By Zoë Boothby
You know the story. Boy meets girl. Boy likes girl. Girl, eventually, falls for boy too. They get married and live happily ever after. Oh, and a secondary character casts several unreciprocated homoerotic glances at one of the heterosexual leading men, thus establishing Disney as a champion for LGBT+ representation.
This is the basic plotline of the new live-action Beauty and the Beast, with this small moment courting all manner of attention in the media. In his big musical number, bumbling sidekick LeFou makes lusting eyes at Gaston, before clasping his arms around him and being cast aside. In a later scene, LeFou shares a dance with a man in the ballroom, which lasts all but a few seconds. As a result, the film has been banned in Malaysia, Kuwait, one drive-in theatre in Alabama, and been upgraded from a PG to a 16+ rating in Russia. A handful of commentators have fallen over themselves to herald this promising turn from Disney as a new step in the movement towards a more realistic presentation of LGBT+ characters. However, just because a movie upsets Russia’s homophobic sensibility does not mean that it should automatically be celebrated as a victory for gay representation. Indeed, the ban in Malaysia has since been overturned – probably because they realised that the fuss was entirely unwarranted.
Representation is important, and Disney’s improvement with regards to portrayals of gender on-screen has been encouraging. Many of the recent releases in the ‘Disney Princess’ genre have chosen to subvert the stereotypes which so defined their predecessors. Frozen and Moana gave us female storylines where conflict arose from issues of self-hood and identity, rather than any romantic tensions. Geena Davis, of the groundbreaking, feminist caper Thelma and Louise, has dedicated much of her career to exploring the impact of poor representation on screen for women.
She has explained that the effect of such portrayals can manifest itself in surprising, tangible ways. For example, after the release of Brave and The Hunger Games, the number of young females taking up archery increased. In a broader sense, her institute found that the more hours of TV a young girl watched, the fewer options she believed that she had in life; most professions depicted on-screen are fulfilled by her male counterparts. Coincidentally, boys’ self-esteem was found to increase when they watched television. It isn’t difficult to see the consequences of poor representation.
Of course, similar research concerning Disney and LGBT+ characters is not available, as this has been the first ‘explicitly’ – I use this term very self-consciously – gay character in one of their films. In hindsight, director Bill Condon’s comment that his film would feature an ‘exclusively gay moment’ (seriously, what does that even mean?) would seem like a cheap way to generate publicity. His romantic use of ‘moment,’ and resultant admittance of the brevity of this gay allusion indicates how dissatisfying and inadequate this encounter proves to be.
Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of this representation of sexuality is the fact that LeFou’s love remains completely unrequited. If Disney is going to consciously create their first gay character, then surely it is necessary that this character’s love at least be acknowledged and reciprocated, instead of being once again marginalised. Such a narrative only serves to reinforce the heteronormativity of not only Beauty and the Beast, but also all the Disney films made in the same tradition.
If we are to take anything positive from this so-called ‘gay moment,’ it may be that, however slowly, representations of LGBT+ characters are improving. This seems true for adult film as well; Moonlight’s Best Picture win at the Oscars last month was the first for a film which dealt so explicitly with gay issues. This victory is made doubly important by the fact that it was made with an all-black cast, particularly after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of 2016. Yet, in comparison with Moonlight, Beauty and the Beast just seems cowardly in its reluctance to actually unambiguously portray gay affection on-screen, regardless of the intended sexuality of the character.
This leaves one to ask, where next for Disney and its LGBT characters? Many have lobbied for Frozen 2 to develop Elsa’s sexuality, and, whether or not this will happen, it will certainly be a statement to have a lead protagonist, as opposed to a comic sidekick, identify as something other than straight. There is no doubt that visibility of minority groups in film and television is important; however, like with the development of more complex female characters, it may be a long time before these narratives are normalised in the movie sphere. Therefore, perhaps we need to accept the ‘gay moment’ in Beauty and the Beast for what it is: a dissatisfying but essential stepping-stone on the road to better gay representation in children’s films and television.
Photograph: Melissa Hillier via Flickr