Beauty and the Beast: A Feminist Therapy Critique
A few nights ago I was feeling nostalgic. I decided to curl up by my yuletide tree and watch a kids' movie, something that had stirred my heart in childhood. I chose “Beauty and the Beast”, a Disney cartoon I hadn't seen in at least five, maybe ten years. Back then, I was able to overlook the romanticization of Stockholm Syndrome (the woman falling in love with the man holding her prisoner) and connect to the more relatable theme of seeing the good in someone and loving that good into being. But when I watched the film again the other night, I had a very different experience.
Quick Recap and Disclaimer
The story of “Beauty and the Beast,” for those of you who haven't seen it, is as follows. A woman, Belle, (which means beauty in French) is held prisoner by a man who has been transformed into a beast (he is just called “Beast,) after being an asshole to a woman who had magic. Beast holds Belle hostage because he needs someone to fall in love with him to free him of the spell of being a beast so he can go back to being a human prince. In the film, Belle obediently falls in love with Beast and frees him from the curse he brought about by his entitlement and lack of empathy. At no point does Beast own up to his historically bad behavior, aggressive outbursts and mistreatment of his servants, women and all life in general. He just magically becomes a nice guy and they all live happily ever after.
I believe this premise is harmful to women.
In fact, it is harmful to all of us. It is not only women who internalize and enact relationship patterns learned from Belle. For this purpose of this article, I am focusing primarily on women in heterosexual relationships because this is what the film portrays and this is the where I see these patterns showing up the most in my practice. But to be very clear, individuals of ANY gender can take on either the Belle or Beast role and these dynamics can be found across the spectrums of gender identity and sexual orientation.
To Be a Beast
In my personal and professional life, I see women trapped by the belief that they can save the man who is treating them poorly. I witness male aggression, disrespect and emotional abuse being minimized, normalized and excused to the detriment of women's self esteem and emotional well-being. I see women's healthy need for caring connection starved and ridiculed by their partners.
What we now understand thanks to the ever evolving field of neuroscience, is that emotional abuse impacts the brain and nervous system in the same way that physical abuse does. It is just a whole lot easier to minimize and ignore because there are no visible scars.
What stood out to me in the first portion of the Disney movie in question was the Beast's complete lack of empathy. The pervasive message that lack of empathy can be changed if we just love the man enough sets women up for repeated and ongoing abuse. It makes it all too easy for her to blame herself for the abuse when the love she offers isn't enough to bring forth an empathic response from her partner.
Empathy, the ability to recognize, share and be moved by another person's emotions, is a trait most human beings have to varying degrees.
Lack of empathy signals a very dangerous personality type that is prone to cycles of abuse and ego-driven displays of remorse that are hollow and fleeting. In the movie, we are led to believe that Belle's love and understanding bring about a cataclysmic change in the beast, transforming him from an emotionally volatile predator into an altruistic teddy bear. This is the fairytale that I, along with many others, watched as a child. A charming story of a sweet and inquisitive young woman settles for a life shut inside a haunted castle, talking to the dishes and the candles because the man of the house is a jerk who has no interest in connecting with her, only using her to escape his misery as he periodically flies into an infantile rage at the slightest expression of her will.
This is hell. A hell that my generation of Disney movies prepared women for quite well.
Many of us have observed how problematic it is that Beast held Belle against her will and then she fell in love with him and they lived happily ever after. I mean, he never even apologizes for taking her prisoner in the first place, we are just supposed to be filled with awe and admiration for him when he sets her free because her father is dying. Please. This was after how many age-inappropriate temper tantrums triggered by her refusing to eat dinner with him or any number of perceived transgressions that wounded his fragile ego.
