Abuse as old as time: Why do movies romanticize Stockholm Syndrome?

Sending girls the message that an abusive situation can turn into a love story if they just stick it out and show compassion is a dangerous game.

There is no shortage of headlines about the kidnapping of young girls — cases like those of Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, and Natascha Kampusch are just a few examples in recent decades. The unsettling thing about many of these stories is that, often, after these young girls are found, victims are hesitant to blame their kidnappers — indeed, they often feel a kind of bond with these men. When Kampusch, who was held in a cellar for eight years and beaten up to 200 times a week by Wolfgang Priklopil (whose aim was to make her love him) found out her captor had killed himself to escape arrest, she cried and said, “I feel more sorry for him — he’s a poor soul; I mourn for him in a certain way.”

Though disturbing, this isn’t uncommon — psychologists call the phenomenon wherein abuse victims bond with their abusers “Stockholm Syndrome.” Victims are vulnerable and can be hesitant to blame their abusers for what they have done. Additionally, there is an undeniably gendered aspect when it comes to this response.

Victims can assume feelings of affection for an abuser or kidnapper to achieve physical or mental safety, though isn’t necessarily a conscious decision. If they are in danger, physically or mentally, being kind to their captors may lessen their chances of being hurt. Eventually, a pattern emerges. Victims are nice to their abusers, the abuser shows an act of kindness, and the victim continues to please their abuser. Over time, these victimized women adopt positive feelings toward their abuser, believing he loves them and maybe even that they love him too.

Another reality is that women have been socialized to see abuse as normal and to be empathic. What is said to be “romantic” is often actually stalking or controlling behaviour. This was recently exemplified in the popular movie and book series, Fifty Shades of Grey. This box office hit tells the story of a college student who stumbles into a “kinky” relationship with a successful business man. Okay, so that’s one way of putting it… An alternative perspective: a naive young woman is manipulated into accepting a creepy, controlling, BDSM-style relationship by a psychopath.

Time and time again, we see women — both in movies and in real life — supporting and loving their male partners or relatives despite abusive behaviour. Women often develop a caretaker mentality, due to the way society understands and teaches children about their gendered roles, and abusers take advantage. Frequently, women don’t even recognize they were experiencing abuse until after they’ve extricated themselves and had some time to process. It is confusing to understand or believe that a person who claims to love you or sometimes behaves in a caring, compassionate way towards you, is also someone who is abusing you.

Watching movies about kidnappings or inappropriate relationships with adults can give girls unrealistic ideas about these situations. These movies, many of them glorified true stories, offer examples of abusive relationships that don’t look so bad and often have a happy ending. Young girls are led to believe that being kidnapped or engaging in a relationship with an older man who cares for, protects, and supports them in certain ways can lead to a “happily ever after” -type love story.

Men who abuse children generally tell victims that what is going on is perfectly fine. Movies that glorify or downplay inappropriate and abusive relationships reinforce this. Girls may come to believe inappropriate behaviour from male authority figures like teachers, coaches, and bosses is not only okay, but romantic.

The world was a-twitter with the release of the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, but no matter how modernized, it is still a story of a young girl falling for her kidnapper. Indeed it is a tale as old as time — one that is retold to girls over and over. From the original fairy tale discovered by Charles Perrault to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film version, La Belle et la Bête, to Disney’s animated musical production, Western culture doesn’t want to let this one go.

We may think we’ve moved past these regressive storylines today, but Disney’s 2017 release of Beauty and the Beast isn’t starkly different from past versions. This time, we are to believe the story has been updated, as Belle is played by supposed feminist icon, Emma Watson. But, step outside the hoopla, and it’s not hard to see this is still the same story of abuse.

Belle isn’t kidnapped, technically — she chooses to venture into the Beast’s castle. Nonetheless, she ends up living with him against her will. She offers herself to the Beast in place of her father, who was being held prisoner after accidentally stumbling into the castle while on a horseback ride through the woods. In the animated version, Belle pushes her father out of the beast’s dungeon and locks herself in instead. Despite small differences between Disney’s two versions, the same theme is present in both — Belle must sacrifice her own freedom for someone else’s benefit and conform to a beast’s rules.

In order for the story to work, both characters have to change. The Beast must transform to love Belle, and Belle must transform to look past his ugliness and initial cruelty to appreciate the care he gives her. And that’s where, from a feminist perspective, it all falls apart. His transformation and love for her suggests that compassion can change abusive men and that, to stop cruel or controlling behaviour, women should just be persistent and keep on loving their abuser. The message that girls and women should look past the terrible things they see in partners, abusers, or kidnappers is a dangerous one, as females are already socialized to accept abusive behaviour and male violence, because “boys will be boys.” The idea that “sticking it out” will change a man and that “true love” means staying and believing a man will change just reinforces that message.

She may be strong-willed, but Belle must do as the Beast says in order to stay safe in an unknown and possibly dangerous place. That she falls in love with him despite this just romanticizes an abusive situation. By presenting Belle’s character in this modern version as a feminist, we further reinforce this message.

Parents — and Disney lovers — want to see the good in this film, and there is some. Belle loves reading, is rebellious, isn’t spoiled, and she cares deeply for her family and father. But she also constantly sacrifices herself for the men around her. Though her father is less complicit in this one than Disney’s animated version, Belle is tasked with the sexist role of caretaker for him.

Beauty and the Beast isn’t the first movie to romanticize kidnapping stories. In 1921, the famous romantic lead Rudolf Valentino in The Sheik kidnaps and mistreats a woman, who falls in love with him by the end. It’s billed as a romance.

Many young feminists say V for Vendetta, a box office hit, is a favourite film. In it, a Svengali-like character kidnaps and tortures the main character, Evey, to build her into the heroine she will later become. Despite his treatment of her, Evey remains loyal to V, frequently defending him, and returning to him of her own free will. Surprisingly, we’ve become so accustomed to this storyline that many people call this film a romance.

These stories perpetuate dangerous myths that can lead girls and young women not to understand the difference between love and abuse. A recent story out of Tennessee demonstrates as much. Tad Cummins, a 50-year-old teacher, kidnapped his 15-year-old student, Elizabeth Thomas, who was convinced they were in love. Cummins’ wife noted that she had seen the two getting close, and students had also noticed the two having “overly friendly” moments. It was later revealed that the two had been exchanging love letters. A Thomas family rep described Cummins as a “classic predator” who groomed Thomas to run off with him. Even after they were caught and Cummins was facing kidnapping charges, Thomas claimed she was “still in love” with her abuser.

We see predatorial male characters in films time and time again, but don’t always realize it. What’s perhaps most disturbing about these films is how successful they are. As a culture, we love this storyline. The Sheik is considered a classic, V for Vendetta is a cult favourite, 50 Shades of Grey is the fourth highest grossing R-rated film of all-time, and the most recent version of Beauty and the Beast broke box office records, pulling in $63.8 million its opening weekend.

Movies did not create Stockholm Syndrome, but stories that glorify abusive relationships aren’t helping. Real stories of kidnapping and abuse don’t end happily ever after. If girls and women envision themselves as these characters and glorify these kinds of situations, they may see themselves as complicit in their own abuse, and stick it out instead of leaving, in the hope that their “beast” will change.

Kate Harveston writes about social justice and human rights issues at Only Slightly Biased. Follow her on Twitter @KateHarveston.

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