Getting Gaston Right

(Note: some spoilers for the recently released film.)

Everyone who knows me knows I was looking forward to seeing Gaston in Beauty and the Beast (2017). I have often joked that my PhD thesis was inspired by Gaston’s biceps and it’s actually, absolutely true. I was really interested in how the transition from animation to stage production was achieved and Gaston’s sheer physicality in the animated feature made a great case study. I won’t deny that research was fun. I took Eisenstein’s theory of plasticity in animation and applied it to theatrical performance.

I felt confident about Luke Evans’ casting from the moment I saw him singing with Australia’s first Gaston, Hugh Jackman, on the Jonathan Ross Show. The big expressions and gestures? The physique? The deep voice? Check, check, check.

 

Jacqueline Durran retained Gaston’s colour palette for the film, particularly that explosive red (my PhD supervisor was in stitches when he noticed I’d written that the colours of Gaston’s costume detonated strength and violence). The transition from animation is particularly successful. Stage productions replicated the cartoonish appearance of Gaston’s wardrobe with its bright, bright reds and yellows, and even added a little extra definition to pectoral and stomach muscles with some judicious padding and painting. Durran’s costume for Gaston is earthier and more wearable, so to speak. The suggestion of the military about his frock coats and the loose linen shirts shift attention from his physical to his sartorial display, which works just as well for the character. He remains larger than life without pumping up his biceps to rival Popeye’s.

It’s difficult to pin down why Gaston is such an attractive figure, despite being completely awful, malicious, and terrifying. I remember speaking to one actor who had played Gaston and he professed to being very confused about the women who gathered at the stage door to see him! Yet, there it is. Indeed, recently Gaston proved a hit at Disney World, as reported by GQ. And on io9, Katharine Trendacosta argued for a Gaston prequel: “It wasn’t exactly that Gaston had depth so much as he walked a line of menacing and hilarious that just worked.” Emily Asher-Perrin on Tor.com further reflects: “Luke Evans gives a fantastic turn as Gaston, but it isn’t merely his performance that stands out—it is that manner in which the script addresses Gaston’s toxic masculinity with far defter strokes that its predecessor. Gaston isn’t just some big burly alpha male who gets what he wants with the application of muscle and bullheadedness; the film reveals this construction to be a lie, and instead chooses to focus on how men like Gaston truly operate in the world.” Perhaps it’s that latter point that makes him all the more chilling. The film, while allowing us to laugh at his brazen narcissism, also offered us the opportunity to baulk at his malice and manipulation. The film went deeper into his villainy by showing how it operated in the community itself. This was no solo-villain, living on the fringes of society like a Maleficent or Ursula or Scar. This is a villain in complete command of the populace and they love him, even as he despises them.

The truly terrifying aspect of Gaston is perhaps that I realise I’m fascinated by him too.

Salons to Sydney

It’s been a busy few weeks! The Alice Salon at the Glen Eira Storytelling Festival was fantastic fun. My co-conspirators put together the most wonderful tea party and publication displays and we had a great selection of music and papers.

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I loved learning about Alice’s many media manifestations, her influence on Japanese fashion subcultures and the history of playing card people. Louisa John-Krol as always led us in amazing song, bewitching us with images of flowers! She was joined by her merry, colourful band including a rather intrepid white rabbit child and a surprise appearance by a bunyip! Copious invited us down into Wonderland with wonderful, dark melodies and lyrics. We were exhausted, but happy by the end of the day!

Soon after the Alice Salon, I headed to Sydney for the Australian Fairy Tale Society’s second conference. It’s a fantastic opportunity to re-engage with my peers in fairy tale! And this time I didn’t have the ‘flu! I gave my first paper on Australian pantomime, pantomime rapidly becoming one of my research interests. There’s such fabulous material. This time I focused mostly on Djin Djin.

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We had papers from a number of academics and non-academics interested in the field, including my honours student, who gave a great interview for the Sydney Morning Herald. We also heard from a range of authors, including the keynote speaker, Sophie Masson. Louisa John-Krol was there too and she sang us into each session, which was the best treat. I was especially thrilled as she premiered her new song, ‘Glindering,’ based on my short story, “The Death of Glinda.” What an honour! She knows me so well, too, since there is spindling and swindling in the song! You can find more on the conference in the coming weeks at the society’s website.

I popped down to Sydney a little early, too, because I really wanted to visit the Undressed exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum. Yes, there’s references to underthings in fairy tales, so it was all research! Plus, I did get to see a pair of Queen Victoria’s knickers! I didn’t know this, but the Powerhouse Museum also has the most amazing shoe collection. If you have an interest in shoes, I can’t recommend it highly enough and may have had a little ‘shoe comma’ afterwards. So many red shoes, too!

