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.”
A middle-aged woman strokes Gaston’s shiny black ponytail while waiting for her chance to take a photograph with him. “I’m a tall, dark, strong and handsome brute,” he tells her. She, of course, laughs.
Kids hold out their autograph books, but he rebuffs them all, proudly saying, “I can’t sign my own name.” For most employees, this would be grounds for termination; Disney’s mandate is to accommodate customers to the best of their ability. But Gaston is illiterate, and the park’s commitment to narrative accuracy supersedes all, even if that means Gaston being rude to kids.
Gaston struts through the crowd yelling, “Greatness coming through!”, evoking Muhammad Ali. People stop him for photos along the way, and he obliges, posturing for the camera and showing off his faux physique. He organizes a quick flexing tournament and declares himself the winner. Next, he disappears behind a wall, not to be seen or heard from for the next two hours. (Disneyland actors appear on a regimented schedule, and only for 20 minutes at a time, presumably to save them from getting heat stroke in those stifling costumes.)
It’s easy to see why men get such a kick out of interacting with Gaston. I certainly do. I follow him around Fantasyland, and ask him whether he was wearing red in honor of International Women’s Day. “I only know about International Gaston Day!” he says. I tell him my hair’s more lustrous than his, and he scoffs, telling me I need to put more eggs in it.
Gaston presents an opportunity for men to measure their manliness — like one of those strongman games at a carnival, where you smash a lever with a rubber mallet. Ring the bell at the top, and you win a stuffed animal for your girlfriend. Only with Gaston, it’s who can troll the other guy the best.
Gaston is like a game for women, too. They get to interact with an unabashed misogynist, but with the assurance that it’s all an act. Most men project toughness in a vain attempt to prove their masculinity, but Gaston’s shittiness is literally performative, and thus, poses no real threat.
More importantly, it occurs within the safe, constructed reality of Disneyland, where we’re constantly assured that good always triumphs over evil. Women can interact with Gaston knowing that he ultimately loses. Belle never falls for his “charms,” and Gaston ends up falling into a chasm—even after the Beast gives him a second chance to live.
When you know that Gaston is doomed by his own hubris, his offensive humor becomes funny. Not because we agree with what he’s saying, but because he doesn’t realize he’s the butt of his own joke.