Before the Last Petal Falls; In Defense of Gaston
I have been compared many times to Belle, because (like her) I will walk around town with my nose in a book, oblivious to everyone around me. I am sure I have been honked at many times in the Financial District for this very habit.
When I was a child I identified whole-heartedly with Belle and her disdain for the common all-but illiterate villagers around her (“This poor provincial town,” she carols disdainfully, hiding her contempt beneath a sweet smile as she greets friendly shouts of “Bonjour!”)
And that scene where she lies on a dandelion-covered hill and sings wistfully, “For once it might be grand… to have someone understand… I want so much more than they’ve got planned,” still catches at my heart. I watch the sparkle of the sunlight on those dandelion seeds as they blow away, carrying her futile wish with them, and I think, “I’ve been there.”
I know what it’s like to have people look at me, thinking, “It’s a pity and a sin… that she doesn’t quite fit in,” not exactly the victim of ostracism, but certainly the target of perplexed bewilderment. All my life I’ve been living in a different world from those around me.
As an adult, my view of Belle is more complex. Like so many people who don’t fit in, she’s chosen to deal with her lack of belonging by deciding she is “above” the regular villagers. (Just listen to her sing “This poor provincial town!”) Sure, such an ego boost cushions the pain of rejection and isolation, but ultimately it’s an attitude that’s toxic both for the one who holds it and the one who receives it.
If I sound like I’m speaking from personal experience, it’s because I am. As a nerdy, frequently misunderstood child, I chose to solve my problems with elitism. (Those people aren’t smart. They’re not worth talking to, I told myself, time and time again.) And protected myself from rejection by never trying to be friendly.
I took a certain misplaced pride in the victim narrative, but the truth is, people never really picked on me. They had the same attitude towards me that the villagers had towards Belle: bewildered admiration with perhaps a tinge of jealousy, wishing to include me without really knowing how.
And when Gaston reaches out to this lonely, isolated girl, she’s brutal to him. True, he does pluck her book out of her hands and throw it in the mud. “Belle, it’s time you stop reading and start paying attention to more important things. Like me,” he proclaims. And throwing books in the mud is none too polite, you have to admit.
But in a sense, he’s zoomed in on exactly the right target— the book does form a barrier between her and the other villagers, including him. He recognizes that for her to form true social bonds, she needs to stop taking refuge in her fantasy world and start paying attention to the people around her (and okay, why not start with him?)
His shrewd attack on books continues in the scene where he comes to her house and proposes marriage to her. Almost the first thing he does (after checking his reflection in the mirror, which I choose to see as a sign of insecurity rather than vanity) is put his muddy boots on the table— right on top of Belle’s book. Unlike the other villagers, who are pretty much kept out of Belle’s face by the book-shield, Gaston is bold enough to resent and remove the literary refuge which keeps Belle from fully participating in the life of the village.
Well, okay, you say. Maybe Gaston isn’t as bad as he’s cracked up to be. But wait! What about the part of the movie where he threatens to lock up Belle’s father in an insane asylum unless Belle agrees to marry him? What a dastardly move! What a cold, cruel, calculating ploy! How DARE Gaston manipulate Belle’s filial piety to ensure she remains with him forever….. oh wait.
What was it the Beast did at the beginning of the movie, again? Something like, “You have to promise to stay with me in this castle forever, or your father will languish on cold piles of straw in my dungeon?” In fact, almost only the difference between Gaston and the Beast here, is that the Beast used that ploy first… and more successfully. (I still have trouble seeing how Belle moved past that, by the way. I mean, I don’t care how adorable and boyish he is when he’s feeding birds and throwing snowballs; he FRICKIN’ THREATENED TO IMPRISON YOUR FATHER FOR LIFE! How do you move past that?)
