I was on tumblr just now, as per usual, and a post featuring the Disney song “Gaston” happened to scroll by. I didn’t even listen to it, but such is the insidiousness of Disney music that it’s been stuck in my head for the past hour and a half, and in my unwilling contemplation of the lyrics, I’ve come to a not-startling-at-all conclusion: Disney sucks for boys, too.
I feel compelled to write this because people spend so much time highlighting what, exactly, it is that makes Disney dangerous to the mindsets of little girls, including my stunningly intelligent friend Anne, to the point where I even felt a need to defend some of those Disney Princesses. And that’s definitely a point that needs to be made, but you almost never see the other side of the story. What the hell kind of message is Disney sending to little boys?
Beauty and the Beast starts out on a pretty humiliating note for Gaston, which is what prompts the song that prompted this post. Looking at it from Gaston’s perspective, basically what happens is that he makes overtures toward a lady he likes, and she rejects him. Yes, he was totally acting entitled and being a douche and he absolutely had it coming, but that doesn’t mean the rejection wasn’t wounding. Rejection sucks, and Gaston reacts in a way that is totally recognizable as human:
Gaston: No one says “no” to Gaston! Dismissed! Rejected! Publicly humiliated! Why, it’s more than I can bear.
LeFou: More beer?
Gaston: What for? Nothing helps. I’m disgraced.
And how does his friend react to the news that he’s so depressed he doesn’t even want beer?
LeFou: Who, you? Never! Gaston, you’ve got to pull yourself together.
…by telling him to snap out of it. God forbid a man should express actual feelings, right? Thanks, Disney! That’s a healthy message.
LeFou goes on in the song to describe all of Gaston’s winning characteristics, all of which are firmly in the “man’s man” category of behaviors. You know: the things all other media everywhere is telling little boys they should be. Observe:
“Every guy here’d love to be you, Gaston, even when taking your lumps.”
He has absurdly exaggerated masculine physical features:
Chorus: For there’s no one as burly and brawny.
Gaston: As you see I’ve got biceps to spare.
LeFou: Not a bit of him’s scraggly or scrawny….
Gaston: That’s right! And every last inch of me’s covered with hair!
He kills things:
I use antlers in all of my decorating!
Aaaand engages in questionably homo-erotic behavior, despite his insistence on a rigidly hetero sexual identity:
In a wrestling match nobody bites like Gaston!*
He is, literally, “a man among men.” Gaston does everything a man is suppose to do. He’s everything a man is suppose to be. He’s “perfect–a pure paragon.” There’s “no man in town half as manly.” He is a perfect embodiment of male-ness.
He’s also the villain.
Aaaaand he has all of his villainous traits in common with the story’s protagonist, Beast:
And maintains questionably homo-erotic relationships, because I’m just saying, there were not a lot of ladies in that castle….
Basically the only difference between the two of them is that one of them kidnaps Belle’s father, and the guy who did that wasn’t the villain. But he still got the girl, I guess because he had a library? The actual justification for Belle & Beast’s relationship is never clear, but it sure as hell wasn’t because he was a better man than Gaston. Because he wasn’t. But he could read, so I guess Disney wants little boys to learn to read? Is this actually a movie about how being nerdy gets you chicks? I am way off the subject now…
Anyway, the question is this: which is it? Should boys be manly and tough and stand up for what they believe in
and save the village from a monster that attacked a townsperson and is holding another hostage like Gaston, or should they be manly and tough and occasionally read some books and use aggression to subdue people who aren’t behaving in a way that suits them like the Beast? Is manliness good or bad? Because the line between the two is almost non-existent, both are caricatures of what it means to be “manly,” and neither of them do what they should actually do, which is allow Belle to make her own life decisions like a regular human being. Basically Disney has set up two almost identical characters as protagonist and antagonist in this movie, and the only difference between them is that one was more successful at forcing Belle to spend time with him. So. Yeah. Good work, Disney. Spot on.
“I’m especially good at expectorating!” -Gaston, Beauty and the Beast
*actual lyric, for serious.
8 thoughts on “A Close Reading of Gaston; or, Why Disney Also Sucks for Boys”
Nice post! I think it’s a little easy to focus on women when looking at Disney films, but the roles available for men are no better, as you eloquently break down here. I’m currently reading Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde–she has a whole chapter called “Go, Be A Beast” about men’s roles in fairy tales. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but when I do, I’ll let you know what she has to say.
Oooh, exciting! I may have to read that. It’s so hard to love Disney when they keep being so terrible about gender roles. Gavin and I were trying to come up with ONE animated Disney movie that passed the Bechdel Test yesterday–no dice. There was some debate about Lilo & Stitch, though, so I may have to watch that one again and see if it passes.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire passes, if I remember correctly!
Refreshing. Has anybody else taken Disney to task for stereotypical male roles before?
I’m sure somebody has pointed it out before. Nothing new under the sun, right? But it’s definitely important to look at it from both perspectives, because gender stereotypes hurt everybody.
Hello, from two years in the future!
I had a completely different understanding of Gaston. To discuss some of your points…
“…by telling him to snap out of it. God forbid a man should express actual feelings, right? Thanks, Disney!”
This, to me, reads much more like a Disney version of “Forget that ho, she doesn’t know what she’s missing.” It’s actually a little sweet. Gaston is down after Belle rejects him and LeFou and the rest of the barflies try to cheer him up, by praising his qualities. I didn’t pick up any real sense of silencing Gaston’s feelings (“man up”) here.
“LeFou goes on in the song to describe all of Gaston’s winning characteristics, all of which are firmly in the “man’s man” category of behaviors. You know: the things all other media everywhere is telling little boys they should be.”
Everything about Gaston is exaggerated to comical proportions. This caan be interpreted as an overtly satirical, very tounge-in-cheek deconstruction of traditional masculinity, with “Gaston” as the theme song. Thought of this way, the handling of Gaston’s character is probably one of the most progressive depictions in Disney canon. As you noted, Gaston is the villian. I don’t think that most boys came away from that movie associating hypermasculinity with anything positive, which in and of itself is problematic, but that’s another discussion.
“Aaaaand he has all of his villainous traits in common with the story’s protagonist, Beast:”
You’re right. I actually saw this as a very clever storytelling device, however. On one level, the Beast and Gaston are similar (as you note, both violent, hypermasculine, …and hairy) but on a deeper level this is because they are actually opposite sides of the same coin.
Gaston starts out as a chauvinistic, ignorant, but ultimately harmless idiot. As the story progresses, he becomes an evil, scheming murderous villian, who (actually) takes Belle and her father prisoner (locking them both in a cellar and trying to get the father committed.)
The Beast, in contrast, starts as a snarling dangerous monster, who takes Belle and her father prisoner and slowly progresses into a gentle, kindhearted person.
In the end, Gaston and the Beast almost completely switch roles, except the Beast goes past “harmless idiot” and makes it all the way to “good person”, while Gaston goes past “scary” and descends to “evil.” “Who is the monster and who is the man” indeed. That’s the real reason why the Beast got the girl. His transformation back into a human at the end is just the outward manifestation of the change in his inner character. (In other words, why the enchantress cursed him in the first place.)
Beautifully accurate. I still enjoy the film but you capture the most troublesome component of the film perfectly. And don’t forget the Beast literally killing off of Belle’s only other suitor ;)