One of the main critiques of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has been about the nature of Belle and the Beast’s relationship, and whether it’s even possible for a truly consensual and mutually respectful romance to ever unfold between a captor and captive. After all, that situation would reflect a disturbing power dynamic, which would therefore suggest that Belle’s experience of “falling in love” with the Beast is actually just a sign that she’s suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, or that at least some subconscious coercion is involved on her part.
Much like the rest of us, Emma Watson has considered this issue too, and it was a big consideration for her when she decided to take on the role of Belle. She already has advocated for making some changes to the story in favor of giving Belle more agency and depth as a character, such as making Belle an inventor in her own right, as opposed to making Belle’s father the inventor. (Belle’s dad is still a tinkerer in this version—he makes music boxes, at least.) The trailers have emphasized that Belle’s intelligence and love of reading make her struggle with the “small-minded” villagers around her.
These were themes in the original film, but at the time, Belle’s independence and intelligence seemed undercut by the fact that she spends most of the movie in captivity… and then, of course, falling in love with her captor and using her own emotional labor to change him from a brooding Beast into, well, Prince Charming. It’s a story that has some inherent problems, by its very nature.
In an interview with EW, Emma Watson spoke out about her own attempts to wrestle with these issues in the reboot. When asked if she considered Belle to be in an abusive relationship in this new version of the movie, she had this to say in the video above:
“It’s such a good question, and it’s something I really grappled with at the beginning: the kind of Stockholm Syndrome question about this story. That’s where a prisoner will take on the characteristics of and fall in love with the captor. 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 independence of mind.
“I think there is a very intentional switch where, in my mind, Belle decides to stay. In fact, she gives as good as she gets. He bangs on the door, she bangs back. There’s this defiance: ‘You think I’m going to come and eat dinner with you and I’m your prisoner — absolutely not.’
“I think that’s the other beautiful thing about the love story. They form a friendship first; the love builds out of that, which in many ways I actually think is more meaningful than a lot of love stories, where it was love at first sight, and you’re dealing with all of these projections.
“Beast and Belle begin their love story really irritating each other and really not liking each other very much. They build a friendship, slowly, slowly, slowly, and very slowly that builds to them falling in love. That is a big problem with a lot of traditionally-written fairy tales: so, the girl’s just going to give up her entire existence, and everything that’s important to her, for this guy? That seems to be this recurring theme.
“[Belle] does sing about her Prince Charming. But the sense that I got from Belle is that he’s a bit of an afterthought. She’s much more interested about getting out there and traveling and reading. I think as well that [her idea of] Prince Charming is someone that understands her. She’s waiting for someone that comes along and understands her.”
I’m no psychotherapist, and the movie’s not even out yet, so I really can’t say as to whether or not I’d agree with Emma Watson’s assessment here. Still, it’ll be interesting to see her take on the role in comparison to the animated version of the story that we’ve already seen. The fact that she’s put this much thought into the problem is promising, at least, even if the story itself seems like an inherently problematic one… at least to me. It doesn’t mean I don’t still love the movie–I just see it as a story with some inherent limitations.
What do we think? Is it possible for Belle to have real agency and the true option of consent (as opposed to coerced consent) in a Beauty and the Beast story? How would you rewrite this romance so it could work?
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