But you know, the Beast has a nice castle, and he’s really rich, and mysterious, and glamorous and certainly not a “poor provincial” boy like Gaston. The height of Gaston’s ambition is, “Just picture it Belle! A rustic hunting lodge…. a deer roasting on the fire… the children and the dogs lounging on the rug while my little wifey massages my feet. We’ll have six or seven, of course.” To which Belle replies, “What dogs?” and Gaston indignantly responds, “No, boys! Strapping boys, Belle!”
You know, it’s easy to laugh at Gaston here, but when you think about it, he really is offering Belle the good life… as he sees it. He just doesn’t have enough imagination to see that Belle may see the good life some other way.
But what about when Gaston’s minions heartlessly throw Belle’s father, an old, infirm man, out into the snow? Say what you like about the Beast, but at least he doesn’t suffer from cruelty to the elderly…. Oh wait. WHAT ABOUT HOW HE GOT THE CURSE IN THE FIRST PLACE? If you recall, he was cursed to beastliness because he turned an old beggar woman away from his castle in the middle of a blizzard…… and of course SHE turned out to be a powerful enchantress.
Well now we’ve established that Gaston and the Beast are basically the same person, let’s figure out why Belle likes one of them but not the other. No, you laugh, but seriously. These men are perfectly identical in character; what differs is how their character has been molded by circumstances. And of course the main difference in circumstances is that one of them is a little hairier than the other. (But not by much. The most memorable moment in Gaston’s Villain Song is when he rips open his shirt and bellows triumphantly, “and every last inch of me covered in HAIR!” And you see all the little individual black hairs rippling up at you. That’s some animation, there.)
I think the reason Belle is prepared to overlook the Beast’s faults (but not Gaston’s) is because the Beast makes an effort to meet her halfway. Gaston tries to get her out of the book world and into his world. The Beast tries to get her attention WITHIN the context of the book world, by gifting her a fabulous library. (Okay, so maybe it helps to be ridiculously rich and live in an enchanted castle.) Similarly, Gaston tells her to stop reading, but the Beast wincingly admits he isn’t much of a reader and asks her to give him lessons (in a deleted scene only available in the expanded DVD, in case you were wondering where that came from.)
And then there’s the scene with the PORRIDGE. I could rant & rave for hours about this scene. For me, the porridge scene from Beauty and the Beast is the most beautiful symbolic representation of what it means to be part of a couple.
How does it go? Well, first the Beast guzzles his porridge by picking up the bowl in both hands and getting it all over his face (which, you have to admit, is a lot more disgusting than Gaston eating “three dozen eggs to help me get large.”) Then the Beast sees Beauty is repulsed, and so grimacingly makes an effort to live up to her standard of manners by using a spoon.
Seeing how difficult it is for his hairy Beast-hands to manipulate a spoon, Beauty arrives at a compromise. She puts down her spoon, picks up her bowl of porridge in both hands, and sips from the rim. The Beast smiles incandescently, and they raise their bowls of porridge in a “cheers” gesture and start sipping. At last, they are truly eating together.
I’ve seen many couples take the “my way or the high way,” approach, insisting that ONLY guzzling is the answer, or that ONLY spoon usage is the answer. Perhaps the stronger personality dominates the weaker one into doing it entirely their way. Or perhaps, if they are both strong personalities, they decide they are simply not compatible, and split up over the whole porridge issue.
But that’s not what you do when you love each other. When you love each other, you accept that the other person is different from you, but that doesn’t make you better than them. However, you don’t take the “agree to disagree” approach either. If Beauty had kept eating with a spoon and the Beast had kept guzzling, both of them would have been uncomfortable. They wouldn’t have truly been “sharing” the experience of breakfast. And sharing is very important to a couple.
So how do you share a world, when both of you are very different and look at the world in very different ways? Well, for a moment there, the dainty spoon-using alternate universe intersected the NOM NOM NOM alternate universe, and the result was the brilliant invention of a NEW universe, where people eat porridge in a new & special way. Instead of staying trapped in their own separate worlds, Belle & the Beast invented a new world that was uniquely theirs.
