Despite having the hairline of a 47-year-old man, Disney alleges that he's actually around 25.
Wrong! In keeping with last week's post about villains and children's cartoons from the 1990s, I decided to use this week's post to meticulously comb through a 22-year-old Disney movie to examine whether or not Gaston, narcissistic huntsman and antler aficionado, is really such a bad guy after all.
For now, we're not going to count his gratuitous chest hair as a crime.
When you're deciding whether Gaston is malicious or just misunderstood, keep in mind that:
People who don't like books are awful, knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing embarrassments to human evolution, and they deserve to be thrown into tar pits so that their preserved bones might at least have some educational value to people living tens of thousands of years from now. Any child or librarian could tell you that. And so when Gaston casually tosses Belle's precious book into the mud, that's really all we need to see to know that he deserves to be thrown off the top of an improbably high tower.
Here, Disney plays a clever game of "spot the pornography joke".*
This is where a wonderful thing called 'historical context' comes in. The movie never actually specifies what year they're supposed to be living in, but the coexistence of bookstores and chamber pots points to sometime in the mid-18th century. For those of you who spent every single history class of your life snorting cocaine instead of paying attention, the 18th century was not a particularly great time for book-learnin'. Unless you a) had a penis and a royal title, or b) had a family whose livelihood depended on knowing their ABCs, chances are, no one would ever bother to teach you to read. Gaston is a huntsman. His entire job is to shoot things. Of course he tosses Belle's book aside; her passion for reading is the 18th-century equivalent of spending all day tinkering with an obscure programming language. Belle herself shouldn't be so high and mighty about it - her own ability to read is just sheer dumb luck. If she'd been born to almost any other villager besides the inventor, her perky, illiterate ass would be parked right next to Gaston's blonde admirers on that bench.
The fact that they live in the 'pooping in pottery' era of human history aside, Gaston isn't the brightest human being to ever grace the Earth. And that's not his fault. His full name, Gaston LeGume, literally translates to "The Vegetable of Gascony", with "Gascony" referring to the real-life French province where they live. He's a few croissants shy of a dozen, is what I'm saying. His world is comprised of muscles, guns, and holding metaphorical dick-measuring contests in the town bar; books aren't even on his radar. That might make him a poor match for Belle, but can we really claim that that makes him a bad person? I posit that we cannot.
Brains are not his strong suit.
Belle should want to marry him.
The definition of an ideal marriage is a multi-billion dollar question that could be the sole subject of entire blogs by itself. No matter how you feel about couples with matching genitals, however, most people in the Western world do agree on one thing: couples should at least be able to stand each other before they get married. In fact, they should ideally be quite fond of each other. If they really want to go the extra mile, they might even find some things that they have in common with each other before tying the knot. That's what makes Gaston's proposal to Belle so ridiculous - they have nothing in common, while Belle and her true love, Prince "The Beast" Adam, bonded instantly over their mutual love of, uh... eating porridge with their faces?
Ladies, control your trembling loins.
Except, once again, the fact that Belle was born in the year "17-something-something" is an issue. In her time, marriage wasn't about finding someone to have deep conversations with through the night. It was about finding someone who was capable of preventing your ass from starving. Remember, as a Renaissance-period woman, Belle doesn't have any career options open to her that involve keeping her knickers on. If she doesn't want to end up in the world's oldest profession when her father dies, she needs a husband, and a girl could do a lot worse than Gaston.
People who read to sheep in public fountains don't usually have great marriage prospects.
He may not be her soulmate or intellectual equal, but Gaston is more than capable of providing for her. He's popular. He's successful. In an age where the average man spends his entire life coughing up blood and chunks of lung until he drops dead from yellow fever at the ripe old age of 35, Gaston is almost unnecessarily healthy. He's not looking to love her and leave her penniless; Gaston makes it uncomfortably clear that he intends to have a life with Belle and raise a family together. If she wants her essential needs covered, with a little extra money left over for books, she shouldn't be so quick to turn her nose up at the town's most eligible bachelor.
And just think of all the antlers she'll have.