Fashion and Gender

One of the things that has struck me as I research fairy tale is that rarely do tales describe men’s attire in great detail. There are a few exceptions – d’Aulnoy’s “Princess Rosette” makes some apt mention of the King of Peacock’s appearance – but by and large, while there is ample evidence of women’s dress, men’s dress doesn’t receive the same attention. This is odd, because when you look at the history of fairy tale, many tales were told in societies in which men were dressed in richly embroidered, fabulous fabrics and bedecked with jewels. Yet, their attire raises little interest among tellers, both male and female. Indeed, if you think of the vast number of male kings, princes and emperors, perhaps the most memorable is the one who was wearing nothing at all!

Today I saw a lot of posts about Karl Stefanovic, a TV host, wearing the same suit for a year. In The Age, he’s quoted: “No one has noticed… But women, they wear the wrong colour and they get pulled up. They say the wrong thing and there’s thousands of tweets written about them” (Nov. 15, 2014). It is quite wrong that his female co-host has to endure so much comment on what she wears, but it struck me as particularly horrifying that no one made a comment about Stefanovic wearing the same suit all year. You could argue that the male suit is itself nondescript. Differences between suits tend to be subtle and those who wear suits that are noticed are usually wearing those that diverge dramatically from the basic suit or are noticed more for the person wearing the suit than the suit itself. Certainly, on a television screen, it’s doubtful too many viewers could detect differences between suits beyond whether the suit is blue or grey. This in part affords men the privilege of having their attire disregarded, focusing attention fully upon their actions and words, with individuality largely restricted to their ties and socks. However, this only occurs in certain contexts – men don’t wear suits everywhere. And, certainly, men who don’t conform do draw attention to what they wear.

However, while women do endure much more negative comment about what they wear, I have to admit, I find it much more interesting that women have access to and the freedom to wear much more diverse clothing. This does fuel discrimination – and certainly those freedoms are often curtailed by social and political norms – but at the same time, women have much more ability to use what they wear as a marker of individuality or social/political meaning. This is why Cinderella’s dress is so significant.

The absence of a feminine equivalent of the masculine suit (or variations thereof) is reflective of women’s employment. Increasingly, masculine attire is associated with profession. Feminine attire to an extent follows – ahem – suit, but with much less restriction. I’m cheered by such items as Go Fug Yourself’s ranking of The Good Wife‘s suits.

This is really an open ended thought, in the sense that I think I would be disappointed if what you wore ceased to matter and if men could continue to get away with wearing the same suit all year. I also enjoyed Go Fug Yourself‘s suggestion that male members of the British royal family perhaps need a ‘Blue Suits Anonymous.’ I do think the world would be a better place if we again paid more attention to what men wore – instead of simply to what women wear.

The following are a couple of interesting pieces about fashion and the gender issue.

The History of the Power Suit, Meredith Lapore

Female Academics, Don’t Power Dress, Forget Heels – And No Flowing Hair Allowed, Francesca Stavrakopoulou

Women, Fashion & Pleasure

There’s an excellent lecture available online: “The Crinoline Cage” by Professor Lynda Nead. Speaking to the Victorian era, Nead says that fashion “gave women access to a bodily language that involved imaginative projection and fantasy […] Like the layers of clothes and folds of fabric, the pleasures of fashionable dress for the women who wore it and the women who write about it today, are multiple and sensual, involving sight, sound and above all, touch.”

The lecture is particularly enjoyable and elucidates an aspect of feminine fashion that simply isn’t discussed enough: pleasure. High heels, corsets and crinolines are often interpreted as patriarchal constructs with which to restrict, confine and contain women. Moreover, there is often a perception that feminine fashion is designed for normative masculine pleasure: pleasure being in the viewing rather than the wearing. Such interpretations often contribute to the understanding of feminine fashion in fairy tales. Take for instance “Donkeyskin.” The heroine is in disguise, wearing her filthy donkeyskin as she labours. However, in her free time, she takes out her princess finery and dresses up in her lowly room. Perrault, however, disrupts her personal pleasure by having the prince play peeping tom and, moreover, intimates that the princess is aware of the gaze and performs to it. Consequently, Perrault makes it appear that she is dressing for the prince’s gaze. However, there are those few moments before the prince arrives when the princess is choosing to dress only to please herself. In those few moments, she is clearly dressing for her own, personal pleasure.

In this image from "Peau d'Âne" (1970), the princess sets up a mirror to admire herself in private.

In this image from “Peau d’Âne” (1970), the princess sets up a mirror to admire herself in private.

Many fairy tales contain scenes in which the heroine dresses for her own pleasure. In Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the heroine is provided with an extensive wardrobe: “As the slightest desires of Beauty appeared to be anticipated, she bestowed more care upon her toilet, although certain that no one could see her. But she owed this attention to herself, and it was a pleasure to her to dress herself in the habits of all the various nations on the face of the earth” (Planché, Four and Twenty Fairy Tales, 258). In this passage, Villeneuve quite clearly addresses the pleasure the heroine attains from experimenting with fashion. Indeed, Villeneuve insists that she owes this to herself.

For further reading on the topic, Sharon Marcus’s Between Women is a fascinating insight into fashion magazines and their appeal to the female gaze and is just one of many good starting points.