TW: Discussions of Abuse

A graphic related to Beauty and the Beast has been making the rounds again. It discusses a different perspective of the movie, which suggests that rather than a representation of domestic abuse and Stockholm syndrome, that the movie represents the force of finding that special someone when you are socially outcast and isolated. It describes how both the Beast and Bell exist in social isolation. In the case of one, because of his monstrosity and in the case of the other as a result of being an avid reader and thinker in a town in which the social convention is for women to avoid books.

This graphic has some interesting ideas, but I think that even while what it said there is true, it is also important to discuss how that truth doesn’t invalidate the legitimate criticisms regarding the abusive elements of the Beast and Belle’s relationship.

The beast might be a social outcast because of the way he looks, but the way he looks is a result of his refusal to give shelter to an old woman for the night. It was meant to teach him not to judge people based on their appearance, and in the older stories it was also a punishment for being a mean-spirited and selfish brat.

Ignoring whether or not the lesson took, the social isolation or derision doesn’t change the fact that:

  • His staff is genuinely afraid of him at times. They walk on eggshells around him, and avoid or hesitate doing things without his explicit permission.
  • His reaction to finding a cold and sick older man in his home, pleading for shelter for the night. Instead of just throwing him out, he imprisons him in a cold dungeon.
  • He threatens Belle with violence, imprisonment, and with starvation unless she does exactly what he says.
  • He isolates her from her support systems.
  • The beast thrives on control, trying to dictate when Belle can eat, when she can go out, where she can go.

All of these are classic signs of an abusive individual and of abusive relationship dynamics.

There is this idea that a person can’t be both a victim and an abuser at the same time. I’ve been seeing this a lot lately in certain circles where someone’s abusive actions are defended by pointing out that they themselves have been victims as though the one automatically precludes the other.

This mindset also filters over into people who ignore how intersectional concerns can come up even in situations where they are responding to their own abuse: such as feminists who can’t accept that they might be ableist, because they deal with so much hate as a result of being a feminist. Or because their use of ableist slurs was directed at someone who was being oppressive. Or atheists who assume that they can’t possibly be oppressive in matters of race, ability, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. because they have personally been discriminated against on the basis of religion.

The dichotomy between victim and abuser can be extremely dangerous and it also fails to take into account the ways in which abuser often use others, even their other victims, as a tool for their abuse. Like the mother who uses the other child to guilt and put pressure on the child who stands up for herself. Or the cult leader who uses other cult members to keep any dissidents in line. We see it in the army and police force with hazing rituals and strict codes restricting behaviour that are not official rules but strictly and sometimes lethally enforced nonetheless.

Moreover, a lot of abusers use their own abusive pasts to relate to victims and create a connection. In circles frequented by abuse victims, it is a well-known hunting tactic performed by abusers who know how to exploit the vulnerabilities left behind by past abuse. The justifiable and frankly to be encouraged anger of a victim can also be used to mask the destructive anger of an abuser until it is too late. The anger of victims of violence and oppression should never be silenced, but we need to remember that sometimes even those who have legitimate anger can still behave in a manipulative and oppressive manner.

What complicates the situation further is that abusers can be abusive, employing all the recognized hunting and manipulation techniques, and not even realize that they are doing it. One of the biggest fears of many people who grew up or lived in abusive dynamics is that they will turn into the same sort of person as their abusers, and that fear is justified. Escaping abusive dynamics doesn’t change the fact that those dynamics form the core of our taught behaviour. We learn appropriate social dynamics from our relationships, and those lessons don’t disappear just because we realize they were wrong. Abusive behaviours are like bad habits, it takes work to break them and it’s not enough just to say that we want to.

A lot of abuse takes the form of a series of micro-aggressions, which may or may not be combined with explicit acts of aggression and which can be practically invisible when viewed as single events.  This is part of what can make it so difficult for people to explain to others what is happening to them. On the surface the event can seem benign, but when it becomes part of a pattern that seemingly benign act carries the weight of every single other micro-aggression along with it. Like how a single drop of water alone is not very much, but a dripping faucet it can still cause the sink to overflow and flood the bathroom.

In the same way that abuse can be difficult to explain to others, it can be difficult for abusers to see it for often the same reason. They perceive their actions as single events, rather than part of a cohesive whole. We see the same response in other cases of abusive actions like people who defend their use of cognitive slurs, or men who defend their participation in street harassment. There is this inability to take their actions as being part of a pattern rather than as an individual event.

Using the example of street harassers, they imagine how they would feel in the instance of one or a few compliments. They see their actions as part of a single event: I told her she was looking good. I would like it if someone told me I was looking good. They can’t see how their one action is part of a greater whole. That if people shout things at you all day, and some of it is downright scary, some of it is cruel, some of it is violent, and yes maybe occasionally some of it is nice and friendly, that it doesn’t matter because at the end of the day it all blends together. You have a negative reaction to it regardless of what it ends up being because to you it is just more of people yelling at you. Moreover, a lot of negative interactions start out as seemingly positive ones, and we have no way of knowing which it will be until it is too late.

One example of how this can work from my own life:  I tend to have a negative emotional and physical reaction to hearing a certain ringtone. On the surface there is nothing wrong with the tone. In fact, at one point it was one I quite enjoyed, which is why I set it as the notification for when my boss texted me. When our working relationship turned abusive however, that sounds became a source of anxiety for me. I never knew what was coming and whether the message would be a positive one, just information, or whether I would be in trouble and punished in some way. Whenever the tone would go off my heart rate and blood pressure would spike, my hands would shake, and I could feel nausea building in the pit of my stomach. I would jump, even if I wasn’t otherwise startled. It got to the point where even hearing that particular ring, even from someone else’s phone, would generate the same reaction.

I haven’t worked for this person for several years. We have not interacted in a long time, and even if she were ever to contact me again, it wouldn’t make that sound. But when it comes to abuse and triggers, it doesn’t matter. That noise became a tool of my abuse and so I react to it as I would to my abuser.

Now imagine if someone who interacted with me regularly were to choose that particular ringtone while being aware of that story. On the surface selecting a certain ringtone is not an abusive act, but in light of my particular history the choice is clearly meant to cause me distress. When trying to explain it to someone else however, it can come across as though I was accusing this person of being abusive because they chose a ringtone I didn’t like.

This is why comparing stories and sharing names becomes so important. More than once, after an abuser was ousted from a community, people began sharing things that had made them uncomfortable in the past. Times when the person pushed just a little too much against someone’s boundaries. Most of the people sharing said that they had hesitated in coming forward earlier, since they believed that it was an isolated even, or worried that there was some inherent bias that was influencing their discomfort, and in some cases it’s because the discomfort wasn’t based on any clear tangible thing but rather a pattern of things that caused vague feelings of hesitation or concern. Some tickle of “something isn’t right here.”

Of course, when everyone started comparing notes, it was clear that this was a feeling that was shared with several other people and for good reason. Because the few seemingly isolated events turned out to be a pattern of boundary violations.

This assumption that abusers can never be victims as well feeds into a lot of the same ideas that feed privilege: a belief that you can’t be benefitting from some form of oppression simply because sometimes bad things also happen to you or because you are a victim of different kinds of oppression. It also stems from an inability to accept that sometimes you can do bad thing that hurt people, without ever meaning too or ever noticing who you’ve hurt. Sometimes you can be the bad guy.

That was one of the most painful lessons I’ve ever had to learn, and it is one I sometimes have to relearn.

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