His beliefs are justified.
Imagine, for just a moment, that you wandered out of your house one day and saw the object of your unrequited affection in the arms of a four-headed green alien. Would you wait patiently for your crush to explain that the alien is actually a lovely individual and a generous lover? Of course not. You'd run screaming into the house to find the biggest projectile your little noodle arms can lift, so you can hurl it at the monster and rescue your beloved. So when Gaston's first reaction to seeing the Beast is to rally the villagers and head off on a late-night murdering adventure, is that really so hard to understand? He hunts animals for a living, he wants to marry Belle, and his IQ is room-temperature at best. How else is he supposed to react? He's the village's entire supply of testosterone; they're hardly going to be receptive to him suggesting that they embrace the beast as a source of diversity in their currently-monsterless town.
He just wants a hug.
Another one of Gaston's more questionable beliefs is his belief that Belle is the absolute ideal wife, just because she's just so gosh darn pretty. Isn't he a horrible person for choosing a spouse based on looks alone? Well, actually, he's got one imporant thing on his side. It's just basic human instinct - even without a formal education, the dark recesses of our brain have a loose understanding of how genes work. If you don't want to have potato-shaped children, you don't choose a potato-shaped mate. Your body doesn't steer you towards attractive, symmetrical people for no reason; even if you don't consciously want strong, plentiful children, you can bet that your loins do. Gaston has doubtlessly been raised to believe that wives are supposed to be decorative offspring factories, not best friends or companions. Besides, beauty is a famously subjective trait - Gaston is coveted by a set of gorgeous blonde triplets who would murder a flock of ducklings just for the chance to comb his chest hair for him, yet in his eyes, no one is more beautiful to him than the arguably-less-conventionally-attractive-Belle. Doesn't everyone think the object of their affection is the most attractive human being around?
And just look how symmetrical she is.
Besides, if you're going to throw stones at Gaston for over-valuing Belle's beauty, you'd better bring enough for the entire village. Why? Belle has no friends in the village, claims over and over that she doesn't fit in, and runs around singing about how they're all boring peasant cogs in the French provincial system. And yet, the entire village trips over themselves to talk to her and about her. They can't seem to shut up about her, even though she's done exactly nothing remarkable. And through it all, the villagers make it perfectly clear that the only reason they're putting up with her anti-social, book-reading bullshit is because she gives them something pretty to look at.
Something seriously lacking in this town.
While we're on the topic of Belle, Gaston makes his opinion of her hobbies known right from the start of the movie. Women shouldn't read or think, he says. How could he possibly justify something so outrageously misogynistic? Again, it comes down to sweet, sweet, wife-beating history. Up until the women's suffrage movement of the early 20th century, real, actual medical doctors with real, actual credentials believed that women didn't have enough blood to power their brains and their reproductive systems at the same time. If a woman was foolish enough to go to university or hold public office, it was believed that woman's womb would be so terribly deprived of blood that she would actually become sterile. So when Gaston tells her she shouldn't be doing any pesky thinking, he's not inflicting his own personal brand of sexism on her; he's concerned about her actual physical health.
Get down from there before you sprain your uterus.
He's just like the Beast.
When my small, mushy, 5-year-old brain first took in this movie, I thought that Gaston and the Beast couldn't be more different. Gaston was a bully with a mean streak; the Beast was eccentric and misunderstood. But after re-watching the film with my 21-year-old mature brain that still very much enjoys Disney movies, I gradually realized one very important thing that should completely exonerate Gaston from 'villain' status. Are you ready for it?
Gaston and the Beast are almost exactly the same person.
Let's start from the beginning. Gaston chooses Belle to be his own personal baby factory because she looks nice and she won't produce children with weird eyes and crooked teeth. Yes, by today's standards, that makes him kind of an asshole. But what about the Beast? He doesn't set his sights on her for her vivacious personality and delightful conversation. He just needs a girl to break the curse. Any girl will do. His requirements begin and end with a functional vagina. She could be three hundred pounds and covered in a delightful smattering of multicoloured pustules, but so long as he can force himself to fall in love with her, it's all good. Lumiere and Cogsworth literally refer to her as "the girl" right up to the end of the movie. The Beast can't claim moral superiority over Gaston here - she's little more than a trophy to either of these men. Who knows - if Gaston had saved her from those wolves and had his own subsequent bonding moment montage, maybe Belle would have grown to love him instead.
