I took my daughter to see the new version of Beauty and the Beast. She’s about the same age now that I was when the original came out. As far as I can tell–she has fairly severe autism–she enjoyed it. The music is mostly familiar, she already knows the story and characters, and the visuals are stunning. I liked it quite a bit.
When I first saw the original, I was an unsophisticated teenager who preferred action movies. I am now a professional writerfolk who prefers action movies. The difference is minor, as I’m pretty good at shutting off my brain and enjoying visual media in the moment. But there is a difference. That difference lies in how much I think about the story later.
Perhaps predictably, the Stockholm Syndrome memes and discussions popped up before the new movie even came out. I don’t subscribe to this view of the story, and I’ll explain why in a minute. The homosexual tones of LeFou didn’t bother me, as it felt as authentic as anything else in the story. Really, it explains a lot about LeFou the original movie left vague. In fact, I quite liked that many plot holes in the original were filled by adding bits and bobs to the characters and their stories. Bravo, writerfolk! And thank you so much for explaining the whole weird seasons thing. That’s always bothered me. A lot.
On to the main point!
Stockholm Syndrome: strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.
I think the accusation is unfairly applied to this particular story. People point and say here’s a captor and a victim and they fall in love. Textbook definition! But the reality of the story is more complex than that. Here’s why:
In this version of the story, Belle does not have a character arc.
If you take some time to consider the plot and what really happens, you’ll notice that zero female characters have actual arcs. Only men do. Gaston’s arc takes him from almost-charming, not-really-that-bad narcissistic town hero to brutal villain. The Beast’s arc takes him from selfish asshat to empathetic human. Maurice’s arc is about learning to let go of his fear of losing Belle. It can be argued that LeFou has a bit of an arc, but that’s questionable since he really only reacts to how Gaston changes.
That’s it. Those are the character arcs. No one else grows or changes. Yes, Belle falls in love, but she doesn’t do that because she changes. Belle starts as a smart, empathetic person and ends as a smart, empathetic person. She begins capable of sacrifice and compromise, and also ends that way. The scene where she lifts her bowl to drink from it instead of using a spoon isn’t a growth point, it’s an obvious gesture because she’s compassionate. The things she learns reinforce her viewpoint without challenging it. She stands up to the Beast the same way she stands up to Gaston and everyone else.
So, at it’s heart, this is a story about two physically intimidating men who each react to the presence of a woman who’s a fundamentally better human being than them. I’ve read there’s also a metaphor involved, where Howard Ashman wanted Beast to represent AIDS in our society, and that’s noble. Doesn’t change the point.
If this story has a victim to anything like Stockholm Syndrome, I argue it’s the Beast. He’s the prisoner. He’s much more locked in that castle than she is. Heck, she climbs out the window and rides away, proving escape isn’t that hard. She helps him out of compassion, then beats him in a contest of wills. The Beast is the one who caves and changes his behavior to conform to Belle, not the other way around.
From a certain point of view, Belle is effectively a MacGuffin that Beast and Gaston each want to possess for different reasons and pursue with different methodologies. For Beast, Belle is freedom from the hellprison Agathe (the witch) locked him into. For Gaston, Belle is the reward he deserves for a virtuous life.
As for Agathe herself, in the original, this was the real beginning of Disney moving away from women always being villains. In this story, she’s the cause of the story itself, but not in a bad way. I see her as a Virgin Mary figure who’s kind of chuffed that her son turned into such an ass instead of the wise ruler she’d hoped for. Perhaps she’s even intended to be Beast’s mother who, for whatever reason, couldn’t take the throne when her husband died and fled in exile from her son’s asshat advisors. Thus, in a way, she’s actually a much more important character than Belle.
Which brings me back to the point. (I think? I rambled and SQUIRREL!) Despite being the main character, Belle is really just a set of pre-programmed behaviors–a robot with more humanity than the two men vying for her affection. This is both good and bad because it creates the idea that women are good and human while also putting women in the awkward position of being not only capable of but responsible for changing men. Thus, it’s your fault if you can’t fix that asshat, and it’s also your fault if that asshat hits you.
Don’t get me wrong. I love this story. The end makes me wonder if someone nearby is cutting onions or something every time. I love seeing girls think that books are awesome because Belle thinks books are awesome. It’s great that people walk away with the idea that people’s looks don’t equate to their value. The music is catchy and fun. But I love it with my eyes open, acknowledging the things I see as faults and incorporating those lessons into my own storytelling.
And hey, at least Belle isn’t a sexy lamp. That’s Lumiere.