Beginning with Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland, Disney’s series of live action remakes of classic movies offers a contemporary take on the films that have inspired generation after generation. The new movies reimagine the original stories not only in the real world but also with a more modern and, at times, mature outlook on life. The latest addition to the series, Beauty and the Beast is no different. Emma Watson’s Belle has far more agency than her 2D counterpart, now an inventor instead of her father as well as an avid reader, and the Beast is just as interested in literature as she is, lending their relationship a more convincing depth.

Recently, it was announced that, in the new incarnation of the story, Le Fou – Gaston’s bumbling sidekick – would be canonically gay.

This doesn’t come as the biggest surprise in the world. After all, Le Fou is one of the Disney characters who is believed to have been coded as gay even in the original film. The explicit statement confirming his sexuality, however, is being considered by many as a step forward for Disney in terms of representation of the LGBT community.

Director Bill Condon described the decision for Le Fou to be gay as an extension of the movie’s overall message of inclusion and not judging people for who they are:

“I talked before about how we translate this into live-action. That means building out the characters. It’s also a translation to 2017, you know? And what is the movie about? What has this story always been about for 300 years? It’s about looking closer, going deeper, accepting people for who they really are. And in a very Disney way, we are including everybody. I think this is for everybody, and on the screen we’ll see everybody. And that was important to me.”

This has received, to put it lightly, a mixed response.

Russia considered banning the film from their country as some were concerned it would breach the country’s law against “gay propaganda” in the media. In the end, it was given a 16+ rating because of Le Fou’s sexuality, excluding a large chunk of its intended audience from seeing it. Russian MP Vitaly Milonov described the film as “shameless propaganda of sin”. This is hardly surprising coming from a country that is well known for its widespread homophobia. Given that Russia recently voted to decriminalise “battery within families” – that is, domestic violence against spouses and children – it is hardly being held up as a place of moral integrity.

But even in countries that have a generally more progressive outlook, there has been a backlash against this announcement. A drive-in theatre in Alabama has refused to screen the film, citing Le Fou’s sexuality as the reason for the decision. In a Facebook post that has since been deleted, the owners wrote:

“If we can not take our 11 year old granddaughter and 8 year old grandson to see a movie we have no business watching it. If I can’t sit through a movie with God or Jesus sitting by me then we have no business showing it … We will continue to show family oriented films so you can feel free to come watch wholesome movies without worrying about sex, nudity, homosexuality and foul language.”

Given how prevalent nudity and sex scenes are, even in films rated appropriate for children, it makes you wonder what does actually get past their radar.

Generally, this kind of negative talk has come from a loud minority and a lot of people have been quick to point out the irony in claiming that Le Fou’s romantic interest is the one that is going to give children a skewed idea of relationships.

There are a lot of people applauding this announcement as a step forward when it comes to the representation of the LGBT community in not only children’s films but also in the mainstream media as a whole.

Matt Cain, editor-in-chief of British gay lifestyle magazine Attitude, explained how important it is that a company as well known and as well loved as Disney is embracing LGBT representation:

“It may have been a long time coming but this is a watershed moment for Disney.

“By representing same-sex attraction in this short but explicitly gay scene, the studio is sending out a message that this is normal and natural – and this is a message that will be heard in every country of the world, even countries where it’s still socially unacceptable or even illegal to be gay.

“It’s only a first step towards creating a cinematic world that reflects the one in which many of us are now proud to live. But it’s a step in the right direction and I applaud Disney for being brave enough to make it – and in doing so hopefully helping to change attitudes and bring about real social progress.”

Cain is right in highlighting how important it is for young people to see accurate and respectful LGBT representation. It means not only that young people can be more confident in exploring their sexuality but that heterosexual people will be less inclined to see people in the LGBT community as stereotypes, villains and comic relief, roles they are often relegated to in typical representation in the media.

But because LGBT people are so commonly reduced to these less than positive characteristics, there are some people within the LGBT who are less than enthusiastic about this news. After all, LGBT representation has been so prevalently negative throughout the history of cinema that the announcement of a single explicitly gay character does not necessarily mean that it will break free of those stereotypes. Particularly given the unflattering depiction of Le Fou in the original, it makes sense for people to be cautious, to see just how he has been portrayed in the new movie before rushing to celebrate.

Purposeful negative representation of LGBT people goes right back to first ever attempt to censor the western film industry. The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, was introduced in 1930, spelling out what was and was not acceptable content for motion pictures made for public audiences.

