As I mentioned in my Beauty and the Beast rewatch post, if you start to look too hard at the story, things really fall apart. This is doubly true for the characters.
Growing up, my Godfather would renlentlessly tease me about how Gaston was the hero. He would sing, “I want a guy like Gaston!” horribly off key. He would go on and on and on about how Gaston was noble, and the Beast was awful and deserved to die. As a smarty pants six year old, I would correct him and tell him that no, Gaston was the villain. However, as I grew up, I started to think, maybe Uncle Bob wasn’t so wrong.
Our perceptions of Beauty and the Beast’s character roles are establish by tone and the placement of the character. Beast is the first person we’re introduced to. We are told that he is a prince (all princes are obviously heroes) in disguise (and our hero has a problem), and the scene ends with the words “For who could ever learn to love a beast” ringing in our ears. Cut to Belle exiting her house. The answer to the question left from the narrator is answered visually, by a beautiful girl asking for a better life. This means, that when we met Gaston, the audience is forced to associate him as an antagonist. Belle must end up with the Beast, because the story dictated it.
Gaston is introduced with a gunshot and a dead bird. While there is nothing wrong with hunting, the way it’s presenting sets a dark tone around Gaston’s character. We see Gaston step from the shadows. Characters in shadows are associated as evil. Compile that with the image of Gaston killing a duck, we know that he can’t be up to any good. Then Gaston says, “I’m making plans to woo and marry Belle.” Now, he’s in conflict with what we know Belle must do. She must love/marry the Beast. Because of Gaston’s motive and his intro visuals, we assume that Gaston must be our villain.
But looking past the visuals and tones, when we look at the actions of the characters themselves, we get a different picture.
Belle is a Bitch. Oh, what? You don’t believe me? She’s the smart princess! And not vivacious, and a brunette! She’s totally the outcast. By those traits, she should be my favorite Disney princess (she’s not). But, when you really watch Beauty and the Beast, you start to notice something. Belle is a terrible person. Just take a moment and really watch “Belle’s” number:
“There must be more than this provencal life.” She wonders around basically singing about how much better she is than everyone else. That their normal lives, perfectly good lives, aren’t good enough for her. Then, because she can’t be interrupted reading, she kinda rampages through town. She fucks with someones sheep; she knocks someone out; and basically disrupts the entire towns morning. (And while the town people may think she’s odd, they are not mean towards her at all. In fact, they don’t seem to mind her fucking up their morning.)
But, Belle is smart because she reads! Yes, and so do Twihards. She reads the same book over and over.
“That one? But you’ve read it twice!”
“I know, it’s my favorite.”
If the librarian (because I refuse to call that place a bookstore) recognizes she keeps taking the same book, then, well, she’s taken it a whole lot. I’m an avid reader, and I have favorite books. But I don’t constantly re-read them.
We don’t really see her read anything else. Nor does she seem to reference her experience with some literary character, which bookish people do. Besides the opening scene, and an insert where we see her read to the Beast. She spends a great deal of time trapped, and she doesn’t ask for a book. What avid reader leaves the house without a book, or is stuck for several hours without looking for something, anything to read.
*As a side note, there’s this little gem. Belle describes her “favorite part because you’ll see.” Such an articulate reader huh?*
Then let’s just get to how rude she is throughout the majority of the movie. She rarely says please or thank you, even when people are doing nice things for her. She constantly disobeys orders. “Don’t go in the West Wing after my captor so nicely moved me from a jail cell to a suite? Nah…” She talks back to the Beast and blames him after he saves her life because she was a dumb ass that ran out into the night.
Let’s look on that example for a minute. Belle offers herself up in exchange for her father. Then, when offered something better than a prison cell, she basically balks. The Beast tries to ask her to join him for dinner, and when she says no (which, really is quite stupid. She’s in this predicament herself, and it seems smart to get to know your captor, or you know, eat), he then demands her to join him. She doesn’t, yet doesn’t receive any real punishment from the Beast.
Then she and the servants continue to disobey Beast and make her a lavish dinner. Then she wonders through the castle, and decides, that instead of exploring the whole freaking thing, that she’ll go looking into the one place she expressly forbidden. I mean, she has a whole CASTLE, and on her first night, she goes where she isn’t suppose to go. Because, she’s a bitch. She didn’t look for an escape, like a rational person, nope, she goes into the dangerous place. As far as I can tell her motive is just to piss of the Beast. Then, when the Beast gets mad at her about it, she escapes the castle, breaking her sworn promise. (All right, so we know Belle isn’t worth her word for anything.)
Because really, she only made that promise she was bored. Yup. Boredom. After spending the entire opening of the film bitching about how boring her life is, she then takes the first opportunity for something new. It just happened to be something good, like saving her father. And to prove that it isn’t heart felt, she abandons her promise as soon as things get a little hard (because let’s be real, a fancy manor and free range at a castle isn’t really punishment). And later, when offered a similar choice (marry Gaston and save her father or refuse and dad is committed/imprisioned), she chooses to refuse. Because she never liked Gaston, and well, marrying him would be a prison to her. As much as she loves her dad, she loves herself more. Oh, and to top it off, because she can’t be wrong, she reveals the Beast, and basically starts the manhunt. I mean, come on Belle, use some common sense! You were frickin’ petrified of him like a week ago, why would this “provincial” townspeople, who are so below you, be any different?
