Friday, January 17, 2014

Beauty IS the Beast: An Essay on Gaston

If you're anything like me (God forbid), you probably take random things too seriously.  And some of those random things are things that aren't meant to be taken seriously at all, even a little bit... like Disney movies.

I feel like anyone who didn't know me who was reading this blog would a) think I was WAY more into Disney than I actually am, and b) have no life because who the fuck would read the rarely-updated blog of a total stranger?  (Sorry, stranger fans, for calling you losers.)  But the truth is, I'm not obsessed with Disney; I just enjoyed their animated movies and think that they have re-watch value in adulthood.  Well, mostly.

See, the thing is, as an adult, you notice things you might not notice as a child.
For example, you might notice some of the characters are more shit-headed than previously thought, or that others are less culpable than initially interpreted to be.  Gaston from Beauty in the Beast is one of Disney's ultimate shitheads who you can't help but feel sorry for if you really think about it.  And I, once again taking things far too seriously, thought about it and wrote a 5-page essay about why Gaston deserves a break.  Blog, without further ado, I present to you...


Beauty is the Beast:

Gaston’s Blamelessness in his Role as Villain

Gaston, the main antagonist of Disney's classic movie "Beauty and the Beast," appears at face value to have no positive role, making his death at the end of the movie a cause for celebration.  To justify the death of a person in a children's animated movie, the person in question has to be beyond redemption: a truly evil character.  Yet for all of Gaston's faults, his character is not beyond redemption, and his faults not objectively cruel; the following essay will argue that each of the traits that makes Gaston a villain (close-minded crudeness, narcissism, aggressiveness, and manipulativeness) are traits that are forgivable.  Their excusableness hails from two things: Gaston's lack of responsibility for having them, and Belle's willingness to accept them in other characters.  Together with Gaston's innocence and Belle's forgiveness of the same traits in the protagonist, this essay will prove that Gaston is not the villain he was meant to be, and his death undeserved.


When first introduced to us, Gaston is immediately demonstrated to be the villain by Belle's reaction to him.  Gaston’s character is described by Belle as “boorish” shortly after he proposes marriage to her.  Belle’s assessment is in line with what the audience has seen so far; in the third musical number, “Gaston,” the villagers sing about Gaston’s less-than-honourable talents, which include spitting, biting in wrestling matches, wearing muddy boots indoors, and having an incredibly thick neck.  Yet this musical number isn’t prompted by Gaston, but by his patsy, Le Fou.  Initially, Gaston does not take part in the song; Le Fou and the other tavern patrons sing it to cheer him up.  And when first introduced to Gaston, the audience is first introduced to Le Fou praising him (“…you’re the greatest… in the whole world!”), which prompts his narcissist response (“I know.”).  So while Belle’s description of Gaston as “boorish” isn’t far off the mark, it should not be seen as the audience as a bad thing.  In Belle’s village (that is, the world in which Gaston lives), his boorish traits are worthy of praise and admiration.  Le Fou even states that “everyone is awed and admiring [of Gaston]” during Gaston’s song.  No one ever reprimands Gaston for his bad behavior because in their world, it isn’t bad behavior at all; Belle is literally the only character we ever see in the entire movie criticize Gaston.  This is a far cry from other Disney films in which the villain is feared, ostracized, or disliked by the majority of the other characters, particularly after demonstrating their true colours (consider Ursula, Scar, the evil queen, Captain Hook, or Sher Khan).  (Also consider that well-liked villains are usually hiding their bad behavior from the protagonists; Jafar in Aladdin hypnotizes the Shah, and other villains, like Edgar from the Aristocats, rely on subtly to carry out their nefarious schemes.)  Gaston never hides his personality, intentions, or motivations from the villagers and never receives any negative feedback, so he has no reason whatsoever to change his behavior.  In this way, Gaston can be seen as a product of the village; if he is cast as the antagonist, then the rest of the villagers (indeed, Belle’s entire world) should also be considered bad.   Oddly, when the Beast slurps his soup messily at the dinner table, Belle’s reaction is to compromise by sipping the soup from the bowl instead of using a spoon.  Unwilling to make excuses or concessions for Gaston, she readily adapts for the Beast while staying with him at the castle.


