Belle Beats Stockholm Syndrome and Biology in ‘Beauty and the Beast’

The original telling of Beauty and the Beast is a story about Stockholm syndrome: Beauty is held captive by a creepy monster, but in time she leans to feel deep empathy for her captor and falls in love with him. But Emma Watson, who plays Belle in the upcoming Disney remake, insists that the problematic phenomenon is no longer an issue. The new Belle, it seems, hasn’t just figured out how to beat a scary sociological condition — she might be fighting the dictates of human evolution as well.

In 2014, University of Oregon evolutionary psychologist Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, Ph.D., proposed the theory that humans give in to Stockholm Syndrome because our early ancestors used it as a coping mechanism. Early humans, she wrote in the journal Human Nature, were often taken as prisoners by other groups during wars, and they were more likely to live in the long run if they learned to adapt to their new group rather than resist the entire time they were captive. This trait was especially important for women because they were especially vulnerable, she says. Her theory suggests that the original Belle learned to comply with the Beast’s demands because, like her human ancestors, she figured that was better than getting killed.

Sugiyama devised her theory after studying groups of forager and forager-farmer societies all over the world — and, in particular, their stories and artifacts relating to “lethal raiding.” One common thread in these stories was the fact that the women involved always faced the same “fitness costs,” which are factors that would impede her chances of surviving and having kids: “These occur when a woman is killed, a woman is captured, her offspring is killed, a mate is killed or captured, or an adult male kinsman is killed or captured,” an official statement on the article explained. If women learned how to manipulate their captors’ behavior — say, through forming empathetic bonds with men — then they were more likely not to be killed, and so the motivational and decision-making mechanisms in the female brain evolved to do this well.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Watson said that her “defiant” 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.” It isn’t until the Beast changes his ways that she even considers that she might love him, she adds.

The way the new Belle behaves in a Stockholm syndrome-like situation contradicts everything that Sugiyama’s theory predicts about human female behavior, suggesting that Belle’s breaking away from what her biology dictates — in the same way that modern humans no longer act on all of their violent impulses when they are mad. The upcoming retelling of Beauty and the Beast may be based on a very old story, but thanks to the newly revamped Belle, it’s definitely not going to be stuck in the past. That’s more than can be said for the supposedly future-facing Passengers, which seemed relatively ancient after audiences noticed the plot’s reliance on the Stockholm Syndrome trope in women.

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