Strangely, recasting an obvious villain as a sympathetic hero has become something of a trend with Disney of late. Just think of the way the Maleficent movies have recast the truly evil fairy of yesterday into the wronged-by-a-man powerhouse of today. Or look at the highly popular Once Upon A Time TV series which tried to redeem a variety of traditionally evil characters, like Snow White’s Evil Queen and the Wicked Witch of the West. And then there’s the upcoming Cruella movie which, while we don’t have too many details yet, clearly casts a villain as the main character. Not to mention Disney’s plans to create a show for Disney+ that focuses solely on villains.
The thing that unites almost all of these other villains-turned-sympathetic-characters—and the thing that makes this Gaston show so odd—is, of course, their gender. In the #MeToo era, it’s popular to posit that a wicked woman is only wicked because the patriarchy made her so. Why, then, would Disney choose to elevate, and potentially redeem, Gaston, a character who was literally created to be the epitome of toxic masculinity?
It’s popular to posit that a wicked woman is only wicked because the patriarchy made her so.
If Li Shang Is Out, Why Is Gaston Still In?
The whole thing gets even stranger when viewed through Disney’s ultra-feminist lens, which was on full display last month when Jason Reed, producer for the upcoming live-action Mulan, explained Disney’s reason for cutting fan favorite Li Shang from the film. "I think particularly in the time of the #MeToo movement, having a commanding officer that is also the sexual love interest was very uncomfortable and we didn't think it was appropriate.” As S.G. Cheah commented here at Evie, “When exactly had Li Shang ever acted inappropriately in the movie?” Answer: never.
If Li Shang, who never made even the slightest pass at Mulan while he was her commanding officer, can be erased from the story entirely over #MeToo concerns, why then would Gaston (who actually is a “toxic male”) get to have his own show? If Gaston becomes the protagonist, doesn’t that necessitate the same kind of “I’ve been wronged and misunderstood” plot shift that Disney gave Maleficent and the others? And wouldn’t that, in turn, create a scenario in which hyper feminist Disney is suddenly defending and explaining away toxic masculinity, its biggest enemy?
Fan Favorites vs. Woke Ideology
The answer, I think, can be found within a broader issue that Disney has been grappling with. Regardless of the studio’s own values and mission surrounding feminism and social justice, fans and viewers like the characters and stories of the past. For all of Disney’s walking-on-eggshells decisions to appease modern feminists—like the decision to remove Li Shang—fans themselves (who are the ones spending the money at the box office after all) aren’t on the modern radical feminist train.
Regardless of the studio’s own values and mission surrounding feminism and social justice, fans and viewers like the characters and stories of the past.
This, I think, is why we’re seeing so many live-action remakes of popular Disney cartoons from the past. We’re watching Disney grapple, in real time, with the difference between what their viewers want (more of the same) and what their progressive ideology is willing to produce. So we end up with a hodgepodge of things Disney knows the fans will go for (the old stories and characters) but “modernized” for the #MeToo era.
This works particularly well with female villains. Villains are appealing. Not because we all want to be evil, but because we are fascinated by the things that make the bad guys bad. Where did they go wrong? Could that happen to me? Is evil born or made? A compelling villain is just as important to a story as a compelling hero. And a character whose motives we can understand—while completely rejecting—is one we love to hate. So it’s easy for Disney to kill two birds with one stone: feature popular female villains from the past (Maleficent, Cruella, the Evil Queen, etc.) but recast them, in the age of modern feminism, as wronged women. Evil not because of who they are, but because of what was done to them by men. A slam dunk for Disney.
But Gaston Is a Toxic Male!
So what about Gaston? Gaston is trickier for Disney to assimilate into their new philosophy because the thing that makes him evil—the corruption of true masculinity into “toxic masculinity”—is also the thing that draws us to him. He’s compelling to us because he has a lot of what many women are drawn to in a man: self-confidence, physical power, a deep booming voice, giant muscles, and a penchant for leaping into danger at the slightest provocation. But—and this is why he makes a great villain—those things become dangerous (evil even) when allowed to run unchecked. Gaston’s narcissism, lust, and violence are masculine traits gone wrong—the corruption of true manhood. Which is what makes him a villain. A villain we love to hate.
It’s possible that Disney has backed itself into an ideological corner with this new show. There can be no actual redemption for Gaston. He dies at the end of Beauty and the Beast without any sort of repentance for his wicked ways. So the only thing they can do with him is try to explain how he got to be the way he is (like they did with Maleficent). But that’s problematic because doesn’t sympathetically explaining how Gaston became the way he is, at least in part, excuse his (totally inexcusable) behavior in Beauty and the Beast? It’s one thing to do that with a female villain in the #MeToo era, it’s another thing entirely when the villain is male.
What Disney actually does with Gaston in this show remains to be seen. But it’s worthwhile to note the obvious hypocrisy here. Without acknowledging that their radical feminist philosophy has gone too far, it’s hard to understand how Disney can justify a show like this. Surely if Gaston can avoid the feminist guillotine, Li Shang—an actual heroic character—should get to too. Disney has got to decide which group to appease: the fans or the feminists. If it doesn’t, it will tear itself in two.