Along with “boorish,” Belle calls Gaston “brainless.”  Gaston supports this accusation in their first meeting, when he takes her book and asks how she can read it, as it hasn’t got any pictures.  Belle’s response is that you have to use your imagination.  In this brief interaction, the audience is expected to dislike Gaston for his anti-intellectual statements.  But once again, the audience is not in the same realm as Belle and Gaston.  First and foremost, it is worth noting that Gaston and Belle live in provincial France, during a time when people are still using wood stoves and horses; although there is a small book shop, it is clear that in this setting, books are not a commonplace item and Gaston might not have ready access to them.  (It is also worth noting that the original fairy tale dates back to 1740; the book shop's presence is an anachronistic plot device that serves to tout Belle's intelligence.)  Secondly, Gaston has no reason to want to read books at all; the village as a whole does not value literacy.  Recall that the things they sang Gaston’s praises for were “manly” things that involved physical prowness, not intellect.  What’s more, in the very first musical number (“Belle”) the villagers describe Belle as “odd, strange, dazed, and distracted” because of her reading; they state that Belle is very different and somewhat estranged from the rest of their society because of her love of learning.  Based on this, there’s no reason Gaston should want to read, and his confusion over why Belle would is entirely understandable.  By contrast, the Beast has been locked up in his castle for over a decade with an entire library, and when asked to read aloud by Belle, admits that it’s been so long he’s not sure he remembers how to read.  Inexplicably, Belle offers to help him – a far cry from the eye roll she gave Gaston earlier.  Unlike Gaston, the Beast does not have to fear anyone’s judgment, and also has ready access to plenty of books; yet he, like Gaston, shuns reading.  Belle’s gentle encouragement of the Beast and her disdain for Gaston are surprisingly  counter to one another;  Gaston’s “brainlessness” is even more forgivable than the Beast’s, as no one ever aides him in any attempt to change.

Has anyone ever considered his aggressiveness is a side-effect of high cholesterol?

While Gaston’s aggressiveness is hinted at numerous times using his hunting as a metaphor, Gaston is not shown to be particularly devious until after Belle spurns his marriage proposal, when he decides to hunt down and kill the Beast.  For his proposal, Gaston gathers the town together outside her house, goes inside to propose, and is “thrown out” when Belle opens the door as he is leaning in to kiss her.  The result is that Gaston falls into the mud in front of the town.  There are a few important points here that the audience is asked to ignore: first, that Belle embarrassed Gaston in front of everyone, and second, that Belle never gives Gaston a direct, assertive “no.”  Belle never says she doesn’t want to marry him, but makes up excuses like that he’s “too good for her.”  When Gaston describes “having seven or eight,” Belle asks “Dogs?”  She knows Gaston is talking about children (she is, after all, intelligent), and even if she didn’t, she wants neither dogs nor children with Gaston.  But instead of stating this directly to Gaston (a character she considers to be stupid, who may not be able to take her hints), Belle drags out the conversation and never gives Gaston a simple answer.  All this being said, one can still argue that Gaston’s reaction (killing the Beast) is extreme.  Yet, again, the audience is asked to ignore a few important points: first, that Gaston has no idea the Beast is intelligent, and never hears him speak, and second, that the entire village also believes the Beast to be dangerous and insists on killing him.  When Gaston first sees the Beast, the Beast is roaring and appears dangerous.  Gaston has no evidence that the Beast is safe, except for Belle saying he is, and so far, Belle has not been a reliable source of information to Gaston.  The rest of the village agrees whole-heartedly with Gaston that the Beast must be destroyed.  Once again, Gaston’s actions receive complete support from everyone except Belle; Gaston’s desire to kill a dangerous animal is treated as heroic, not cruel.  Although Gaston does taunt the Beast while attempting to kill him, the Beast never responds with words, and from Gaston’s perspective, the Beast seems not to have any idea what he’s saying, so this action, while aggressive, should not be considered maliciousness so much as crude.