The code expressly forbade things considered immoral at the time, including profanity, ridicule of the clergy and any licentious or suggestive nudity. Within that rather broad latter category, the code specifically prohibited miscegenation (sexual relationships between white and non-white people) and homosexuality. It required that films promote ‘traditional’ values based on Catholic teaching. This meant that on the rare occasion that depictions of pre-marital sex and interracial or homosexual affection were permitted, it was usually by criminals or villains.

Before the code was introduced, filmmakers were free to do pretty much anything they wanted. In the 1920s, many films were made which explored female sexuality and challenged the concept of marriage, completely uncensored. It was at this time that Marlene Dietrich, an openly bisexual woman who wore men’s clothes in public and flaunted her raw sexuality on screen, rose to fame. Her continued success following the code’s implementation is nothing short of miraculous. Her appearance at a premiere of 1932 film The Sign of The Cross (the film which inspired the 1934 formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency due to its depiction of lesbianism) wearing a tuxedo and top hat was met with great homophobic backlash.

The Hays Office declared that all gay males must be removed from motion pictures just a year later and Paramount agreed to never portray women wearing men’s clothes in its films.

Because it was never enforced by law, some filmmakers still chose to flaunt some of the code’s guidelines, usually those regarding violence and female nudity. Over the years, these rebellious filmmakers forced the guidelines to evolve to reflect changing values among the general population.

Still, non-heteronormative relationships and affections were largely avoided, with rape being broadcast in film as early as 1948, long before homosexuality. Some British filmmakers challenged taboos surrounding homosexuality in the 1960s, but Hollywood continued to keep it at a distance, with storylines surrounding rape and even the Holocaust making it into the movies first.

When LGBT people did finally make it into Hollywood films, their sexuality was rarely explicit, instead coded through specific cues that helped to build the stereotypes LGBT people are still trying to shake today. They were also almost always villains, portrayed as psychopaths and sadists. This was because the code allowed the portrayal of “sexual perversion” as long as it made it clear that it was immoral.

In the late 1960s, the Hays code was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film rating system, which is still used to categorise American films to this day. The new system technically has no explicit criteria for sexual content, except for excluding sex scenes in G rated movies. Otherwise, films are judged on an individual basis.

This lack of specificity has attracted criticism, as sexual content is often treated more harshly than violent content, with an obvious bias against homosexual affection. For instance, the 2013 comedy G.B.F. was given an R-rating despite showing nothing more explicit than kissing. Director Darren Stein hadn’t imagined the film would get a higher rating than a PG-13, given there was no swearing, nudity or violence. The high rating was exclusively down to the kissing being between people of the same sex, despite the fact that opposite sex kisses have been a staple of children’s films for decades.

This extensive history of the repression of LGBT representation has resulted in a pattern of negative stereotypes that persists to this day. It makes it incredibly difficult for filmmakers who want to include positive LGBT representation in their movies to reach a significant audience.

Though progress has undeniably in made in creating a more positive representation of LGBT people, many characters are still stuck in same old tropes – that are at best tired and at worst outright offensive.

Although the 2017 Le Fou may be the first openly, explicitly gay Disney character, he is far from the first to have been interpreted and purposely coded as queer over years.

The appearance and attitude of Ursula in The Little Mermaid was actively based on the legendary drag queen Divine, right down to the eye make-up and jewellery. Governor Ratcliffe from Pocahontas is made effeminate by his purple cape, the bows in his hair and the way he fusses over his small dog. Scar in The Lion King is also seen as an effeminate, delicate mirror of his manly and powerful brother Mufasa. Jafar in Aladdin is melodramatic and wears eye make-up and acutely groomed facial hair, lending him a sense of pride in his personal fashion typically attributed to gay men.

While none of these characters have been officially labelled LGBT by Disney, they have long been interpreted as such based on the way their behaviour, mannerisms and appearance mirror those of homosexual characters – usually villains – from past films. None of them have a heterosexual romantic interest to oppose the assumption. The only exception to this is Jafar, though in his attempted marriage to Jasmine it is made clear that he has no romantic or sexual interest in her, and only wants to wed her in his pursuit of power.

The one thing that all of these characters have in common is that they are villains. None of the protagonists – the good characters, the heroes – have been coded as queer. Whether explicit or not, Disney’s portrayal of LGBT characters, so far, has been negative.

Le Fou is not an exception to this pattern.

Admittedly, he is not the primary villain like many of the other queer coded characters. He is not an evil mastermind bent on world domination, hurting people on purpose for his own personal gain. He is a side character, swept up in someone else’s villainy. He is naïve and he doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body and he is silly.

But that is another stereotype for LGBT characters in itself: the comic relief sidekick.