The Female Protagonist
To be fair, Belle is a much stronger female character than Disney produced a generation or two back when the woman would lay there helpless waiting for the man to slay their evil stepmother and kiss them back to life. In "Beauty and the Beast," Belle resists the disturbing advances of Gaston (the normalizing of rape culture depicting in their interactions deserves its own article) and asserts her right to cultivate her mind despite the how her intellect is pathologized by her social group. She braves the wilderness in search of her lost father. And then she promptly sacrifices herself for him. Yikes. Woman-as-martyr. One of the few acceptable roles, along with virgin (or damsel-in-distress), wife or mother (and on the other end of the spectrum- whore or wicked witch). So, she's
stronger, yes, but her strength and self-expression are channelled into the service of the men around her and limited to the range of movements they allow. What is so frustrating is that in the beginning of the movie, it almost seems like Belle is a real person. Sure, the first number and her name place overwhelming emphasis on her physical appearance, which is, of course, white and skinny. But we can see there is clearly more to her. There is hope. She
pushes back against the town's ignorance and Gaston's overblown machismo. Fabulous! And to her and 1990s era Disney's credit, she also pushes back against the Beast's cruelty and infantile tantrums. She is able to modify his behavior through a combination of tenderness and standing firm. . . while being held captive and unable to move freely, maintain her previous relationships or even have privacy in her bedroom because the Beast spies on her with that creepy mirror.
I couldn't watch the whole movie. I got as far as the big dance scene where Angela Lansberry-as-teapot serenades the odd couple as they dance beneath smiling naked angel babies who are watching them from the ceiling. Then I realized what was off for me. This Belle is a male creation. She is not a character created by or brought to life by women, she was dreamed up by the male psyche and sketched to life by the corporate male imagination. Of course she exists to serve men, first sacrificing herself for her father and then falling in love with her kidnapper.
Belle, like so many other depictions of female characters, was planted in my psyche at an age when I was just beginning to fantasize about what romantic relationships would be like. I remember imagining dancing with a strong and tender partner to Angela Lansberry's crooning voice. Fortunately, the woman-as-martyr-and-savior motif didn't stick with me. I began noticing discrepancies and questioning authority from an early age. I tried the martyr/savior thing on as a teenager.
And I was lucky enough to feel that costume chafe my skin and to take it off even before I had another one to put on. It felt better to be exposed and cold than to submit to male violence. The ability to make that decision was a privilege.
Many other women aren't able to access that choice.
When Prison Becomes “Home”
What happened to Belle happens all of the time. At a certain point, Belle seems to lose sight of the fact that she is being held against her will by a rage-filled monster and adapts to this being her home, her life, her reality. That is why, even when she is “set free” in physical terms, she comes back. The captivity that began as physical restraint has
gone deep into her psyche and now she'll never leave him. She sees the good in him, which in and of itself isn't a bad thing, when balanced with self-love and healthy boundaries. And, in this particular story, the beast actually does change and eventually stops acting like an entitled asshole. She loves him and it works, he stops being a jerk, hooray! I've yet to encounter a real life version with that type of quick fix and happy ending. Maybe if the man is willing to commit to a lifetime of therapy or anger management (which, honestly, is what the beast really would have needed in order to change... a woman's love is not a get-out-of-jail-free card that excuses one from deep, painful and lifelong self work and accountability for past acts of harm). But the story sews itself up so neatly as it embeds in little children's psyches, it is no wonder we have so many adults choosing to stay in emotionally abusive relationships.
Children's movies like this one, along with a million other unseen psychic forces, keeps adults trapped in unfulfilling, inequitable and abusive relationships. Remember, the Beast never laid a hand on Belle. He didn't have to. His control tactics are much more effective than that and are supported by many socio-
cultural forces. His control is held up by religions that order women to be submissive to their husbands and serve as their helpmates, basically existing for him, his needs, his dreams and aspirations. His rule over her is reflected in the way in which women have been and continue to be excluded from positions of religious leadership. His control over her is enforced by a government that is predominantly male and always has been, with women extraordinarily underrepresented and demonized in positions of leadership. Intersecting political, religious, social, familial and pop culture/media forces contribute to the psychic imprisonment of women in intimate relationships.