The final way in which Gaston acts as the villain is when he attempts to coerce Belle into marriage by keeping her father prisoner; this, much moreso than his other faults, seems like an unjustifiable and despicable action, yet like all of his other attributes, can be explained in the context of the world he occupies.  First of all, someone has already wrongfully imprisoned Belle’s father: the Beast.  Belle falls in love with the Beast despite his holding her father hostage; not only does he imprison Maurice, but Maurice becomes sick due to neglect while imprisoned, to the point that Belle thinks he might die.  Unlike the Beast, who has no motivation for holding Maurice against his will, Gaston has a decent justification; Gaston believe Maurice is insane (as does the rest of the town), and his plan to “imprison” Maurice is to call the insane asylum and have him carted away.  The rest of the town, thinking Maurice to be mentally deficient, stands by and does nothing when Maurice is being taken to asylum.  Earlier, when Gaston describes his plan to blackmail Belle, Le Fou bursts into a reprise of Gaston’s song and praises him for a good plan.  It is a good plan from the villagers’ perspective, because either Maurice will go to the asylum (where he belongs, as far as they are concerned), or he will be free but under the care of Belle, who will be married to Gaston (who is a local hero and presumably capable of handling a single crazy old man).  Recall that Belle still has not said no to Gaston, so although he is technically blackmailing her, Gaston might only consider this as persuasion; Belle’s earlier statement that Gaston is “too good for her” might have led him to believe that, while she won’t marry him unless blackmailed, she isn’t actually against it.  Only one person in the movie thinks the plan to be despicable – the asylum director, who takes Gaston’s money and calls the plan literally “despicable.”  He immediately follows this statement with the exclamation, “I love it!”  Gaston, who momentarily might have had second thoughts, is once again encouraged.  The town sings that they look forward to celebrating his wedding, and no one finds it strange, wrong, or coercive of him to send Maurice to the asylum in an attempt to win Belle’s heart.  Once again, it should be noted that, since everyone except Belle thinks Maurice is insane, it would not actually (from their perspective) be a bad thing for Maurice to go to the asylum.  It is also worth noting that the person who is going to get imprisoned, Maurice, earlier suggested Belle ought to consider Gaston for a friend and calls him a “handsome fellow.”  Even a person negatively affected by Gaston’s actions still approves of him.  The single moment in which Gaston might have been made to feel bad, or made aware of the cruelty of his actions, was immediately overshadowed with more praise from the asylum director; Gaston arguably has no idea that what’s he doing is wrong, because the whole village has agreed that he deserves Belle, and Belle has never directly said she doesn’t want to be with him.


 Pictured: Completely different.

While Gaston's character is certainly not a classic hero, each of his negative actions and qualities have a clear-cut motivation behind them and internal support from the townspeople.  Gaston, like his world, is imperfect, but cannot be expected to change to conform to Belle's standards as it would be opposed to everything he's ever experienced.   While the audience is asked to view him as a villain, he is the hero of the movie internally.  Viewed through the eyes of most of the other characters, his actions are good and meaningful.  In this sense, Gaston's death was a tragedy, undeserved and easily prevented if Belle had used the same interventions she had for the Beast.  Belle's willingness to rehabilitate one "villain" and not the other, leading to the second one's death, makes her the true villain; the audience's view of the Beast as a misunderstood loner and of Gaston as a self-absorbed bully when they share similar faults is a classic example of "popular-shaming."  Gaston is seen as a bully only because of the audience's conditioning to root for the underdog (ie, the Beast); and in this sense, Belle, the Beast, and all of the audience themselves become bullies to Gaston, whose only true crime was ignorance.

Alternate ways Gaston could have been a real villain / Beast could have been a real hero:

1) Re-title the movie.


2) Just once, have someone tell Gaston he's an asshat.  My favourite scenario?  Have him try to kill the Beast AFTER the Beast's transformation to a human.  Have him attack the prince and the villagers all exclaim, "What the hell Gaston?  Why are you being such a jerk?"  If Gaston continues to be a jerk after being asked to stop, he is a real bad guy.

