Believed to originally have been created as a reassuring tale for young brides arranged to much older husbands who may appear as “beastly,” Beauty and the Beast has been present for centuries as truly a “tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme.” Although the story has gone through a rampant evolution from a simple tale of a beast asking his prisoner and love interest to marry him every night for nearly a year, to the first animated film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, to a nostalgic yet overwhelmingly progressive film with both a gay character and an alarming amount of black characters living in rural France in the 18th century, the story of a beautiful young woman finding the inner beauty in a hideous beast remains intact. The most widely-known interpretation of the story, besides Phantom of the Opera or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is undoubtedly the Disney movie-musical created in 1991 and reprised in 2017 as a live-action remake. With the development and changes made throughout the story between the Disney adaptations, there is much room for discussion and critique regarding gender politics in the interpretations. The presence of Stockholm Syndrome, the historical context and 18th century process of marriage, and the eroticism of the Beast character all contribute to a broader perspective on both Disney interpretations of Beauty and the Beast.
Undoubtedly, the most discussed and controversial issue on the table in both Disney interpretations of Beauty and the Beast is the presence of Stockholm Syndrome in the title role of Belle. The term Stockholm Syndrome itself refers to the condition exhibited by the four hostages of the 131-hour bank-robbing negotiation in Stockholm, Sweden in August of 1973. The hostages displayed fear of law enforcement intervention coupled with the belief that their captors were actually their saviors and protected them from the police. Although the original case is quite extreme, conditions may vary and the captor/victim relationship could be anywhere from parent/child, to cult leader/cult member. One could dissect the story of Beauty and the Beast and make the connection between Belle’s victimhood and eventual love for the Beast, however a closer look at the symptoms exhibited by a true victim of Stockholm Syndrome will debunk these connections. In both Disney interpretations of the fairy tale, Belle volunteers to take her father’s place in the Beast’s castle as a prisoner. Many victims of Stockholm Syndrome enter the relationship willingly (boyfriend/girlfriend relationships), however, like in the case of Stockholm, Sweden, the victims enter the relationship against their will, by the hand of the captor. For the simple reason that both the 1991 and 2017 versions attempt escape, Belle would only be suffering a mild form of the syndrome, if at all. Although both versions of Belle are rescued by the Beast after their escape and return the favor by returning to the castle to nurse his wounds, they actively continue to miss their fathers and their freedom. Belle remains feisty and critical of the Beast’s temper despite his good-natured deed of rescuing her, and later leaves the castle to rescue her father from Gaston and the villagers. One could argue that if Belle did indeed suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, her fear of rescue would prevent her from leaving the castle to give any assistance to her father. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Emma Watson (starring as Belle in the 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast) was questioned about the presence of Stockholm Syndrome, and replied, “Belle actively argues and disagrees with [Beast] constantly. She has none of the characteristics of someone with Stockholm Syndrome because she keeps her independence, she keeps that freedom of thought.” That being said, if I were to consider any syndrome as piece of the magic of Beauty and the Beast, I would much more likely consider Lima Syndrome. The first documented case of Lima Syndrome refers to a 1996 hostage situation in which members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement took into custody hundreds of guests attending a party at the residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru. In under twelve hours, the hostages were released uninjured. The essence of Lima Syndrome lies in the care or sympathy held for the victim in the mind of the captor. In both Disney interpretations of the story, the Beast’s love far outruns Belle’s. This becomes clear once the Beast releases Belle, taking part in the ultimate act of love, after the iconic dance scene. “… but he was mean and he was coarse and unrefined, but now he’s dear…,” Belle sings after she finishes nursing the Beast’s wounds and they begin to bond. Do I believe that the Beast exhibits Lima Syndrome? In the 2017 version, no, as the characters seem to bond much more with common interests and attitudes. In the 1991 version, possibly. My diagnosis comes down to small detail changes made between the two interpretations.
The historical context of this tale is important for outlining what the gender politics would have been, if entirely historically accurate (which the 2017 filmmakers claim to have attempted). After taking a look at the costume, weaponry, and set design in either interpretation, it’s safe to assume Disney’s Beauty and the Beast takes place in the late 18th century in rural France. As Dana Schwartz of Observer speculates, the approximate year can be pinpointed after learning the live-action Gaston has recently returned from a war, the Seven Year’s War being the best and most likely guess. As the Seven Year’s War ended in 1763, Belle must step out of her home to sing “Belle” and return her book to the local “library” somewhere from 1764-1765. Regardless of what French, 18th century war Gaston fought in, the overarching idea of Gaston as a proper candidate for marriage remains. I must remind the reader that we are referring to a time where one of the only places a woman’s voice could be heard was in a salon where the women acted as hostess and controlled conversation and discussion. “Marriage culture” in the 18th century is mostly believed to have been predominantly based on utility. A woman’s decision to marry was widely considered to be the most important decision of her life. Being an able-bodied war veteran, a notoriously successful game-hunter, and an overall interested candidate with his heart set on one woman, Gaston definitely could be seen as a considerable “trophy,” especially as Belle’s father, Maurice is old, sickly and “he may be dying,” to quote the 1991 animated version. However, Belle and Maurice’s relationship as father and daughter transcends the 18th century norm for said type of relationship. Father was to choose a suitor for daughter, and daughter must then make the final decision to obey, or to most likely elope with another. Maurice in both Disney interpretations seems to stay out of his daughter’s quest for love and companionship, besides the 2017 live-action Maurice line, “You will never marry my daughter,” directed at Gaston. Maurice, a single father of a daughter, is an uncommon 18th century father for many reasons, but his dislike or even indifference towards Gaston may just have caused Belle a life of rural French comfort, had the Beast, the prince, or the castle never existed. As mentioned before, Dana Schwartz of Observer created an intricate timeline to illustrate the danger of Belle choosing the Beast-turned-prince over Gaston in France in the 18th century. The castle would be pillaged by an angry crowd of villagers and commoners who cannot afford bread, the prince would eventually be tried and executed, and Belle would be convicted and guillotined as well. Of course, had Belle chosen Gaston originally before ever running off to the castle, her life would be full of homemaking, children-raising, and cooking upwards of five dozen eggs every morning. But I think the beauty of Beauty and the Beast is that Belle is such an extraordinary and dynamic young girl that transcends the constraints of time periods and societal norms. She is a “funny girl” who reads, invents, teaches others to read. Belle is no 18th century girl, and likewise does not follow the norms of marriage in the 18th century.