Feminist Psychotherapy Perspective
As a feminist psychotherapist, I see Belle every day. It is heart-breaking. I also see the ways in which women who are surviving abusive relationships are blamed and belittled. That attitude misses the socio-cultural forces that set them up for this type of situation. In the psychotherapy world, it can be tempting to pathologize or diagnose the Belles, or to focus entirely on childhood and family of origin experiences to explain why they would stay in relationships that harm and dehumanize them. As intersectional feminist therapists, we take into consideration the larger social and cultural forces that shape both the family experiences and the individual psyche. We look at the ways in which misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ablism, fatphobia and other bedrocks of modern western culture impact the internal psychic structures and interpersonal relationships of our clients.
In feminist psychotherapy, the key to healing is cultivating greater agency and satisfaction in relationships through a deeper connection to and reverence for oneself. Ironically, that means we don't try to convince our clients to get the hell away from the partner who is treating them like crap, even when there are moments we'd very much like to say exactly that. If a woman leaves her man because her therapist tells her to, she'll go back or find another one just like him. It takes a long time to grow the trust in the therapeutic relationship upon which a woman can experiment with new choices. And sometimes they choose to stay, and we respect that choice. It isn't my job to convince Belle to leave. It IS my job to recognize and articulate that as a human being she deserves to be treated with respect and kindness and does not deserve abuse. Ever. It is also my job to support her in seeing that she always has the choice to leave or to stay, and that I will be there with her either way. And I help her see that in either of those choices she has a hundred other choices she gets to make as well and she can trust herself to make them, learn from them and grow.
The Need for Protection
There are greater forces at work that show up across cultures and social groups that lead women to choose to stay in emotionally abusive relationships with men. For many, it comes down to safety. It comes down to protection from the greater danger posed by other men. When Belle runs away early on in her captivity, she encounters a much scarier threat away from Beast. The pack of wolves that physically attack her are a metaphor for the droves of rapists who prey upon women who don't, at any given moment, have a big strong man by their side. When the wolves attack, the Beast magically appears to rescue her. At that moment, she is truly bound.
As women, we know we are vulnerable to male attack and that we are safer walking down the street at night, or in the day, or in our homes as we sleep, if there is a man by our side. While sexual harassment impacts all women, predators are more likely to harass unmarried women or women they believe are unattached to another man. There's a certain amount of respect for each other's “territory” among men that runs deeper than respect for women and is more powerful in controlling inappropriate behavior. The very real need for safety and protection from male violence is what, ironically, leads women to form and maintain relationships that include emotional violence and a more predictable and limited expression of male aggression. The harm is emotional, psychic and psychological and thus easily erased from conscious memory. There are no bruises, no scars, no physical trace whatsoever.
A Woman's Role
It is encoded in this film that it is a woman's role to endure male aggression in service of his emotional needs and healing. Beneath the more overt themes and disturbing features of the story (like the romanticizing of Stockholm Syndrome), it is the absence of dialogue around the impact on Belle of the Beast's rage, his thunderous shouting at her, his cruel words and total disregard for her feelings and needs, that I find to
to be most harmful. It simply isn't a part of the story. There is a battle of wills that we see, and there are tears she sheds over losing her father when she takes his place as Beast's prisoner. But the psychological and emotional impact of being screamed at by an overgrown beast of a man-child is never explored. It is glossed over in favor of the unfolding love story and the Beast's personal transformation. Her emotional experience is minimized. If we take the story at face value, the woman is not harmed by the man's emotional abuse and verbal violence. What a convenient belief system to keep women locked in such relationships. Belle doesn't appear to be harmed at all, she simply endures it, at times pushes back, and then the Beast magically transforms and they literally live happily ever after.
How about a different narrative? How about we say it is NEVER a woman's role to be yelled at by her partner, to be called stupid, to be interrogated and questioned and undermined, to be isolated, to endure disrespectful and unkind behavior just because “he's going through a rough time,” or, “his job
stresses him out,” or, even worse, “that's just who he is.” What if women get to be full humans in their intimate relationships and what if men took accountability for their behavior and the feelings that drive their behavior? What if they learn to treat their partners with respect regardless of how anxious, stressed out or upset they are? Such a value system would not only support
women in being healthier and happier, but it would support the true growth and evolution of men as well, calling them to examine their entitlement and cultivate and embrace their sacred masculine to dance in sweet partnership with the divine feminine. These are my fantasies and fairy tales. What are yours?