3) Have Belle's love of the Beast be less Stockholm-y.  Instead of keeping her prisoner, have a different reason she's stuck in the castle with him.  Maybe they got snowed in, or Maurice is too sick to leave and Belle stays to care for him.  But falling in love with the Beast and giving him some rehab after being kept prisoner really sends kids the message that Gaston's real fuck-up wasn't being a dickwad, but not holding Belle hostage.

4)  Have Belle treat Gaston non-condedscendingly and have him continue being a dick.  What if she invited him to the book shop and he was rude to the shopkeep, and Belle told him to shut up, and he told her the date sucked and she sucked and she ought to keep her pretty girl mouth shut?  Now he's a real villain and we hate him, and we like Belle more for giving him a chance and being assertive.

5)  Tone down the Beast's aggressiveness.  Did anyone else forget that the Beast threatens Belle with physical violence?  Like, why is the Beast getting away with tearing shit up and screaming all the time?  In order for me to believe the Beast is only misunderstood, I need to see less flipping out and more being human.  Frankly, I think it's bullshit that he got a second chance after some of his behaviour.

I've taken the liberty of incorporating all five of my ideas into a single abbreviated alternative ending that fixes everything:

[OUTSIDE THE CASTLE, COURTYARD.  The TOWNSPEOPLE are gathered around BELLE and the BEAST, who has just transformed into the grotesque-looking PRINCE.]

BAKER: Sacre bleu!  The Beast was the Prince all along!

COOPER: That explains why we haven't been asked to pay tribute to the crown for like twenty years.

BOOKSHOP KEEPER: It also explains why the Beast was kind and gentle and soft-spoken, like Belle said, and not roaring dramatically for no reason!

BELLE: Yes, he let me stay in the castle through this terrible winter storm and treat my father for his non-specific illness.

SHEPHERD: What a swell guy!  I feel bad about trying to kill him based on his appearance!

[Suddenly, GASTON bursts into the centre of the gathering, looking CRAZED nd DISHEVELED, holding his shotgun.  He levels it at the grotesque-looking PRINCE, who pushes BELLE behind him because he's a NICE GUY.]

BAKER: Sacre bleu!  Gaston, you whackjob, put down your weapon!

GASTON: What?  Why?  I thought we all agreed I should shoot the Beast.

BLACKSMITH: He's the prince, though, actually.  We were all wrong.  The Beast shouldn't be killed and also reading is cool now.

GASTON (incredulous): What?? Le Fou, is this true?

LE FOU: Yes.  Put down the gun, Gaston.  No one has to die tonight.

GASTON: But... but... the Beast...

[The TOWNSPEOPLE all stare at him PITEOUSLY.  Gaston's hairy CHEST heaves as he attempts to understand their abrupt but necessary change of heart.  LE FOU puts a hand on GASTON'S shoulder, but GASTON shakes him off and squares his back.]

GASTON (pointing accusingly): I see how it is!  You've all turned!  You've all become like Belle, weak and pathetic!

FARRIER: No, Gaston.  We've just... we found a better way.

[EVERYONE holds HANDS.  In the background, KUMBAYA plays softly.]

GASTON: Gah!  This so... so freakin' gay!

PRINCE: Don't use homophobic language, Gaston.

GASTON (throwing up his hands and dropping his weapon): Fuck this shit.  Gaston out!

[GASTON turns and RUNS into the darkening FOREST, unable to change for the BETTER.  For moments after he leaves, there is SILENCE, followed by the HOWLING of WOLVES.]

FISHMONGER: I am sad that Gaston could not see the light like the rest of us.

BELLE: He is in a better place now.

[MORE WOLF HOWLING.]

CANDLESTICK: Wait, why haven't I transformed back yet?  And why was I punished for the prince being a dick in the first place?  And how is being a candlestick a punishment?  How is this supposed to teach me about being human?  And why don't my candles ever burn out?

[END.]

Okay... so admittedly, he's a little bit of a jerk here.


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