What Makes a Great Villain?
When one pictures the great pantheon of Disney villains, many delightfully diverse and devious characters come to mind. There is, of course, the informal leader of the council herself: Maleficent, “Mistress of All Evil,” with the ability to call upon all the powers of hell. There is Snow White’s Evil Queen stepmother, whose evil cackle still haunts the dreams of adults who first heard it as children. There is the comically foppish Captain Hook, whose twirled mustache and feathered hat aesthetically balance out his obsessive mission to murder children. And there is the leader of the Underworld, Hades, whose sleazy fast-talking deal-making persona was brought to life by the incomparable voice acting of James Woods.
These villains and their peers have drawn the obsession of fans who love to hate their many ways to be wicked. But among these witches, pirates, gods of the underworld, and other corrupt power-hungry figures, there is one who stands out from all the rest: a mere hunter who is, in fact, not a villain at all, but a tragic hero from a small provincial French village in desperate need of redemption.
I am talking about none other than Gaston.
Who is Gaston?
Yes, it is Gaston from Disney’s 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast who seems out of place among the villains, and that is perhaps because he is not truly a villain at all.
Gaston has many qualities that make him unlikeable, especially by modern standards. As Belle herself puts it, he is, among other things, “boorish, brainless.” From the beginning of the character’s appearance in the film, we are made to understand he is arrogant, and his worldview is only furthered by the many villagers who constantly fawn over his traditionally masculine traits of being, “such a tall, dark, strong and handsome brute!”
His story arc is quite simple: Propose to Belle, be “dismissed, rejected, publicly humiliated,” scheme to get Belle back by threatening to put her father in an asylum, use his influence to rally the village community against Belle’s one true love, and be ultimately defeated in battle. When looking at Gaston’s role, it is quite easy to see the classic villain plotline of developing animosity and envy towards the protagonist, seeking vengeance and retribution, and dying in the pursuit. However, these same story points can also reflect the life of a tragic hero.
Related: Best Gaston Moments at Disney World
What Makes a Tragic Hero?
A tragic hero is brought down from prosperity to adversity, not through their own evil, but an error in judgment. Within the film, we know that Gaston was once a little boy who “ate four dozen eggs every morning” to help him grow. Grow he did, becoming a strong and charismatic young man skilled at hunting, shooting, and fighting. These, of course, are valuable skillsets in the traditional late 1700’s French countryside. They represent his ability to protect as well as provide for a wife and family and make him a very eligible man who could have any woman he wishes. And yet he sets his sight on the one person who is ostracized by the entirety of the village, Belle.
Gaston dreams of having a home and family with at least 6 or 7 young boys. His confidence is such that he plans the wedding before he even proposes, and his influence over the villagers is such that many come to celebrate his ill-fated wedding ceremony despite their open dislike of the bride.
In his proposal, we can see Gaston’s tragic flaw: his vanity. When his vanity is insulted, it leads him down an inevitably darker path, and the choice that brings about his downfall: The use of Belle’s father as a means to his ends.
Now, it is important to note that Gaston’s decision to bribe the caretaker of an asylum to incarcerate Maurice is not an action that should be framed as “good.” But it is also important to note that having Maurice institutionalized is also not an irrational decision.
We know from the film that many villagers refer to Belle’s father as “Crazy Old Maurice,” an image that is not helped by the fact that he returns to the village without his daughter claiming she was taken by a mysterious monster. But even before these events, Maurice has shown that he can pose a legitimate threat to himself and others. The ending of the film’s opening number is punctuated by a literal explosion coming from the inventor’s cottage, and from the dialogue exchanged between Maurice and his daughter, we can gather this is not the first time his inventions have gone wrong. The creation itself is an automated steam-powered ax-wielding machine, something that would rightly be considered terrifying by an average villager even when working correctly.
Gaston puts his village influence on display, telling Belle he will withdraw the bribe if she accepts his proposal. He knows he can turn public opinion on a dime, save Belle’s father from the fresh mob, and ensure his extended safety by becoming the father-in-law of the most popular and respected man in town.
However, when Belle is discovered to see Beast as a friend and even show love for her captor, his motives change. His vanity insulted once more that he has been placed second, he moves to plan C: the Beast must die.
Who’s Worse, Really? Gaston or The Beast?
