Beauty, Beast, and the Boys: Lessons on Being a Man from a Disney Flick
You’ll never hear a finer hurrah for the power of protein than this endorsement from an 18th-Century gentleman, who, 200 or so years before the discovery of steroids, possessed arms the size of three necks.
But he wants you to know: he’s all-natural. “When I was a lad,” proclaimed this Frenchman of flex, “I ate four dozen eggs every morning to help me get large.” But in the same way that we graduate from Star Margarine, he admits to an important dietary change: “But now that I’m grown I eat five dozen eggs, so I’m roughly the size of a baaaaarge!”
Such was Gaston, a stomping, handsome brute—idolized by men, fawned over by women—Gaston, the villain in the 1991 Disney animated movie Beauty and the Beast. “It’s not right for a woman to read,” he tells the heroine Belle early on. “Soon she starts getting ideas, and thinking…” Oh what a guy, Gaston. He’s still one of Disney’s most subversive villains: the oafish charmer, all bluster and buffoonery and broad physical comedy until he can’t get what he wants—not to conquer the world, but just to put the ladies in their place, right underneath him.
In the upcoming live action remake starring Emma Watson as Belle and Ewan McGregor as a candlestick, Gaston is played by Luke Evans. You may know him as the competently villainous Owen Shaw in Fast & Furious 6, where he operated as a sinister, lanky counterpoint to Vin Diesel. You may also know him as reluctant hero Bard the Bowman in the Hobbit movies, where he operated as a sinister, lanky counterpoint to Legolas. Even as a good guy, he can’t seem to shake off his air of menace. Almost four years ago I saw him in person when I covered the Philippine premiere of Furious 6. While waving sweatily from the red carpet Evans still cut the profile of a wolf…the kind you’d send to kill a beast.
There are probably a lot of us boy Beauty and the Beast fans out there, mostly hidden, lurking in the shadows, waiting for Belle to call out: “Come into the light.”
Beauty and the Beast is a movie I obsessively watched back when I was a kid, wearing down a VHS copy brought from the States by a balikbayan relative. Without shame, I admit: it’s one of my favorite movies—a fact my college friend found out when I drunkenly sang the Gaston song at his house party. After looking at me in disbelief for a moment, he started singing along, too. There are probably a lot of us boy Beauty and the Beast fans out there, mostly hidden, lurking in the shadows, waiting for Belle to call out: “Come into the light.”
A lot of the movie’s long-lived goodwill comes from its pioneering heroine. Belle was one of Disney’s first modern “Princesses”, the blue-aproned hinge between Snow White (sample lyric: “I’m wishing (I’m wishing) for the one I love, to find me (to find me) today!”), and Moana (sample lyric: “And let me know what’s beyond that line! Let me cross that line!”). For little girls who had that same VHS tape, there’s plenty to admire about Belle. “She’s all about that booklearnin’,” writes Chelsea Mize for Bustle, “and despite the daft villagers giving her crap for being the only woman in the village who has a shred of intelligence and self-awareness, Belle isn't afraid to be who she is.” It’s a message that Disney has been steadily pushing since.
For the bookish, introverted young boys of the '90s, fed on a sugary diet of Disney movies, Belle became a sort of “crush template.” Non-threatening father figure? Literary but with an inclination towards the sciences? Handy with a dead tree branch? The prettiest girl in town while still also a complete nerd? Only Emma Watson can come close to that sort of likability (which is sort of the reason, I suppose, they casted her). If I dated her—Belle, that is, not Emma—I probably wouldn’t stand a chance. I don’t have the stomach to kidnap anybody…even if I might, in the end, be redeemed.
For the bookish, introverted young boys of the '90s, fed on a sugary diet of Disney movies, Belle became a sort of “crush template.”
By the fight scene at the movie’s climax, Gaston has lost all his poise, bravado, and hair product. Undone by rain, his bangs fall over eyes that no longer have the shine of comical self-assurance. Instead, Gaston has a crazed, murderous look on his face as he breaks down castle doors in search of the Beast.
As Gaston hunts down the Beast across the castle parapets, he swings his club and decapitates a hulking figure in the shadows. Lightning flashes, and, whoops—Gaston has actually knocked the head off a gargoyle statue. Glancing around, Gaston sees more gargoyle statues, row upon row of stone-faced monsters. Up here, it’s all beasts.
The movie projects Gaston and the Beast as enchanted mirror images of each other, and of a bristly vision of manhood: all awkward, aggressive overcompensation, “every last inch”, as Gaston sings, “covered in hair.” The Beast, however, divests himself of his bad qualities mid-movie, as one removes a fur coat, paving the way for his defeat of Gaston and an eventual return to his true, immaculate, strikingly effeminate form. But as critic Marina Warner notes in her 1994 book From the Beast to the Blonde: “No child in my experience preferred the sparkly, candy-colored human who emerged from the enchanted monster.”
But looks don’t matter; Belle chose on the basis of inner beauty. But it’s not clear why Belle had to choose at all. If she was the role model for thousands of little girls who wanted to grow up to be her—smart, spirited, independent, doesn’t take long naps waiting for a prince’s kiss—the movie offers no deserving male equivalent. Who would want to grow up to be the Beast?
But Belle must make a choice. In the end, as she waltzes in the arms of her former abductor, her taming of this wild boy complete, you have to feel for her. “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere,” she sang at the start of the movie—but her adventure ended up kind of cramped, and sort of next door (mob-marching distance from her village, really), and not really so great, since most of it was spent trapped inside a prison. And it all led up to that ultimate happy ending: a dance with a prince. Belle could break free from convention, but not too much convention. Gaston, leering and flexing from beyond the grave, would approve.