A popular podcast, in collaboration with both NPR and South by Southwest, called Pop Culture Happy Hour ordinarily puts out segments about new movies. Their reviews, often critical, bring many new points to the table, especially in the case of their critique of the 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast. A friend of the podcast, Katie Presley of Bitch Media, mentions an excerpt from a book by Susan Bordo entitled The Male Body. The excerpt brings into question the eroticism ingrained in the Beast character, and the creation of the enchanted object characters of Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and company. Upon reading the book myself and finding the exact excerpt Katie Medley spoke of, I find myself in agreeance with her. In the 1991 animated version, Belle refers to Gaston as “positively primeval.” This line, though originally included to illustrate Gaston’s primitive way of thinking in Belle’s reading habits, appears as an ironic reference to the Beast character. Bordo continues to point out the animalistic mannerisms the Beast displays throughout the 1991 animated movie, and how they contribute to sexual overtones created in the story. Like many other Disney fans, I first viewed the 1991 animated version of the tale at a very young age, and never connected the dots to reveal any sort of sexual overtone at any point in the story. However, the release of the 2017 live-action version and the avid research for this project has shown me that many other viewers, besides myself, found themselves disappointed after the Beast returned to his human form. According to Bordo, this was a concern among the Disney filmmakers who had opened and reopened the story over the years for consideration of adaptation, and eventually lead to the creation of possibly the most iconic characters of either movies: Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, Chip, and the rest of the enchanted objects in the castle who were cursed alongside the Beast. The idea behind these characters was to provide constant chaperones in the castle for the Beast and Belle, so as to stamp out any controversial fires relating to the sexualized characterization of the Beast. While this certainly is a possibility, I was unable to find any sources Bordo cited for this claim. Whether or not the enchanted object characters were created for the reason of being chaperones, they have only appeared in the Disney interpretations of the story. In the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD of the 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast, certain filmmakers referred to the organic character creation as an effort to bring new life to such an old yet timeless story, and to give it more of a quirky and child-friendly color. Howard Ashman was the one to originally propose the creation of the object characters, as the original screenplay excluding them proved “too dark.” This darkness could very well refer to the blatant eroticism of the Beast, creating sexual overtones in the story, or simply refer to the tendency of children to view the film of that of the horror genre without the comic relief of dancing candlesticks, relatable and mischievous teacups, and motherly teapots.
From the controversy of Stockholm/Lima Syndrome, to the historical context and 18th century process of marriage, to the sexual overtones and creation of the enchanted object characters, both Disney interpretations of Beauty and the Beast remain true to the original fairy tale with a timeless and colorful flair that has both earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture (1991) and a #17 spot on the All Time Worldwide Box Office list (2017). Although Beauty and the Beast has withstood the test of time, new ideas and interpretations have sprouted from the ancient seed. Whether those ideas stay more in the realm of characterization, plot development, or historical context, they bring infinitely more discussion to the table in the realm of storytelling and literature as well as cinema. How ironic is it that the story once used as a sympathetic crutch for young brides of ancient times now bears the label of the story of the first “feminist” Disney princess? To simply say, “it’s just a children’s movie,” is to discredit every careful move filmmakers have made to explore these subtle concepts of gender theory within a timeless story of love, strength, and acceptance. Both films, rather than bearing a label of “just a children’s movie” should be both used as an important tool and looked upon as a form of literary and cinematic art.
Beauty and the Beast. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, performances by Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, and Jesse Corti, Walt Disney Pictures, 1991.
Beauty and the Beast. Directed by Bill Condon, performances by Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, and Luke Evans, Mandeville Films and Walt Disney Pictures, 2017.
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Burton, Neel, MD, “What Underlies Stockholm Syndrome?” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201203/what-underlies-stockholm-syndrome. Accessed 6 April 2017
Breznican, Anthony. “Beauty and the Beast: Emma Watson addresses questions over Beast relationship.” Entertainment Weekly, 16 February 2017, http://ew.com/movies/2017/02/16/beauty-and-the-beast-emma-watson-belle-beast-relationship/. Accessed 6 April 2017.
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“‘Beauty and the Beast,’ Music, And More From South By Southwest” Pop Culture Happy Hour from Monkey See and NPR, 24 March 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2017/03/24/520807945/beauty-and-the-beast-music-and-more-from-south-by-southwest
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Cronin, Bryan. “Was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Re-Tooled Because Belle Wasn’t Enough of a Feminist?” 2 May 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-cronin/was-disneys-beauty-and-th_b_9819154.html. Accessed 10 April 2017