Disney’s Beauty and the Beast brings an incredible amount to mind when looking at it
through a gender studies lens, as there are several instances where the film labels what it
means to be or how one can be a man or a woman. Be it the characters (male and female
alike) or even the plot of the movie itself, plenty of examples of this type of labeling presentthemselves; however, for now, only looking at the male antagonist, the character Gaston, is more than enough. Gaston (at least, in my mind) encompasses all of the qualities that define masculinity, which is interesting in itself given that Beauty and the Beast is a movie targeted at impressionable young minds, and is almost an embodiment of patriarchy and the way society tends to see it in popular culture. (Note: Depending on how familiar you are with the film, you may want to refer back to the linked page in the first sentence before proceeding.)
Webster’s Dictionary defines masculine as “having qualities, as vigor, strength, etc., characteristic of men”, and as Gaston is analyzed, it is clear to see that he both lives up to and surpasses this definition (“Masculine” def. 1). Gaston is the antagonist of the film and is strong, narcissistic, and selects Belle as his bride-to-be using virtually no other criteria but her appearance. Additionally, when things do not go his way and she rejects him and his marriage proposal, he resorts to becoming powerful and violent to obtain what (or who, in this case, Belle) he wants, regardless of the fact that she is wholly uninterested. Even on the cusp of defeat and having his life spared by the Beast, he is still aggressive and unfaltering until his removal from the story.
In Newman’s book, he speaks about male roles being more often “highly traditional stereotypes or negative portrayals [of gender-stereotypes] in the form of gross caricatures.” He goes on to say that the typical leading man was “square-jawed, rugged, not particularly chatty, violent when necessary, and unemotional.” Save for unemotional (as Gaston’s emotions over Belle fuel the story), that is essentially a complete picture of Gaston. Furthermore, what is interesting is how he continues by detailing the “new generation of leading men who are considerably more thoughtful, sensitive, and emotionally available,” which defines the character of Beast (Portraying Difference 93). Looking at both the definition of masculine and Newman’s picture of the standard male-lead, it is fascinating that they are almost one in the same, especially when looking at Gaston.
Given that Gaston’s masculinity has been established, the examples of patriarchy can now be examined. Alan Johnson provides some of the necessary elements of patriarchy, including “its male-dominated, male identified, and male-centered character” as well as being masculine toughness, protectiveness, and the “ ‘naturalness’ of male aggression, competition, and dominance.” Gaston is certainly a character who is tough and aggressive, and after being publicly emasculated by Belle’s rejection (due in part to his narcissism and treatment of women), presumes his male superiority and pursues Belle further while asserting his dominance over anyone who gets in his way (Patriarchy 94-95). What is also interesting is that while Beast (according to Newman) was the opposite of the classic male lead (Gaston), Belle is the opposite of this standard patriarchic character, being intelligent, secure, and the overall opposite of a woman’s supposed vulnerability.
Given the patriarchy we both live in and that is presented in the film, it is interesting that this message is being directed mainly towards the youth. As Newman says, “media representations of gender reach children very early in their lives. Children’s books, for instance, teach youngsters what is expected of girls or boys in their culture” (Portraying Difference 89-90). Studies done (cited within Newman’s article) also detail how children who watch a lot of television tend to hold stereotypical beliefs regarding gender and what is more is that the children portray these “gender-stereotyped characteristics,” even more so then those children who do not watch much television. Not only is Beauty and the Beast teaching these children these gender-stereotypes, but the children are actually retaining this and acting it out as they see fit. Additionally, while Beauty and the Beast is the subject of this analysis, studies have also shown that male characters are more likely to hold leadership positions, rescue others, and be aggressive on Saturday morning cartoons, whose audience is obvious (Portraying Difference 90).
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is just one of many children’s stories featuring a dominating, aggressive, and overall commanding male character. In the presented example of Gaston, it is clear to see these characteristics, just as it is clear to see that children are taking these caricatures meant for entertainment and generalizing their traits to encompass an entire sex, which besides being incorrect also furthers the problem of the confusion of a patriarchic society or patriarchic individuals (Patriarchy 91). While I do not believe Disney’s intention was to comment on gender stereotypes of the time with this or any of their movies, I think it says more that these are becoming the characters that these children are growing up with and modeling what they know about gender before they even know what it is. However, the fact remains that, regardless of intent, there are clear examples of how our society is patriarchic and how these characteristics of these male individuals, such as Gaston, should be synonymous with masculinity and the male sex.
Johnson, Allan G. "Patriarchy, the System: An It, Not a He, a Them, or an Us." 91-99.
"Masculine." Webster's Desk Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Portland House, 1990. 556. Print.
Newman, David M. "Portraying Difference: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Language and the Media." 71-105.