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The Heart of “Beauty and the Beast”

Artwork by Inoka Jayaweera  

By: Inoka Jayaweera and Kaarianne Smith, BA Students

January 07, 2019

No one symbolizes homophobia and hypermasculinity during the AIDS crisis like Gaston — a line that unfortunately could not make the final cut. It is obvious in the 1991 version of “Beauty and the Beast” that the character, Gaston, is an epitome of hypermasculinity. Gaston embodies every male that has given unwarranted attention to women who they don’t know on the SkyTrain station. As Griswold (2004) puts it, Gaston represents “everything that can go wrong in the heterosexual male.” However, this is something that everyone who has seen the film is aware of, making it one of the first Disney films to have a villain who was aesthetically attractive, yet rotten on the inside.

What the average viewer may not know about the film is the underlying narrative of fear mongering and persecution that was intentionally put in by lyricist, Howard Ashman. During the production of “Beauty and the Beast,” Ashman was fighting his own battle with AIDS. He illustrates the prejudice at the time in the song, “Kill The Beast,” where Gaston rouses the villagers into an angry mob. Gaston convinces the villagers to go after the Beast with the following words: “The Beast will make off with your children! He’ll come after them in the night.” As many know, this is a common rhetoric of homophobia, where claims are made that gay people are predators that will come after your children. Given this context and the fact that the film was made at the peak of the AIDS crisis, the song takes on a much darker tone.

One lyric that stood out to us in particular is the line, “[T]il he’s dead, good and dead.” From this line alone, one can see the pain and emotion that Ashman was expressing, as it parallels with his own personal grief. With regards to the AIDS crisis, not many people are aware of the sheer amount of death and sorrow that these men and women had to cope with during this time. In fact, many who survived the AIDS crisis have survivor's guilt. Many lost all or the majority of their friends, and for most of them, friends were family. This was truly an epidemic because at the time, the government would not speak about the loss of life or simply did not care. Many thought the loss of life was justifiable, seeing it as “homosexuals paying for their sins.”

Ashman was responsible for changing the narrative of “Beauty and the Beast” by shifting the focus from Belle and giving the Beast a more prominent role. With this, he was able to parallel what he felt was his own narrative of seeking love and hoping for a miracle. With Ashman’s involvement, the character of the Beast was given a heart. This permitted viewers to sympathize with the Beast, as they saw his struggle with having to come to terms with an impending death sentence.

It is our hope that being involved in the film was cathartic for Ashman, as it gave him the opportunity to artistically express the amount of grief, anger, and sorrow that he was undergoing before his death. Without Howard Ashman, “Beauty and the Beast” would not be the film it is today.

Reference

Griswold, J. (2004). The meanings of "Beauty and the Beast": A handbook / Jerry Griswold.