There has been much debate over the years on the…let’s say, authenticity, of Belle’s love for the Beast in Disney’s film, Beauty and the Beast. The most common argument is that Belle is not in love with the Beast at all, but eventually falls for him do to a mental condition called Stockholm Syndrome. This condition is commonly defined as when a victim over a time starts to sympathize with his or her captor. Since Belle is, technically, a “prisoner” in a Beast’s castle, I suppose it’s easy to make the assumption that she suffers from this mental condition – if one is ignorant of the details and facts of it. Those who accuse Belle of having Stockholm Syndrome are wrong on many accounts, by both the specifics of this condition, and the story and characterization in the movie itself.
Stockholm Syndrome is technically a defense mechanism: simply put, an unconscious way the brain reacts in order to protect itself from any potentially harmful feelings or situations. In other words, it’s a survival mechanism. In order for a defense mechanism to come into play, the subject has to feel threatened enough to where the mind’s only interest is that of protection and survival, and all rational thought is put to the back of the brain. Now, this is important – Stockholm Syndrome is, first and foremost, an irrational mental condition: “This condition does not result from a conscious decision or a rational choice to befriend a captor.” Someone who consciously decides to befriend his or her captor does not suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. All of its power lies within the unconscious mind, when it pulls out this defense mechanism at a desperate attempt for survival.
Now, relating this back to Beauty and the Beast: when Belle is made a prisoner of the Beast, befriending the (rather horrifying at the time) creature is clearly the last thing on her mind: “I don’t want to get to know him! I don’t want to have anything to do with him!” All throughout the first act of this story, as the Beast continues to be rude and unkind, Belle is unbudging in her feelings of hatred towards him. Although she is obviously afraid of him, fear does not push her into submission, as she outright refuses to be pushed around (as when he “asks” her to go to dinner); with Stockholm Syndrome, the hostage’s behavior is very much the opposite: “Hostages are encouraged to develop psychological characteristics pleasing to hostage takers, such as dependency; lack of initiative; and an inability to act, decide, or think”. Not only does Belle never act this way to begin with, but as the story continues and she and the Beast’s bond grow stronger over time, if Stockholm Syndrome were to be present in Belle, she would eventually become submissive and weak due to fear. But there is no evidence of her lacking any sort of emotional or psychological independence as the story goes on: although she grows fond of the Beast, she obviously has enough independence and sense of self to leave when the Beast lets her go, which most of those with Stockholm Sydrome, due to the strong mental constrictions of the defense mechanism, are simply unable to do.
Backtracking a bit to before Belle and the Beast become friends: the only time Belle does feel threatened to the point of fearing for her survival (when the Beast tears apart the West Wing), the defense mechanism that her unconscious pulls out is probably the most logical one in the circumstances: to flee. Not once, but twice – including after the Beast saves her from the wolves. Her unconscious and her instincts are still screaming for her to flee, even after she is safe – but instead, she makes a conscious decision to help the Beast and not leave him to die. Not only is it a conscious decision (is that term nailed into your head yet?) on her part, but it is a logical one: the Beast had just saved her life, the direct opposite of what Belle unconsciously feared the Beast would do to her. In Freudian terms, her super-ego and her id are in major conflict at this point: to leave and be free with guaranteed survival, or to do the right thing and save the one who had just saved her? Considering that Belle doesn’t have much to fear from the Beast at this point, it is totally reasonable to assume that Belle taking the Beast back to the castle is a logical and safe choice on her part.
And now, we finally get to Belle and the Beast’s blossoming friendship and – eventually – love. This is when most people argue that Belle’s Stockholm Syndrome starts to develop: after the Beast saves her from the wolves. Now, if the Beast had continued to be as cruel and unkind to Belle as he had been at the beginning of the movie, and then Belle started falling for him? Then yes, I’d agree wholeheartedly that she had Stockholm Syndrome. But the thing is – Belle only starts becoming friends with the Beast after he stops being an ass and starts acting like a kind and compassionate creature.
