Pre-motherhood, I didn’t think I’d allow my child to watch the old-school Disney Princess movies—the ones that came out before the Mouse realized the modern market demanded adventuresome heroines and plots that don’t center on romance. But I didn’t know how many awful, algorithmically generated spinoff shows lurk like dust bunnies in the corners of the Disney+ app. I didn’t know that in comparison to that crap, Beauty and the Beast (1991), my 4-year-old daughter’s current obsession, would seem like a masterpiece. And it’s a good thing, too, because we listen to the soundtrack every morning and watch parts of the movie whenever we get a chance. A few months into her fandom, I have this thing memorized.
There’s a lot I don’t like about the movie, which came out a little too late to have been formative for me as a child. The story tries to buy some feminist points by making the heroine, Belle, an oddball who likes books—but she’s also “the most beautiful girl in the village,” and I don’t really love how much her beauty drives things along. Then there’s the idea that an “enchantress” has put the Beast under a spell because he needs to get over his fixation on superficiality, but he saves himself (and his servants, who are collateral damage in this whole thing!) from the enchantment by … falling in love with the most beautiful girl in the village. Huh? And why do Belle and the Beast even fall in love at all? As I exclaim periodically to my confused and uninterested child: “They barely even know each other! It makes no sense!”
I will suffer all of this for the sake of Gaston. The swaggering hunter and small-town hero, voiced by actor and opera singer Richard White, is toxic masculinity personified, complete with a widow’s peak and high, clompy boots. Gaston decides Belle should be his wife (“She is the most beautiful girl in the village. That makes her the best”) and won’t leave it alone, manipulating, pestering, and pursuing her, right into the Beast’s castle itself. He spits indoors, tosses people around, tracks mud, and plans a whole wedding before even proposing to the bride. Gaston is just terrible, and Belle is the only one in town who stands up to him.
My daughter loves Gaston. She has a penchant for the bully character in every story; Gaston has become one of her imaginary friends, joining Too-Tall Grizzly in the “gang” of boys who have tea parties with her in her room at night, and who are always to blame when she does something she knows she shouldn’t. But even better than the way her new fandom has expanded her little intertextual fictional universe is the fact that she likes to talk about Gaston, and these conversations with a preschooler who doesn’t really have peers yet (pandemic!) do get interesting. She wants to know why the other girls in the village have crushes on Gaston, even though he’s “not nice.” She wants to know why his sidekick, LeFou, is his friend, since Gaston is so mean. She wants to know why he likes Belle so much, when she doesn’t like him back. One day, she says, out of the blue, “I think maybe Gaston, because he is so cool, does not fart?” These are all very good questions!
“Webecca,” she says, from the back seat (she’s been on a first-name kick with me lately). “I had a dream that Gaston came in the house, and he ate all of our eggs, and drank all of Dad’s coffee. His eyes were SO BIG, they were poppin’!” I thought this was just another 4-year-old flight of fancy (my husband sometimes describes her conversation as “the ramblings of a madwoman”). But the other day, we were watching the part of the movie when Gaston mopes in a tavern after Belle’s rejection of his marriage proposal, and LeFou tries to cheer him up by listing all of his manly attributes. A classic song with lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken follows, with LeFou kicking it off: “Gosh, it disturbs me to see you, Gaston/ Looking so down in the dumps!/ Every guy here’d like to be you, Gaston/ Even when taking your lumps.” And I realized where my daughter’s dream came from.
In the song, Gaston explains how he got so big. “When I was a lad I ate four dozen eggs/ Every morning to help me grow large,” he sings, tossing eggs in his mouth with gusto. “Now that I’m grown I eat five dozen eggs/ And I’m roughly the size of a ba-arge!” As the song swells upward on “ba-arge,” White’s voice getting huge, the animated Gaston, already swole, grows bigger and bigger, filling the screen. On that highest note, Gaston’s mouth opens up to an unnatural, science-fictional size. “Did you see that?” I ask my daughter, skipping back 10 seconds. “Did you see how big his mouth got?” She jumps up and down, giggling hysterically. We skip back and skip back, watching his mouth open and close, ready to eat the world.
More than any other question, she asks, “Why is Gaston not nice?” I say, “Gaston only thinks of himself.” Or other times I say, “He is too strong and too handsome, and sometimes if you’re that way, people do what you want, when they shouldn’t.” Or I say—and I wonder if she understands—“Some people are born with too much power, and they never learn to be kind.” She was only born a couple of years ago, and is still in the process of figuring out where her own power lies. Her empathy comes in fits and starts, but as a 4-year-old, she’s still basically self-centered. Can she understand any of this? Her ongoing interest in Gaston shows me she can.
Since my husband and I are the people partially responsible for supplying the material my daughter uses to build up her idea of the world, I thought we should provide her with “good role models”: strong women and kind men who care about other people. And we do that—not least, we hope, through our own examples. But this Gaston phase has taught me that there is also value for children in encountering deeply human characters who are cartoonishly bad. Gaston’s instructive because he isn’t an evil witch or a superpowered villain—he’s just some hot guy who is brutally confident enough to bend most of the people around him to his will. She’ll meet a Gaston in real life—probably more than one. Might as well talk about him now.
Update, April 8, 2021: This piece has been updated to note that Howard Ashman wrote the lyrics to “Gaston.”
This essay is partly adapted from the Slate Parenting newsletter. Sign up below: