Since its glorious debut in 1991, Beauty and the Beast has gotten shit from cynics who sneer at Belle and Beast’s romance. When I went to press screening of the 3D re-release in 2012, it took all my willpower not to throttle the mommy blogger in front of me who was lamenting the “dangerous messages” the movie gives girls.
“My God,” she fretted to another prim mum in a matching high ponytail, “It’s not love Belle’s feeling. It’s Stockholm Syndrome!”
This smug mummy was wrong.
Beauty and the Beast offers a very important lesson to girls. Sure, it’s central theme is that true beauty lies within. And that’s all well and good. But the real education of Belle’s adventures is doled out by Gaston, the picture of male entitlement.
Beast’s curse demands that he earn the love of a woman. Gaston believes he is owed Belle’s love. And why wouldn’t he believe this? Their poor provincial town treats him like he hung the moon. They sing songs about him. Women literally fall over each other to get his attention. Much like the high school football stars in small towns across America, he’s fostered to think he is entitled to women (and anything else he might want). The idea that any woman would not want him back is actually something he can’t comprehend.
“Consent” is another foreign concept to Gaston.
Think about it. He ambushes Belle with a wedding. It’s a grand gesture that would be romantic if they were engaged, or maybe even dating. But instead, it’s an aggressive move that comes after Belle politely suggested she’s not interested. If you watch the above sequence closely, you’ll notice Gaston doesn’t wait for Belle to answer the door. Darkly symbolic, he barges in uninvited, then swans around like he owns the place.
And what happens when he doesn’t get his way? He turns violent.
His violence is foreshadowed from his first frame. Gaston is introduced with death, that of a high-flying bird he’s shot out of the sky. From that moment, his hunting of animals (in the middle of the town’s shopping district no less!) is paralleled to his pursuit of Belle.
His crony Lefou declares, “No beast alive stands a chance against you, and no girl for that matter!” To which Gaston responds, “It’s true Lefou, and I have my sights set on that one.” He uses violent imagery while actually pointing his rifle at Belle. The camera follows its trajectory to reintroduce her. The threat is clear, and subtly sexual. Gaston—and guys like him—are dangerous.
Beauty and the Beast offers girls warning signs to look out for, first and foremost negging. Yep, before it was recognized as a gross pick-up ploy, it was presented in the scene where Gaston no sooner says hello to Belle than he mocks her, “How can you read this? There’s no pictures,” he frowns.
He’s flat-out dismissive of her interests, chucking her beloved book into the mud, and insisting he’s more worthy of her attentions. Then Gaston starts mansplaining to Belle how to live: Quit with that reading and thinking come to the tavern and swoon over me and my “trophies.” On the other hand, Beast not only encourages the reading habit of this bookworm, he give her a whole damn library!
Now, Frozen has gotten a lot of credit for teaching girls a handsome face does not a good guy make. But 23 years before, Beauty and the Beast was laying down a detailed guide for identifying good-looking bad guys. Is his interest in you purely based on your looks? Is he dismissive of your interests and thoughts? Does he take instead of ask?
If so, he’s a Gaston. Run away. It’s better to be with Beast than a beast.