Via Beauty and the Beast (1991)
More than any other Disneyland character, he’s an attraction unto himself
Walk around Disneyland in Anaheim, California, and eventually you’ll run into some Hollywood wannabe play-acting as a classic Disney character.
Most of the theme park characters are Disney “princesses” (Belle, Cinderella, Pocahontas et al), and little girls get awestruck when confronted with the living, breathing incarnations of their animated heroines. But the characters mostly serve as ambient noise to the site’s bigger attractions — it’s a delightful surprise to see Chip ‘n’ Dale when you’re hurrying over to Space Mountain.
One character is truly an attraction unto himself, though, and he’s both a man and a villain: Gaston — the ignorant, misogynistic, Beast-hunting hunk who unsuccessfully courts Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Women seek him out to flirt and/or challenge his sexist views, and men to emasculate him. Then they gleefully share their interactions with him online.
One popular YouTube video shows a crowd of Disney World attendees laughing as Gaston spouts horribly sexist remarks at a plucky young girl. “I don’t know where this girl came from, but somebody needs to put her back in a kitchen right now!” he shouts. Later, he and the girl pose for a photo together, and Gaston tells her to “smile like you’re going to make me a sandwich.”
Another video shows a man challenging Gaston to a push-up contest, and Gaston soundly kicking his ass. Gaston even switches to one-handed push-ups toward the end, just to show the guy up.
Crowds “ooh” and “ahh” as he sways with a young girl dressed as Belle. Not long afterward, he asks her to massage his feet. Groups of women gather to hear him brag about how handsome he is and how he’s going to impregnate them. To make him jealous, many women tell him he’ll never win Belle’s hand, or bring their boyfriends around to meet him. Others challenge him to arm-wrestling contests. And there are hundreds of thousands of Instagram photos of people posing with a flexing, preening, smirking Gaston.
Somehow, the biggest douchebag in the entire Disney universe has become a charming meme.
When I first discovered the internet’s fascination with Gaston, I was stunned. He embodies toxic masculinity. He’s brash and arrogant, and totally lacking in empathy. He measures a man’s worth in physical strength, and values Belle only for her looks. He gains respect through intimidation, and tries to resolve conflict with violence. He’s uneducated, and disapproves of Belle reading books. “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking,” he says in the 1991 animated film. Worst, he keeps pestering Belle despite her explicit lack of interest and repeated attempts to get away from him.
Gaston seems totally wrong for our current cultural moment, in which boorish men are being gradually pushed to the cultural fringe—or, at least they were. The president, of course, has a lengthy track record of misogynistic comments and actions; meanwhile, as a hunter, Gaston has commonalities with the blue-collar American men who have seen their professional and marriage prospects diminish in the global economy.
But here were adults laughing at Gaston for telling an adorable little girl her place is in the kitchen. Part of the joy of that video is that the girl doesn’t back down, repeatedly telling Gaston he’s never going to win over Belle, and that the Beast is stronger than him. There’s nothing more satisfying than watching someone stand up to a bully, especially when that someone is a grade-schooler.
Still, that’s a pretty fucked-up thing to say to an impressionable kid, and I had trouble understanding why Gaston, of all characters, inspired such wide appeal. Which is I ponied up $110 for a one-day Disneyland ticket in order to meet Gaston myself.
Gaston doesn’t disappoint. Many of the characters (including Belle and Beast) just cruise through the park and wave at children shouting their names. Gaston, on the other hand, commands a scene. I find him in Fantasyland, surrounded by a throng of park attendees (mostly women), striking bodybuilder poses and telling his admirers how lucky they are to be in his presence. “I’m perfect,” he says. (His costume has fake bicep muscles and lats built into it.) “I’m the only one that matters.”…