Beauty and the Beast is normally thought of as a tale of redemption. However, when the beast makes no apology for his horrendous actions, he instead becomes a symbol of aggressors who can never fully change.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Since I was a child, I have been in love with the tale of Beauty and the Beast. It felt like my story. The heroine’s intelligence, straightforward courage, and discomfort with her society resonated with my greatest desires and frustrations. And something about her solitary, head-to-head and heart-to-heart encounters with the beast thrilled me.
But as I grew older, once piece of the plot began to trouble me: how Belle and the beast meet. In Disney’s animated version, as well as the new live-action version, the beast imprisons Belle’s father for taking a rose, and it is Belle’s brilliant and stubborn idea to take his place. In the original fairy tale, the Beast is even more aggressive. He swears to kill her father unless one of his daughters comes of her own free will in his stead.
This felt indisputably cruel. I didn’t know how to reconcile it with the fascinating friendship that followed.
When the live-action Disney version was released a few years ago, this issue seemed to hit the public mind. A slew of articles popped up saying Belle was an example Stockholm syndrome (though Emma Watson gives an interesting rebuttal to this). But I want to approach this issue from the other side of the coin, by not looking at Belle, but the beast, his actions, and his lack of apologies. Let’s start with this:
How Bad Were the Beast’s Actions, Really?
For some reason, these two stories feel different:
1) A beast in a fairy tale threatens to kill your father, but spares your father’s life when you come to his castle instead. And once you spend some time with the beast, you realize he is a nuanced, compassionate being, just like you.
2) Your friend calls you: “Remember my neighbor that pulled a knife on my dad just for picking a dandelion from his lawn? Yeah, he pressed all sorts of lawsuits against my dad, too, but agreed to drop charges if I dated him. And you know what, now that I’ve been with him for a couple months, I’m actually starting to like him!”
The first scenario might have sounded intriguing. But the second . . . well, I sure hope it raised some red flags. For some reason, hearing the beast’s actions in a fairy tale removes it from our reality enough that we don’t pick up on just how severe they are. But the beast has acted with deadly, unprovoked violence towards her father. And then he uses the leverage of her father’s life to force her to stay with him. This is the definition of an abusive relationship.
Really, just ask Andrea Bonior, Ph.D. In her article, “20 Signs Your Partner Is Controlling,” she mentions factors such as “Isolating you from friends and family” (i.e. locking you in a castle away from your father), “Veiled or overt threats against you or them” (i.e. threatening to kill your father, and sometimes implying violence towards you), and “Making acceptance/caring/attraction conditional” (i.e. only showing the soft side of himself as long as your father is away, and you stays in the castle as he says). This is truly a manipulative and damaging premise for their relationship. Someone in Belle’s position would have her concepts of trust and love damaged in a deep, long-lasting way.
As the beast changes, he slowly relents on these things, eventually retracting the threat to her father’s life and her isolation. But the question still remains, does he ever repair the great wrong he did to Belle and her father?
Did He Repair the Wrong?
Beauty and the Beast is often seen as a classic redemption story, a story that shows the good that can emerge even from the darkest man. And the beast does change for the good in several remarkable ways. He learns to see Belle with respect, releases her from her imprisonment, gives her his precious mirror, and even takes pity on the ghastly Gaston, though it costs him his life. These certainly do seem to be significant changes for good.
But do they repair the wrong he did to Belle and her father? Do they even acknowledge that a repair might need to be made? I was shocked when I realized that the answer to this was. . . no.
According to marriage counselor Dr. David B. Hawkins, the first step towards true change is to take responsibility for your behavior. He says, “Taking responsibility for something means we have spent time reflecting on the significant impact of our behavior. We have empathized with those we have hurt, deeply considering the full ramifications of our actions. He will be able to talk clearly about the broken trust, the extensive hurt and the changes you will need to see in order to heal. Has he done that work?”
Try re-watching this film. Fast forward to each vulnerable moment between Belle and the beast. In these moments, there is connection, respect, and tentative tenderness. But does the beast ever acknowledge that he has wronged Belle? Has he “done the work” to understand the kind of hurt he has caused her? No. Her father was injured by the beast, and Belle almost died fleeing from the beast. The beast verbally abused Belle, and Belle’s father was almost imprisoned for insanity because of the beast. Yet the beast does not once voice understanding or remorse for this harm, not even at the pivotal moment of setting Belle free.
At the beginning of that scene, the beast asks, “Do you think you could be happy here?” hope in his eyes. But Belle does not look happy. She has not looked happy from the beginning of the conversation. She responds, “Can anybody be happy if they aren’t free?” There is a long silence. As they talk, the beast begins to realize how much she misses her father. And, though it is clear it pains him, he decides to let his prisoner go free.
But what was happening during that long silence? Should he not have been recognizing that he is the one who has kept her here against her will? He is the reason she is not free. Though he tries to offer solutions such as seeing her father in the mirror, and allowing her to go to him, the beast is not ever looking inward, and recognizing that her sorrow is the terrible consequence of his own actions. He does not voice or show any remorse that he is the root of the hurt she is expressing. This is where an apology was desperately needed, but not even thought of.
This huge omission keeps their past un-examined, the beast from fully changing, and the audience from consciously seeing the true consequences of the beast’s actions. Though his physical transformation from beast to man at the end of the story is a beautiful symbol of deep change, the beast has never acknowledged that he was a beast. He does not see his actions clearly enough to take responsibility for them. And it seems he may be blind to the harm he has done to Belle. His transformation cannot be fully believed.
This is where I always encounter those who say, “Oh, but it’s only a story.” However, this ancient story has been woven into our culture for hundreds of years, and there are reflections of it all around. How many movies, books, or ads have you seen where the “beast,” though the hero in some ways, never has to take responsibility for his violence, carelessness, or womanizing?
How many have you seen where this kind of behavior is even romanticized?
I think there is a significant portion of our society that believes our “beasts” do not need to apologize. The damage from their actions is never repaired, and their relationships stumble on, broken, confused, and failing. The “beasts” do not know how to fix their relationships, because they are missing this key example: the true apology.
We have let ourselves think of this unapologetic “beast” behavior as acceptable and even attractive. It has come to the point where, when you search for “good girl, bad boy syndrome,” you will find a myriad of articles. Our “good girls” (or boys) are seeking out the “beasts,” trusting that all will be well, as falsely promised in Beauty and the Beast. But the resulting relationship is harmful enough to be called a syndrome.
So, while there are many inspiring moments in Beauty and the Beast, let us not be asleep to the concluding message that a beast does not need to take responsibility for the harm his actions have caused. Let us wake up! Let us value responsibility in our relationships. Let us value empathy, remorse, and the open acknowledgement of the faults we need to change.
What are your thoughts? How have you kept perspective on taking responsibility for past mistakes? Are there other pieces of Beauty and the Beast that you feel teach a poignant lesson, for good or bad?