In another film, Disney animation or otherwise, Gaston’s persistent pursuit of Belle, despite her sentiment that she “just doesn’t deserve” him, would be framed as romantic. Indeed, his journey of rallying the villagers to protect their village against the threat of a ferocious beast would be considered inspiring. If not, then perhaps the framing of the film just a few years before The French Revolution would make the image of the villagers coming to storm the castle of a cruel, unfeeling boy prince feel more significant. But no.
Despite the fact the Beast is shown to be cursed due to his cold, unfeeling nature–essentially dooming a woman to die in the bitter cold despite readily available room for her–we are meant to see his punishment as unjust. The Prince’s castle becomes cold and dark. The servants he saw as property are turned into objects. And that punishment is somehow unfair?
The Beast imprisons Belle, only lets her leave her prison under a specific set of rules that he dictates. He verbally threatens and physically intimidates her when she disobeys. Yet, we are meant to sympathize with his pain and journey with Belle to see the man who lives within the Beast?
Belle yells, “He’s not the real monster Gaston, you are!” But is Gaston really the monster, and is he truly unworthy of redemption?
The central theme of Beauty and The Beast is meant to be that beauty is truly found on the inside. The film attempts to do this through juxtaposition. Though the Beast looks monstrous, he is genuinely “kind and gentle.” Gaston is meant to be the opposite, beautiful on the outside and loved by all, with a monster lying within.
Where Disney’s theming falls apart is the tragic flaw of both Gaston AND the Beast, their mirrored vanity. At the beginning of the film, the Beast thinks that he can never be loved because he looks like a monster and acts accordingly. Gaston thinks there is no one who cannot love him and acts accordingly. They both have a simplistic shallow view of the world, they both perform undeniably immoral acts in the film, and they both fall in love with the same woman. But only one of these men is able to see the transformative nature of love and be redeemed through their character development, while the other is doomed to die.
If the Beast had been more kindhearted from the beginning, or Gaston had perhaps shown less genuine care for Belle, maybe the central message would be more clear. But it is not, and it has not gotten any clearer.
For a seemingly one-dimensional villain to be redeemed, we, the audience, need more information. Villains like Maleficent and Cruella DeVil have gotten their chance to be rewritten from a new, more sympathetic perspective. Still, Gaston’s reimaginings have muddled the character’s position in the narrative more.
In the Kingdom Hearts video game series, one can fight several Disney villains, but Gaston is omitted entirely. In fact, in the levels where the player fights beside the Beast in Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2, the villains are instead the ever-present and relentless “Heartless.”
In Disney’s popular ABC series Once Upon a Time, Gaston is featured in perhaps the best episode of the entire show, “Skin Deep” (Season 1, Episode 12), where The Beast is metaphorically represented by Robert Carlyle’s Rumplestilskin. In this version, Gaston is the son of a Lord in an arranged marriage with Belle. He comes to the castle of Rumplestilskin to rescue Belle, saying, “I am Sir Gaston, and you, beast, have taken my love.” He is unceremoniously defeated and turned into a rose which “The Beast” presents to Belle.
Gaston is not seen again until Season 5’s “Her Handsome Hero,” where he returns to justifiably seek his revenge.
In the Disney Book series, Twisted Tales, Gaston is featured in 2016’s As Old As Time by Elizabeth J. Braswell. But he is regulated to a mere footnote, with little detail on his motivations. Monsieur D’Arque, the proprietor of the asylum, is promoted to the primary villain, and Gaston, in fact, is the one who ultimately defeats him.
And, of course, in the 2017 remake of Beauty and The Beast, Gaston (played by Luke Evans) is a war hero who returned home from the Seven Year’s War feeling like he was missing something, and that Belle was the only one who had that “something.”
These retellings reveal a truth of the Beauty and The Beast tale that is exclusive to the animated Disney classic. Just as there is more to the Beast–just as there is “so much more to this provincial life”–, there is more to Gaston. And his death, though brought about by his own actions, rings tragically in that knowledge.
If Disney were to make another “Devil’s Advocate”-style Villain movie, they should show Gaston as the tragic anti-hero that he is and allow him a shot at redemption, if only in the eyes of Disney Fanatics everywhere.
Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are that of the writer and may not reflect the sentiments of Disney Fanatic as a whole.