As if she could ever compete with the love he has for himself.
Of course, Gaston has a much darker side than his normal bravado might lead you to believe. In his most heinous act in the entire movie, he blackmails Belle into marriage by having her father, Maurice, committed to the insane asylum. If you keep in mind that this is a hellish, 18th-century approximation of an insane asylum, Gaston's actions are downright chilling. It's hard to believe that anyone other than a villain would employ such tactics. Oh, but hang on, imprisoning Maurice to gain leverage over Belle sounds awfully familiar. Where else have I seen that used?
Hint: This scene does not take place at Gaston's house.
Oh, yes. The Beast does literally the exact same thing. She trades her father's freedom in exchange for a promise to never, ever leave the Beast, which is essentially the Cliff's Notes of any wedding vow. When she's permitted to leave the castle to save her father from freezing to death in the snow, that's supposed to be a huge allowance on the Beast's part. But it's not all bad for Belle. I mean, the Beast has a sprawling, impractically gigantic library! How could a person who owns so many books not be a perfect match for Belle? There's just one little problem - those books clearly came with the castle, because the Beast is every bit as illiterate as Gaston.
Some of you might recognize this as the scene where Belle quite literally teaches him to sound out the word "two".
In fact, throughout the entire movie, Gaston is perpetually just one little script edit away from actually becoming the hero of the story. If he had been put under an ugly spell as a child instead of Prince Adam, this would be a heartwarming story about Belle falling in love with a simple villager instead of an arrogant prince, and no one's character would have to be any different in the slightest. If Gaston had believed Maurice's claim that Belle had been captured by a horrible beast, he could have easily realized that he truly loved her and rescued her from the Beast's clutches before she was neck-deep in Stockholm Syndrome - Disney has sold us on far less believable changes of heart before.
And we know Disney has no problem with the 'pretty girl chooses handsome guy after all' ending.
Even the final scenes didn't have to turn out as they did. Again, any quasi-talented, mostly-sober scriptwriter could find a dozen different ways to turn handsome, confident Gaston into a Disney prince instead of Prince Adam. If the timing of the final battle was off by even five minutes, remember, the Beast would have remained a Beast forever. Perhaps Gaston could have had a change of heart upon seeing that the beast wasn't such a monster after all, and the Beast could have stepped aside, refusing to let Belle spend her entire life with a twelve-foot-tall lion/buffalo hybrid. Even if the original "Belle ends up with Disney's first redheaded prince" ending is preserved, there's no real reason for Gaston's story to end the way it does. The Beast proved he was a better man by sparing Gaston's life. Any reasonable fictional character would take that as a sign that it's time to quietly slink away and re-think every terrible choice he's ever made. Having Gaston subsequently stab the Beast and get flung off the roof for his efforts only works because Disney wanted a more dramatic ending, and Disney fans demand that every little transgression is punished by death.
The children demand blood.
Gaston may be an uneducated, selfish, egotistical buffoon, but he's a far cry from the cold-blooded sociopathy of his fellow Disney villains Queen Grimhilde, Maleficent and Jafar. You want to know who the real evil is in Beauty and the Beast? How about the Enchantress, who sentences dozens of innocent people to live as sentient housewares for no other reason than they were unfortunate enough to work for a prince who's kind of an ass.
That was not a nice thing to do.
How do you feel about Gaston? Are you convinced that he's just an idiot in the wrong place at the wrong time, or do you still think he's earned a spot among Disney's most dastardly villains? Sound off in the comments.
* In case you somehow missed it during your childhood viewings of 'Beauty and the Beast', Gaston's confusion about the lack of pictures and insistence on holding the book vertically are meant to imply that he's used to looking at old-fashioned pornographic magazines. Take that, childhood innocence.