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The problem of Gaston, in "Beauty and the Beast"


The problem for a feminist, revisionist "Beauty and the Beast" is that no one character more causes us to shake our established preferences... to work toward a different finish than we were comfortably expecting, than the arrogant patriarch villain, Gaston. Belle reads as many books as she can get her hands on, but she represents the stage of moral perfection we liberals are all ostensibly at these days, so she's not about to throw any surprises our way, any new-fangled ideas on how to behave she got from reading some of her books: she'll only confirm what we know about ourselves. She'll school any number of characters on how properly to behave, implicitly school them to rise to her level, but (of course) she'll also embrace others' cultural preferences and eat and drink as they themselves would -- get dirty with them, in a sense, to help not only not shame but also bring equivalency to their relationship: "it's not only for you to learn to be like me" ("... but is this something that I too must learn?"). When she develops empathy for the Beast, it owes, in part, to recognizing him as someone brought lower, owing to oppression, than she herself ever was -- his mother was a wonderful if sickly dear he always tried to attend, but his father was one who cruelly took him away from her, ostensibly only to beat, mock and torture him with the like of a mandatory classical education, which only incidentally made him finely literate and world-knowledgable. Belle, in contrast, had a glorious mother and father, both, and the townspeople who've always thought her odd were never the overtly demonic like the Beast's father was, and were just, well, mundane, provincial -- any sense of them of them as "witch burners" is leagues away (admittedly, it does appear a bit when she is scolded away from teaching other children to read), and quite frankly they more serve as objects of contrast through which Belle profits, even if it means little to her. The most surprising thing I experienced from her was not something she did, but that the people behind the film thought it safe for a character -- the Beast -- to throw a giant snowball at her which knocked the wind out of her: it ultimately passed as just innocuous fun, an albeit surprising but ultimately fair retort to a caustic throw of her own, but it came credibly close to as if she had been hit by the blow of a giant fist instead. Which if that had happened, would have been well outside any accepted level of abuse and dishevelment either character was going to suffer from the other, and would have conveyed unprocessed anger towards Belle we the audience might as well have been feeling, perhaps over the level of permissiveness (unfair!) loaded onto her. Things suddenly would have gone, not-Disney, as what ought to have remained kept-in got near overt release.

If one of the books that fascinated Belle was something like "Need-Satisfaction through Fairy Tales"... if what Belle and the Beast discuss in their literary discussions was not just how romance is as well a component of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, not just blood and battles, but how many tyrants, not just the sensitive, know well and love Shakespeare, Belle would have induced upon us some dissonant thought we'd either have to spit out or integrate -- she'd set us to perhaps reprocess some of what we'd already seen, our indulging in being superior for being book lovers just like her. But she doesn't. Gaston, on the other hand, does -- encourage the reprocessing bit, that is. He does it when, after a precedent has been apparently set that no one in the film is going to be a villain in a way one can't begrudge, he becomes more than just vain and dense but grossly indifferent and shockingly cruel. He does it when he takes Belle's dad, straps him to a tree, and bids the wolves have at him. By doing this, he doesn't just transform the lighthearted into something serious, take us into a rushing torrent after we'd accustomed ourselves first through calm waters, but draw us into ongoing murky waters of having to try and find a way to work through what we know of his companion LeFou -- a character we still want to support -- so we can accept that he, the one reliable witness, won't commit himself against Gaston's actions -- neither here, nor subsequently before the haphazardly arranged "people's court". We're we enjoying the company all along of someone who couldn't speak up even when deigning to do so meant passing over murder? He's the one homosexual in the film, and we're absolutely committed to celebrating him, but now -- how?, without feeling like we're pro-homosexuality mostly because it makes us feel good and as such is built on and sustained by a kind of personal disregard? Can it be done without any work on our part? Will the film ultimately come to our rescue, in situating him so he'll seem to have had no other choice, or something like that, or will it make the attempt intelligently and aggressively but still fall short?

Also, by having a character suddenly commit in this thus-far amiable tale to murder, means that he himself is committed to the fate that all contemporary fairy tales will be compelled to land on him -- his death, at least, is now a certainty. And it'll be merciless, unredeemed. But this jars too, goes beyond our preferences, in that he was functioning well as sort of a mostly manageable cad. Someone whom every other woman desires, and every guy admires, but who doesn't possess anywhere near the resources to comport himself admirably to someone genuinely literate, even as he tries and tries his absolute best to do so. We know this character is lost to the universe, and as we envision the Beast winnowing down eventually to a denatured human male (Dan Stevens -- ugh!) -- one who ultimately doesn't quite measure up in presence and resources to Emma Watson's Belle, and whom we want back, immediately, as a bear-lion thing, for the adulterations electronically required to dress him up as such having erred agreeably in somehow lending him gravitas he doesn't without them possess... as we regard all the left-over, highly agreeable -- or rather, eager-to-be agreeable -- personages, we know we're going to have to deem it, very quickly, absolutely perfect -- and then get our head-space on out of this "perfection" as fast as possible, else we have to admit to ourselves that it was most notable for its absence.

Absence of a presence we seem to have found ourselves positioned to believe we're glad to be spared, for the guy, who even if outside his intentions, nudged the work of thought, repositioning, conjecture, risk... and maybe reality (outside this "Beauty and the Beast," French, opulent haven, we've got hellion hordes at our heels: do we really know them well enough, think they can they be assumed sufficiently, that we're okay only revelling in our glorious self-reflection and casually casting them aside?) into something a bit situationally inopportunely, resolved -- Gaston. They're out there, the agitatingly male and "other". Let's keep them in our narratives, with us even at the end. Maybe even do as Jessa Crispin advocates and consider them as "shit containers" into which we project all unwanted aspects of our own selves. Means by which we avoid fair self-scrutiny that prevents us not only from actual self-realization but from confronting the world with what is in everything genuinely "in advance of," in everything genuinely progressive and new and odd and strange -- the heavy scratch of dissonance.



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