them to actions that bewilder and hopefully upset their parents: the piercings, the tats, the revealing or Goth clothing. Sometimes the parental reaction is enough to satisfy their need to feel they are walking on the edge. But for some girls this is not enough. They tempt fate directly by seeking out the bad boy.
Gaston is not a true bad boy. He’s the football captain of Belle’s high school, as it were, but even if he turns out to be a bully or a rapist, he’ll still be the one all the other kids look up to. He plays within the rules of the society and is a success. The real bad boy does none of this. The bad boy breaks the rules, challenges the way things are, and he does it with a sneer, letting everyone know he’s not about to be coerced into anything. He’s readily provoked to a more dangerous form of violence than Gaston employs.
The good girl knows what Gaston is and what he will try to do. She usually knows how to deal with him. But the bad boy is out of her control. Anything could happen when she’s with him, and that’s the appeal. Whatever he does, it will be something new, something that she senses is going to shake her up and change her world forever, and she wants that. She wants her world to open up beyond the safety of the boundaries she now lives within. The problem is, by keeping her so safe, her parents have never taught her how to venture beyond those boundaries on her own. She doesn’t know how to cross that line. To get out, she has to be abducted. She walks the boundary and flirts with the bad boy in hopes that this is exactly what will happen.
Of course once she is abducted, it’s much worse than she imagined. Her parents were right to fear what might happen to her out there. And sadly, many girls do drown in the wild seas. But some, the ones the stories are about, find their strength, learn to survive, even learn how to navigate danger to find the joy they have been instinctively seeking all along (see “Moana”). They learn how to dance with danger instead of being consumed by it.
Belle is given this opportunity when Maurice is captured by the Beast, and willingly takes her father’s place. She permits her own abduction; she chooses it. But she’s never passive. Once in the castle, she immediately starts probing the new boundaries placed around her, testing them, seeing if she can break through them as well. She’s given a demonstration of the Beast’s power early on, when he fights off a pack of wolves, but she also sees his limits when he is overcome by his wounds. The next time he roars at her in anger, she doesn’t flee; she stands her ground and yells back.
The powerful and scary Beast starts to see her as a person in her own right– and begins to support her individuality in ways no one has ever done before. She loves reading: he gives her a library. She longs to travel: he uses a magic book to take her where she’s always dreamed of going. More importantly, he listens, as we see when he listens to her recite a poem and lets the words open his own mind to things he’s never seen before; when he listens to what she says about her village and realizes that she’s, in a way, a “beast” in the eyes of others too.
One key aspect of heroine stories is that there’s usually a man who, instead of changing the heroine, changes himself to become more like her. He looks at how she is trying to live life as her true self and decides that he too wants to live life that way. Rochester ends up living in Jane Eyre’s house on her terms (after failing to convince her to become his mistress in his mansion); Edward Ferrars of Sense and Sensibility* chooses to live the simple life instead of seeking the fame and fortune his family wants for him after he meets the unpretentious and honest Elinor Dashwood; Celie’s husband in The Color Purple stops being a bully and chooses to join Celie in her new life as a designer and creator of comfortable, freeing clothes.
It’s the opposite of Stockholm Syndrome, for the abductor, the one in power, is the one who falls in love first. He realizes that he is the one in prison. He’s only abducted the other person to have company in his cage. When she shows him the possibility of a wider world, he frees her in the hope that he can follow and that she will let him join her out there.
Belle and the Beast together discover the “much more” that she sings about. The bad boy, the Beast, is the catalyst Belle has deliberately invoked to get herself out of the safe little town and start her journey of exploration.
Having done that, she has no need for the bad boy anymore. Bad boys are just a step on the way. As Jean Grey says to the violent and dangerous Wolverine in the first X-Men movie, “girls fall in love with the bad boy, Logan, but they don’t marry him.” If he wants to stay with her, the bad boy must change. The Beast must become a true prince, a better man, to be worthy of the woman Belle has become because of him.
ADDENDUM APRIL 2: I was reminded last night that this story is a variation on that of Persephone, who is abducted by Hades away from the sunlit world and the loving arms of her mother into the underworld. By the time her mother Demeter has succeeded in threatening Zeus with nonexistence (if she lets all the crops die, Zeus’s worshipers will die too, and a god can’t exist without believers) if he doesn’t force Hades to let Persephone go, Persephone has eaten of the pomegranate, and while she does come home for a while, she is not her mother’s little girl any more, and she can’t stay. There are those who see Persephone as a victim of Stockholm Syndrome as well. When she eats of the pomegranate, she drinks the Koolaid, as we would say today.
This is a superficial reading of a story that is so important to the human psyche that we have to keep telling it over and over. The story is of the overprotected girl who is torn away and shocked awake, shocked into growing up, often through a terrible event like a rape, because without the abduction her mother will treat her like a child forever and she will never reach adulthood, never become a mother herself.
Worse, she will never come into her true power. Persephone is a goddess too, and her destiny is to be a queen, just as Belle’s is. As long as these girls are kept at home, their throne sits empty. When they are stolen away to another realm, is it in fact the abductor they fall in love with, or the destiny they always knew, somehow, was meant to be theirs?
*Dan Stevens has played both Edward Ferrars and the Beast on-screen.