Too often, when different sides meet, we feel that one side must “conquer” the other…. Whether we’re talking about a romantic relationship, or two cultures colliding and clashing, this conqueror mentality is the same. We always think the choice is between a brutal and bloody conquering, or a tense and brittle armistice….. but you know, sometimes we move beyond that, and we get the birth of a new nation of porridge-sippers…. And it’s beautiful…. Sniff.
Anyway, Gaston was not prepared to meet Beauty halfway. But that wasn’t his fault. It was just his misfortune to be really, really, hot. Why do you think the Beast went to so much effort to meet Beauty half way? It was because he knew he was hideously ugly, and would remain so forever unless he did something about it. So, you know, he was willing to humble himself. Gaston, with no curse hovering over his head, felt no need to humble himself, enter Beauty’s world, start asking questions as well as giving answers.
Which suggests the first step to stopping being a Beast is realizing you are a Beast. Gaston and the Beast both share a certain beastly personality, a certain brutality and lack of refinement. However, the enchantress helped the Beast realize he was ugly and helped motivate him to change. Gaston never had such an epiphany. However, I have trouble blaming him for that. Not all of us benefit from such helpful hints of watching our hands grow claws one fine morning. Some of us have to figure it out for ourselves.
The first gift my fiancé ever gave me, was a necklace depicting the rose from Beauty & the Beast trapped within its golden & crystal cylinder. I wear it almost every day, and I get a lot of comments on it. Very few people recognize it for what it is, and I have to tell them, “Oh, it’s that rose from Beauty & the Beast.” I am ashamed to admit that until recently, I did not realize what it was, on the symbolic level, at least. I simply clung to it, realizing it was a reminder for something, without being able to consciously articulate what.
In the course of writing this blog entry, I think I’ve finally figured it out. As you can probably tell, I’ve always thought of myself as Beauty. I’ve been misled by the superficial similarities: the hair & eye color I share with her, the love of books. It’s only gradually that I’ve come to realize, that deep down, I’m the Beast.
What does that mean, to be a Beast? Well, my definition of the term is somebody who doesn’t believe that other people are truly 3-dimensional or real. A Beast is someone who thinks that only his viewpoints are valid, only his way of seeing the world is real, and other people are just objects, or furniture, or things in his way.
In the movie, when the Beast becomes a man again, all the servants in his castle stop being enchanted furniture & become human. For me, this symbolizes, how when someone is a Beast, they see their servants, service workers, and the people who help them as mere furniture or conveniences, without feelings of their own. And when they stop being a beast, they recognize the humanity of others. The Beast’s liberation from his own destructive attitudes freed those around him as well.
When I was a child, deciding that I was “too smart to talk to those other children,” I was in effect exercising my own beastly capacities. Because it was too painful to survive in a world where everyone was different from me— because it was too difficult to find that alternate, porridge-sipping dimension where opposites could happily co-exist— I just gave up. I told myself these poor, provincial people weren’t worth talking to, and I was happier by myself. And that’s why I identity with the Beast in the dark desolation of his claw-shredded castle.
I like to think I’ve moved beyond those early painful years. That I now see all people as fully three-dimensional beings, who possess an equal worth with myself. However, I think the transition from beastliness is not so much an epiphany as a life-long journey. Although I’m more tolerant and accepting than I used to be (yes, even of people who don’t like to read books) I still have a long way to go. My reaction to other points of view is still, at a core level, “They don’t agree with me. They’re wrong.” But at least I’m a Beast who knows she’s a Beast… and not a Gaston.
And where does Beauty fit into all of this? Beauty, of course, is my lovely fiancé, Ben. His love for me is very important. Love is the ultimate and perhaps the only force which can make a self-absorbed person realize there is something real and important, beyond themselves. I like to think my love for him makes my soul a little less ugly and hairy.
And I’d like to thank him for finding me, before the last petal fell from my rose.