The Disney movie of 2017 is a whole different beast than the Disney movie of 1991.
The original film has often been regarded as a symbol for stigmatized love. Howard Ashman, who co-wrote the film’s iconic music, lost his battle against AIDS before he was able to see the movie released. His art speaks to his individual experience as “being both gay and sick in the early 90s”.
Criticism and praise have abounded as Disney admits that the 2017 incarnation of LeFou is now their first openly gay character, paying tribute to Ashman. Disney also presents us with not one, but two interracial relationships. While these can only be seen as baby steps, Disney is making strides towards representation. But it wasn’t the love that left its spell on me. It was the hate.
Disney’s 1991 “Beauty and the Beast” has been my favorite movie since I watched the ending credits sung by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson in the movie theater at the age of five. The highlight of taking my children to Disney World was meeting Belle and eating at Be Our Guest.
The 2017 remake released on my half birthday (yes, I celebrate half birthdays), so I took my four-year-old daughter to one of the first showings on Friday morning. We went in knowing the story, having watched the animated version countless times. We talked a lot about what to expect, as this is my parenting approach to most things.
My daughter prepared herself for the tense moments, when we’d see real wolves attacking and a very angry Beast, and she let me know that she was ready to be brave. She told me that she didn’t want to watch when Gaston sings and kills the Beast. “Mommy, I will just close my eyes for that part, and you can tell me what happens.”
As the fateful scene approached, I held my daughter on my lap as she covered her eyes with her hands. I narrated the actions of Gaston throwing fire onto a wagon, of villagers breaking off parts of buildings to wield as weapons, of the castle objects preparing to keep the castle safe. I prepared myself for the moment when Gaston would draw his bow. Only it wasn’t a bow. It was a gun.
I didn’t see it coming until after I heard that shot. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to hear that unmistakable sound. I wasn’t ready to feel my entire body react, to feel the emotional kickback of the gun violence that permeates our society, nor was I ready to teach my daughter about it. I wasn’t ready for this social commentary.
At that moment, I was no longer transported into a tale as old as time, suspended in Disney magic. I remembered Trayvon Martin. I remembered Srinivas Kuchibhotla. I remembered that I live in a country where countless men are emboldened by the power of a loaded gun and the ideology to ‘kill a beast’.
As Belle grappled with Gaston and the gun fell into the snow, I tried to allow myself to pay attention to the movie again. My narration had fallen flat after “Gaston used a gun to hurt the Beast,” and my daughter waited to hear what happened next.
I explained the ensuing fighting, processing the scene for her, preparing us both for the Beast’s death. Again, I naïvely assumed the weapon of choice would follow the original. The gun was done.
My husband and I have taught our children that guns are for hunting. While one can argue that Gaston was, in fact, hunting a beast, by that point in the movie the viewer recognizes the Beast as a man.
Before his end, in a moment that echoes the original film, the Beast releases Gaston, demonstrating his assertion: “I am not a Beast.” And while I waited for a knife to be drawn, Gaston shot him again. And Again. In the back.
Why was I warned about ‘the gays’ as a child, but nobody warned me about the gun? Why is it that trans students cannot use their appropriate gender bathroom, but their bullies – students and professionals alike – can walk into those same bathrooms with loaded guns and kill them? Why is it that the supposed biggest threat to my safety is someone assigned the wrong gender at birth and not the person in the next stall, her gender correctly assigned, concealing a loaded weapon in her pants?
My oldest child is four, my youngest, two . My husband and I try to approach social issues in a developmentally appropriate way. Our children understand that a family can have one mommy or none, one daddy or two. They understand that some boys have vaginas and some girls have penises. They know that some of our neighbors and friends speak more than one language and have lived in different countries. They know what a hijab is and why some women wear it.
We talk about how Daddy has peach skin with lots of freckles, that Mommy’s skin is tan, and Opa’s is brown. All of these understandings are the basis of our parenting. Fostering understanding has been our goal in the hope that our children will never join the angry mob, singing “We don’t like what we don’t understand. In fact it scares us.”
The House of Representatives voted last month to overthrow rules restricting gun sales to the mentally ill. As gun laws continue become more relaxed around the country and guns become increasingly accessible, I find myself seeing the second amendment in direct challenge of the first. We are living in a time when, like Gaston, anyone can wield a gun, point it towards an assumed adversary, and proclaim, “It’s hero time!”
Riz Ahmed, in an incredibly powerful address on diversity to British Parliament, explainedthe mentality of an ISIS recruit: “In their mind everyone thinks they’re the good guy.” All over the news, I see U.S. citizens adapting this same ideology. Gaston never sees himself as the “bad guy.” Does it matter that we do?
It’s not guns that kill people, but the people who pull the trigger. In the legislative push for every emblazoned “good guy” to have the right to carry, where does that leave us? Reality is not that black and white. Deciding you’re a “good guy” does not make you one. It took Gaston’s fired shots to force me to accept that I no longer have the privilege to shelter my children from this issue.
In my search for guidance and parental support on how to approach this topic, I found nothing. Resources touch on gun safety (i.e. “don’t touch the gun,” and we know how well that works with birthday cake…) and mass shootings. Where is my guide for how to explain to my kids that some people use guns to kill people because they look different, because they love differently, because they just don’t like their choices?
The U.S. Concealed Carry website offers an interview with a four-year-old, in which both parent and child uphold the playground ideology of “good guys” verses “bad guys.” Where does this leave Gaston, a “bad guy” who fully believes himself to be the “good guy”?
Disney creates characters that paint a richer picture of reality. It’s only appropriate that they give us representative villains as well. Gaston’s misogyny is often the focal point of his villainy, especially juxtaposed with Belle’s iconic feminism. When Disney puts a gun in the hand of a xenophobe, we understand that there’s more to Gaston than hating women. There’s more to fight for than the mistreatment of white women.
Had I read warnings about Gaston’s final scene, I would have seen the movie without my children. I would have put off the conversation yet another day, comfortable pretending to live in a different world. I’ve offered a content warning to other parents who agree to hear the “spoiler,” because everyone should have a choice, especially those more personally affected by gun violence.
Personally, I’m thankful for the change to the ending. It was the wake-up call I needed. Tonight begins the start of some very complicated conversations.
In the words of LeFou, “There’s a beast running wild, there’s no question. But I fear the wrong monster’s released.”