Recently I came across a College Humor post that irritates me a bit. Perhaps you’ve seen it it’s probably been around a while.
There has been a trend that has existed where internet writers try to score literary points by attempting to make movie bad guys into heroes. More often than not these flimsy attempts at showing the villains perspective hinge on paper thing justification for their actions. Jafar, for example, I’ve read some articles attributing his actions in the movie to that fact that Jasmin states that the only good thing about being forced to marry is it will give her the power to get rid of Jafar. Naturally, this makes Jafars motivation from this point on self-preservation.
Nevermind the years before that he spent hypnotizing the Sulton and using Agraba as his personal playground while he searches for the lamp so he can depose the Sulton as the ruler of Agraba. You really think he only used his magic Hypno-staff once?
We live in a morally ambiguous world. Often times there are two sides to the story. The line between morality and fascism is much thinner than you think. Once you become confident that you can cure all the worlds ills, you basically become one of the ills of the world. That is to say, I feel like I’m a moral person. I feel my approach to many of the common problems of society are pretty good. However, the moment I try to force everyone to live by my rules, no matter how good, takes away their free will. Objectively this would make me evil.
A good example of this is a Disney villain whom did not show up on this chart. Shere Khan. Why didn’t he show up on this list? I suspect for the reason he belongs on this list because he’s a fully fleshed out character with motives and a backstory. Khan has had bad experiences with humans, he believes them to be disruptive to the balance of the jungle, and he believes the presence of the man-cub Mowgli will bring more humans to the jungle. In his mind, by killing Mowgli he is protecting his Jungle from a very real threat. His perspective may be flawed but it is a viable argument. You know who made the list? Kaa, the snake who was looking for a snack and used the tools he had available to get it. (Or not, he was ultimately foiled.) Snake lives matter people!
Why don’t see moral ambiguity in other Disney villains? Because it’s not there. They are meant to be the one-dimensional character who want simple things like power, or profit, or glory. These stories are meant for children after all. They are meant to teach children simple ideas that are almost universally accepted as good. Aladdin teaches us to believe in ourselves, cinderella teachers to hope, the emperor’s new grove teaches empathy and kindness. Mostly the villains are there to provide a hardship so the protagonist can have a transformative experience.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter why Gaston does not deserve a free pass for his actions. He is not a misunderstood character. There is no justification for his actions in the movie and he should not be seen as anything less than a villain.
While Gaston may be the poster child for toxic masculinity, it’s not his love of “manly” things that makes him evil. Before you start calling me an SJW, please understand I consider the idea of toxic masculinity the idea that there is only one way to be a man. That if you don’t have big muscles and a hairy body you are a fail-male, as is suggested in gastons famous song. Conversely enjoying things like sports, hunting, and fishing while being disinterested in reading do not make you a womanizing neanderthal.
So what does make Gaston such a bad person? Let’s consider his four biggest acts as a villain. Nuber one The “Proposal.” Why is this bad? Ask any woman whos been treated like this by an overbearing creep. He doesn’t ask Bell to marry him, he informs her of their impending nuptials. Note the way he continues to track Bell through the room as he doesn’t give her space, he tries to corner her more than once. These are the actions of a bully. The entire time he oblivious to Bell’s discomfort. When he says “Say you will marry me.” This is not a request, its a demand. Bell has no option to say no, to the proposal or the kiss he’s about to give her before she tricks him out the door. This is all controlling abusive behavior, and while in the movie it’s treated comically, people who have experienced this in real life are often traumatized and may even suffer PTSD.
Number two. Bribing an official to have an old man institutionalized. Was it out of concern for the well being of the town? Maybe he was worried about Bell’s father, he was obviously a danger to himself. No this was straight up a play to force Bell to marry him. He didn’t give a damn about Maurice, if he hadn’t been Bell’s father Gaston would have been more than content to publicly mock him, and laugh in his face. This is straight up evil.
Number there. Forced marriage. Whether you are a man or a woman the moment marriage is no longer a choice, whether it is a shotgun in the back or blackmail, it is slavery. Forcing a person to provide for a spouse they didn’t choose, or clean a house they didn’t want to be in is wrong. And do we honestly believe this asshole is going to start respecting Bell’s agency when it comes time to making those strapping young boy’s Gaston was talking about? So Bell will be forced to cook and clean for the rest of her life and can look forward to being raped on the regular.
Number four. Attempted murder. (Technically it’s attempted genocide, seeing how Beast is the only one of his kind but we’ll ignore that.) Really there is no gray area here, Gaston at best wants to kill “The Beast” because he’s different. He has no clear evidence that Beast is a monster, he just assumes because of his appearance. But even this crappy reason is too noble for Gaston. (Seriously he mocks beast for being too kind and gentle.) No, his reason for bringing an angry mob to the door of Beast is that Bell loves Beast and he straight up wants to punish Bell for rejecting him. His final act was stabbing Best in the back just moments after begging for his life.