With most cases of Stockholm Syndrome, the hostage takes small acts of kindness that the captor does for them, and unconsciously over-exaggerates them in their mind – for example, the captor gives the hostage a balloon, as s/he sincerely considers them Mother Theresa for doing so. In other words, the reaction to the captor’s “gift” is not equal to the action of the hostage giving it – and in the eyes of the hostage, the captor’s “gift” is often just allowing them to live: “Captives often misinterpret a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence.” Belle at this point of the story does not befriend the Beast because he’s allowing her to live (and she believes there’s a true risk of him killing her, which is only how Stockholm Syndrome can be manifested), or even the fact that he saved her life (though that probably helped him gain enough of her trust to stay). It’s when the Beast actually shows his affection for her by giving Belle a certain something that things start to turn around. And I don’t know about you, but I think Belle’s reaction to the Beast giving her an entire library to be pretty damn appropriate, especially for a bookworm whose only previous source of books was a small-town peasant library.
Belle interacts with the Beast more and more due to the fact that the Beast has grown softer and kinder, which is visible to not only to her, but to the other servants – and most importantly, to the audience. Many wouldn’t disagree that the Beast is much less of a monster and more like an awkward love-struck puppy by this point of the movie. There isn’t a temper tantrum or scary look to be seen from the Beast now. Belle warming up to the Beast isn’t at all irrational with this in mind. And since Stockholm Syndrome is an irrational condition, it’s fair to assume that their relationship is in a “normal” emotional place at this point of the story.
Also, in order for Stockholm Syndrome to be a factor, there has to be a constant awareness in both of the position of “captor” and “hostage” – one always has to appear more dominate than the other. Thus, the weaker of the two befriends the dominate more out of fear that the dominant with use their power against them. This is not the case in this relationship. In fact, Belle is the one who takes the Beast’s ego down a few notches (“And you should learn to control your temper!”). Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the Beast’s line to Belle when he lets her go in the stage version: “You’re not longer my prisoner…you haven’t been for a long time.” Except for Belle’s loss in her father, which cannot be forgotten about since it’s the factor that separates them at the end of the film (and the fact that Belle actually leaves furthermore proves that her attachment to the Beast hasn’t overridden her responsibility for her father; the Beast is obviously important to her, but her sense of duty and love for her father comes first in her mind, and she acts as any sensible and loving daughter would act), the two of them seem to have mostly forgotten who is the master and who is the prisoner in this relationship in their mutual happiness and possibly of love.
There’s also something very important to be considered with this specific case of “prisoner” and “captor” – there are other people involved. In fact, there are dozens of them – possibly hundreds. An important factor in Stockholm Syndrome is that the hostage only interacts with the captor, and so more or less forgets how everyday relationships work, and how we ordinarily interact in them. Thus, it’s easier for the hostage to assume that their relationship with the captor to be a loving one (even if it is abusive in reality), since it’s all they know after a time. But this is very much not the case with Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast. Belle makes many friends with the other servants in the castle due to how well they treat her (but the reasons behind such treatment belong to a different essay entirely…), and Belle interacts normally with them all on a daily basis. True, she is kept away from her father, an important factor in her life, as well as the rest of the outside world, but it’s rather obvious that Belle wasn’t very involved with her surrounding environment to begin with: having virtually no friends and hardly taking the time to take her nose out of her books, she lived much more in her mind than through social interactions. In truth, she interacts with more people in the castle –and has more, um, “options” – than she ever probably did in her hometown (most didn’t think very highly of her thanks to her love of reading). So then…why didn’t Belle fall in love with Lumiere? Cogsworth? If she could fall in love with a Beast, it wouldn’t be unusual for her to fall for another …inhuman personality. But obviously, love has something more to do than who you’re trapped with, with real love has anything to do with it.
Now…what about love? Well, since Belle and the Beast’s friendship had absolutely no basis in Stockholm Syndrome, then why on earth would their love have any? Nothing has really changed in how either of them treats each other in the stages between friendship and “something more” to assume as much. If anything, the Beast’s looks have become warmer, and his touch more loving (notice how tenderly he runs his massive claws through her hair) – and in all truthiness, whose heart wouldn’t be moved to be treated in such a way? He not only acts like a perfect gentleman, but a sincere lover – not a trace of his former cruelty is to be seen. It is not more than reasonable for Belle to start to love him?