Gaston is the cocky, misogynistic, vain, and generally evil villain of “Beauty and the Beast” — or is he? If we take a fresh and deeper look at Gaston’s qualities it’s clear to see that the villain label may not apply.
Life was undoubtedly rough for commoners in early 18th Century France so people would have needed a reputation to deter rivals. After all, the best way to win a fight is to prevent it from happening in the first place and getting everyone to think you’re a badass dude is a smart approach.
Animals would similarly prefer to convince rivals that a fight isn’t worth the risk yet we don’t give them shit about behaving this way so why do we give Gaston shit? In reality, Gaston not actually cocky, he is simply a successful strategist.
We have to look at Gaston’s behavior in the context of his own society, not though the lens of our own. He is portrayed as being rude to women over and above the other village men but he in fact represents the general attitude of the time. His qualities in this respect are only magnified as a result of the microscope we put on him through the “villain” label. True, he is not exactly advancing women’s rights in pre-Revolution France but he also isn’t imprisoning women either, as the Beast did.
Note that Gaston does not just hook up with anyone, although he certainly could, but rather has eyes only for his beloved Belle. He also consciously chooses Belle with the understanding of what else is out there while the Beast operates under the very premise that he could fall in love with anyone to break the curse and literally settles for the first thing that walks through the door.
True, the Beast does fall in love but since he has enormous incentives to do so we can’t take it seriously.
Beneath his strategically cocky exterior Gaston is a genuine figure with actual skin in the game. Given that he makes his living by hunting and fighting, if he was a phony he would have already been exposed as such. Someone sitting up high in his castle, such as the Beast, relying on an unending source of family wealth never becomes purified by contact with reality and so it’s impossible to know that he is not a fraud.
Owing to the curse, its obvious that the Beast also has vastly more to gain from the relationship than would Gaston and so it seems that the Beast only wants Belle for what she contributes while Gaston wants Belle for what he contributes. In fact, Gaston so genuinely cared for Belle that he was willing to give his own life for one last attempt at destroying the Beast who had managed to seduce her.
Reality: Beyond Good and Evil
Consider that if we transported Gaston to the ancient Greek world he wouldn’t have been all that dissimilar to heroes such as Achilles, Apollo, and Odysseus in their “classical” virtues of strength and victory rather than those more recent such as meekness and the “everyone deserves a trophy” mentality. In fact, legend has it that Apollo flayed someone alive after defeating him in a flute contest but instead of making Apollo the villain of a children’s movie the Greeks chiseled statues to honor him.
Therefore, it’s not that Gaston’s morals are perverse, it’s that his is the morality of a previous era. Who are we to say which is more correct? One of Nietzsche’s arguments applies here: since change is a fundamental property, any fixed perspective is inherently flawed. Truth is therefore relative since the prevailing sentiment and definition of any concept, such as good and evil, depends on the dominating ‘powers that be’ which may happen to appropriate that concept at that time for its purpose. So Gaston’s exaggerated qualities are “good” when observed through one lens and “evil” when observed through another.
Clearly, there’s more to be seen of Gaston than the typical narrative suggests.
Let’s also not forget the crucial fact that Belle would have been wiser to choose Gaston over the Beast/Prince since she and her new husband would both have been beheaded (or worse — expelled!) shortly after their marriage during the French Revolution, a successful and celebrated revolt which would have been led by men like Gaston.