Why does this guy get to be the funny and misunderstood villain? Love? Hell no! Love doesn’t justify his actions. Just because you love someone does not give you the right to control and abuse someone, or commit their fathers, or force them to marry you, or murder their crush. These actions are inexcusably evil. But love is not Gaston’s reason, wherein the movie did he utter the word love in conjunction with Bell? Where was the sob or lament over his bruised feelings? Bell was the prettiest girl in town, and Gaston deserved to mary the best. She was an object a trophy to complete his collection, and he was going to possess her no matter what. Gaston’s defining motivation was vanity.
My theory is that this kind of toxic trash is so prevalent in our society we’ve become blind to it. It has become such an everyday occurrence we just accept it as normal behavior. But it’s not nor should it be.
Now at the start of this, I tried to make a distinction between Gaston and other “Manly Men.” If Gaston’s proposal to Bell happen in The Double Deuce bar (Roadhouse) I would like to think Patrick Swazy would have drop kicked his ass. Perhaps ripped his throat out. There are innumerous examples of tough guy’s, manly men, badass’s and hardass’s not only respecting women’s right to say no, but fighting for it. Both in marriage and in sex. Simply put as a rule there are a few things that are universally considered evil. Gaston does those inherently evil things.
Now let’s clear some stuff up.
Beast was worse. How dose that excuses Gaston? Seriously, just because two sausages get into a tiff over a girl does not inherently make one of them the hero. I consider Beast the second villain of the movie. While it’s arguable which of the two is the greater villain both of them are responsible for their share of evil. The difference between Beast and Gaston is that Beast undergoes a transformative experience and has a chance to redeem himself in the final act. This is because the simple moral we are trying to teach children is not to judge based on appearances. Bell is beautiful, but this does not stop her from being intelligent. Gaston looks heroic, but he’s actually a villain. Beast looks like a monster, but that doesn’t stop him from feeling love, and eventually empathy. IF any Disney villain needs to be on the misunderstood side of this chart it’s Beast.
Who is the hero? This should be obvious. Bell is the BDH. All the truly heroic acts are committed by Bell. She nobly and willingly sacrifices her freedom for her father. She resists the technical demands of Beast. She tries to escape her imprisonment. She expresses empathy for her captor and treats his wounds. She sees the spark of kindness in Beast and helps him to change. (effectively saving his soul) and finally, she saves Beast’s life and saves him and his entire kingdom with a singular act of love, and all of it without to my memory raising a hand in anger. She rocked the hero thing. Yes, Beast saves her life but was he saving her or protecting her property? More would he have to save her if he hadn’t imprisoned her, to begin with?
This was not the perfect movie. I have many problems with it. It promonts the idea that if you love an abuser enough they will change. It also undermines the basic premise of don’t judge by appearances by having beast become a pretty human at the end. Bell straight up judges everyone in the town in the opening song of the movie. But not Stockholm Syndrome. Stockholm Syndrome is bullshit. Not only is it a crap theory made up by a government that wanted to villainize “terrorist” by undermining any redeeming qualities they might have had. (Not saying they were good people, but they did show some basic human decency during the incident that gave Stalkholm Syndrome its name.) It is simply the worst kind of victim blaming. Not only blaming the victim for being in the abusive relationship but also taking away any agency the victim might have had by saying they were made crazy by the abuse.
Maybe we don’t know the whole story. Maybe there are reasons Gaston acted the way he did. It is possible to look beyond these one dimensional portrays, the movie Maleficent does just that. Perhaps Gaston was abused by his overly masculine father. Maybe Gaston and Bell were friends once, and he really spent his entire life trying to make himself into the perfect husband for her. Perhaps even he was given that idea from Bell, her casually mentioning she wanted to marry prince charming someday. That his bosting and manly posturing was all some sort of misguided attempt to become Bell’s dream guy. Sure, and when he became this perfect specimen and she rejected him. Then he went a little bit crazy, and before he knew it things had gotten out of hand.
Perhaps instead of falling to his death, he is met by the same enchantress that transformed Beast, and she transforms him like she did Aaron. He is offered his own transformative experience, and he learns that love is not about possession, but rather about giving. Or whatever I’m snowballing here.
My problem with that is it really doesn’t excuse his behavior at all, much as the things that were done to Maleficent excuse her behavior. We only get a chance to see the character in a more sympathetic light, but this doesn’t make the bad stuff any less bad.
We are not responsible for the damage that is done to us, but we are definitely responsible for the damage we do to other. I include myself in this boat. I was abused as a child. Before I got my head straight I made some women feel really uncomfortable. It’s inexcusable that I did that, and maybe you could argue I was suffering from my abuse, but that didn’t make my actions any less traumatic for the women I acted out against. I have to live with that. It would be really important to show that kind of regret for Gaston if we were to give him the Maleficent treatment.
Okay bringing it home. Gaston is not misunderstood, he’s not given the chance to be misunderstood. And we as a society should recognize his behavior, and motives as “evil.” Because if we stop giving Gaston a free pass, we can stop giving real-life abusers a pass too. How many times have we heard stories of rape or abuse that had little caveats like “but he’s so good at sports” or “he loves her” or “she doesn’t know any better.” Look I know I’m swimming upriver on this. I just feel it needs to be said.