So, yeah, her entire altruistic sacrifice is undermined.
Meanwhile, Gaston is actually not that bad. Ok, maybe he’s bad, but he’s completely understandable. Which is probably why he’s a great villain.
Yes, Gaston is chauvinistic. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. He has very clear cut ideas about the place of a woman in the world, that lines up very much with the time period of that movie. But before we get all high and mighty, look over at the Beast’s castle. Women don’t really have it much better their either. We have Belle, the prisoner and basically wife figure (who wouldn’t have to be in the kitchen cooking because she has servants), the Feather Duster and the maid and sexual object, and Mrs. Pott’s who works in the FUCKING KITCHEN and has to be the mother figure too! (And we don’t really even know what role Lumiere and Cogsworth play, though, they are probably more advisory than servantly.) She’s probably the nanny for all the damn castle babies. So yeah, women’s roles in Beauty and the Beast, no matter where they are aren’t particularly progressive. But Gaston is called the asshole because he just openly acknowledges it. At least I know where I stand with him instead of being given the false illusion I’m something more.
Yet, as chauvinistic as Gaston says, he actually proposes to Belle, and goes out of his way to make it special for her. In that time period, it would be totally legit for Gaston to completely bypass Belle and just get her father to marry her off. In real life, Maruice would have been honored to pass Belle off to Gaston because Gaston is the most respected and revered person in town. (Not to mention it doesn’t seem like Maurice is making a whole lot of money, and Belle is basically just an extra mouth to feed.) But, back to Gaston. Then he prepares an entire celebratory engagement party for her, with music and food and general happiness. So what if his ideals are antiqued to a modern woman, he show us that he’s actually quite romantic.
(And for the record, Belle doesn’t come out and say no, and when dealing with marriage proposals, that needs to be explicit. It’s probably because she knows that he’s probably her best option.)
Plus, after Belle publicly humiliates him with her rejection, Gaston goes on to be quite unhappy. He sulks over her. For all of his pig-headedness, he does seem to genuinely care for her. I mean, come on, he can have the hot triplets, but he chooses bitchy Belle. I do believe that he does genuinely love her, though, it may not be the Disney-ied true love we want our characters to end up with.
Which brings me to my next point: Gatson is kinda the town role model. He’s handsome, and he’s an excellent hunter. Gauging from how sharply dressed he is, he’s probably pretty well off. He’s the equivalent to of the modern day star quarter back. He has an entire number dedicated to his qualities: handsome, manly, the strongest, the best hunter, and he’s great at expectorating. So yea, totally the quarterback figure.
Let’s backtrack a little. I want to point out, that while Gaston seems to belittle women, it seems to be only with their role in society. He doesn’t actually hurt women, or is rude to them. He doesn’t do that with anyone else in town, either. In fact, he is quite polite. In the opening number, Gaston constantly asks, “excuses me” and “please let me through,” and doesn’t shove anyone out of the way. In fact he goes out of his way to avoid causing anyone an inconvenience.
Besides his low opinion of women’s roles, and his high opinion of himself (which by society we are told are bad things), his only two “acts of villainy” are his plot with Maurice and his lynch mob. Both of which are totally understandable.
Let’s face it, Maurice is kinda crazy. I mean, he build a death contraption that cuts firewood. And to Gaston’s defense, he only conspires against Maurice after the guy storms into the bar and spouts crazy talk. While I wouldn’t say that it’s the best of plans, being nice didn’t seem to get Belle’s attention either. And really, is coercing Belle into being a wife really any worse than the Beast holding her prisoner? Yet, we forgive the Beast.
His second “trecherous” act is his ralleying against the Beast. Which, honestly, is a perfectly reasonable reaction. Belle shows him an image of a monster (which only Belle and the audience know isn’t so bad at this point). The Beast is howling, and kinda on a rampage in the castle. Gaston draws the conclusion that the monster that locked Belle away and is currently rampaging is a threat. Yup, it’s the same conclusion we drew at the beginning of the movie. If falls in line with the “crazy talk” Maurice was spewing earlier in the movie. So, while Gaston may have a deeper motive of jealousy, his initial motive isn’t unreasonable or villainous. I mean, the Beast did kinda hold Belle hostage, and Gaston loves her.
Ultimately, yes, Gaston is a villain of the movie. He is a villain because he doesn’t learn to look beyond the surface. His failure to the theme is ultimately what makes him the bad guy. Not so much his actions. And Belle is a hero because she fulfills the theme and sees the Beast as more than a monster. (I guess she does? She kinda doesn’t do anything.) Though, I’m not really sure she really learns to look beyond the surface, because she only sees the Beast (who a damn prince, which is obvious to deduce because he lives in a castle!) as better. Her conclusions don’t apply to anyone not magically enchanted. Still, the characters’s actions contrast with their roles. We praise Belle as a stuck up bitch, and villainize Gaston as the worst kind of human ever. The movie so successful uses visuals, tone, and score, our opinions of the characters are dictated by the direction of the story, not their personalities.