So as many of these start – I love X. In this case X is Disney films. I acknowledge they have done terrible, irreparable, damage to my psyche; but I love them anyway. One of my favourites, but not my outright favourite, is’Beauty and The Beast‘. Now I love this film because I am an absolute sucker for romance and seeing the lovely Belle end up with a humble and repentant prince is a touching tale that definitely does not make me tear up to this day…….
But……. But, but I have one major bone to pick with this film. Disney films are famous for iconic villains and whilst Gaston is iconic – he is not a villain. I actually think that ‘Beauty and The Beast‘ has easily the least compelling villain of any Disney film! Now slow down; don’t crucify me just yet. Gaston is a compelling antagonist, I just don’t think he is the true villain of the story. That role is filled by the townsfolk.
So the best way to articulate the reasoning for this is to contrast Disney’s two most famously libidinous antagonists, Gaston and Judge Frollo, and show how one is merely a product of societal pressures and deserves a degree of sympathy and understanding for his misguided views and the other is a dastardly ne’er do well worthy of our scorn and revulsion.
So both of our antagonists are centrally concerned with trying to posses a woman. This is bad, and terrible, and we shouldn’t try to possess women. Women are people and we don’t possess people. Both Men react incredibly poorly when they are rebuffed by the object of their desire. Gaston slumps into depression and concocts a plan to blackmail Belle into accepting him and when this fails gathers a lynch mob and tries to, in typical ‘manly’ fashion, kill the person (Beast) that Belle chose over him. Frollo when similarly scorned….. abuses his power as a public official, destroys a bunch of property, tortures a bunch of innocent people and finally tries to burn Esmeralda at the stake.
These two reactions are vastly disproportionate and show fairly succinctly why I consider Frollo to be much more villainous and compelling as a bad guy than Gaston. Frollo’s reaction to a fairly regular and minor offence, someone telling him no, is titanic. He actually tries to burn a family alive in their home for not giving up the location of Esmeralda. Gaston, on the other hand, is more of a sad lad who we see go through a petty cycle of pathetic posturing rather than a full on psychotic break and plan to exact horrific, bloody and murderous vengeance. Clearly when it comes to ‘bringing the thunder – for a relatively minor offence’ Frollo takes the villain cake; he much more clearly acts in an evil manner when rebuffed by his desire.
Now the interesting thing for me in this comparison is the underlying, unspoken, similarity in these characters; or more specifically in the way they are presented within the bounds of Disney’s stories. They are antiquated and cartoonish simulacrum of the worst elements of the patriarchal society that they are a stand in for, being contrasted against women who are much more progressive and modern in their presentation and philosophy. They are both images of out-dated patriarchal values being displayed in stark contrast to progressive sets of values embodied by the female characters that both pursue.
This is where I would like to return to my assertion that the townsfolk of ‘Beauty and The Beast‘bear a greater villainy than Gaston. Gaston is a typical ‘beefcake’ cutout – all brawn no brains. We see in the opening musical number that all the people around him , who he interacts with and talks to regularly, think that whilst Belle is beautiful, she is weird and an outsider. This shows that they only really value her beauty as they are incapable of understanding her drive, passion or intelligence -they simply write these characteristics off as ‘weird’. So it is not wonder that poor, hapless, Gaston absorbs this societally reinforced judgement of Belle and treats her as a beautiful prize and no more – he is never educated about our modern perceptions of a woman’s intrinsic value and worth. Given his starkly less ‘evil’ reaction to her telling him no; in the first instance literally being just to sulk at the pub…. He is clearly not the villain – the judgmental and short sighted townsfolk he undermine the value of Belle’s character and allow Gaston to manipulate her by granting him access to her father are much worse humans – and thus much greater villains – than our Gaston.
Now I do not mean this to be a defence of every pig-headed patriarchally entitled male who acts stupidly when rebuffed by a lady. People who act this way in the modern world are, I hope, an ever decreasing margin as we slowly throw off the iron shackles of a privileged patriarchal society. I am merely raising an observation that evil and villainy takes more than reacting badly to your antiquated ideology being ‘shown up’, exposed or rejected. I am saying that true villainy lies within the systems and societal ideologies that predicate values and judgement that diminish an individuals worth based on superficial elements such as gender or even race. And that as I have previously espoused, our reaction to the types of people who fall prey to the outdated and retrograde values of the society they are a part of should not be one of hatred or scorn but rather empathy, pity and the kindness of education.