Most of the LGBT characters in mainstream media, if they are not villains, are comic relief. They are there to add a sassy comment to a situation or to lighten the mood in some other way. They are not supposed to be taken seriously. This reinforces the idea, whether purposefully or not, that the LGBT community is there to be ridiculed.

There is no denying that Le Fou is a comic relief character – his name literally translates from French to mean ‘the fool’. He is foolishly swept up in Gaston’s ignorance and impulsivity. His sexuality is as much a part of this comedy as anything else: he is foolishly in love with a man who will never return his feelings. Some argue that Le Fou was always gay, that he was always in love with Gaston, even before anyone said it out loud. His obsession with Gaston, and the way that Gaston used that to exploit him for his own ends, was always supposed to be laughed at.

This also reinforces negative stereotypes about gay men in real life. As well as being a massively oversaturated trope of LGBT characters, portraying them as being helplessly in love with straight characters promotes the idea that gay people do not respect the boundaries of their straight friends. It encourages the idea that homosexual people have no self-control when they are attracted to someone, that they can’t accept rejection and that they effectively prey on heterosexual people they find attractive.

There is no evidence to suggest that LGBT people are any more intrusive towards people who aren’t interested in them than heteronormative people, but rampant homophobia convinces people that this is the case. This is only encouraged by portrayal after portrayal of gay people in the media who can’t get over their obsession with their heterosexual love interest.

In Le Fou’s case, this is only exacerbated by just who his love interest is. Gaston is not just the villain of the movie but also, in no uncertain terms, a total pig. He is the epitome of toxic masculinity, obsessed with his own muscles and treating women like objects. He has no respect for Belle, who he professes to love, and ultimately wants her only as a trophy wife because she is pretty. He not only has no interest in her personality, but actively disapproves of her interests. Despite her rejection of him, his jealousy and possessiveness of her, not to mention the fragility of his self-worth without her validation, is strong enough to drive him first to manipulate Belle by exploiting her love for her father and later to attempt to murder her love interest. His arrogance is so deeply ingrained in his personality that he refuses to accept that someone might not be interested in him.

This reflects badly on Le Fou because, despite Gaston’s obvious and irredeemable character flaws, he is still madly in love with him. Gaston’s objectification and mistreatment of women is not a problem for Le Fou.

This not only suggests that Le Fou has terrible taste in men, but reinforces yet another negative stereotype about gay men – namely, that male homosexuality is rooted in misogyny. Again, there is no real world evidence that homosexual men are any more misogynistic that heterosexual men, but homophobia convinces people otherwise.

This is particularly distressing for the LGBT community because a lot of homophobia is ultimately due to misogyny, with gay men being ridiculed for being like women, for being effeminate, for having stereotypically girly interests or mannerisms. The bigots who have a problem with LGBT people are usually the same people who believe that women are the inferior sex and so should be restricted to household chores and child-rearing.

In the original movie, Gaston was written as a sexist egotist on purpose, it was what made him the villain instead of a prince and was a direct contrast to the sensitive and thoughtful nature of the Beast. At the time, not a lot of thought was put into how this reflected on his bumbling sidekick.

In the remake, a lot more effort has been put into fleshing out even those secondary characters in far more detail. Josh Gad, who plays Le Fou, made a conscious effort to give the character real depth:

“Bill Condon did an amazing job of giving us an opportunity to create a version of LeFou that isn’t like the original, that expands on what the original did, but that makes him more human and that makes him a wonderfully complex character to some extent.”

In making him less of a caricature and more of a person, Gad offers Le Fou the opportunity for redemption.

In the remake, Le Fou does get a form of atonement towards the end of the film. He realises that Gaston’s behaviour – and, by extension, his own and that of the other townsfolk who have been manipulated into hunting the Beast – is less than admirable. He distances himself from Gaston and, by the time the film ends, he is forgiven. In the final celebration of the happily ever after, Le Fou is seen embracing another man and, in doing so, his own sexuality outside of his unhealthy obsession with Gaston.

It is only when Le Fou has reached this state of independence that the hotly discussed “exclusively gay moment” occurs. This not only gives the character more depth that the original version, but also separates Le Fou’s sexuality from his villainy, hopefully shedding that particular trope at least partially. In escaping Gaston’s influence, he is able to be himself and to be accepted.

While on the surface, this does very much seem like a progressive move for Disney, it does fall into yet another stereotype. In trying to avoid having queer coded characters always be villains, many stories have given them these redemption arcs that see them realise the error of their ways and join the good side at the end. While this is an improvement on them remaining evil, it does mean that LGBT characters have to earn their place in society. They can’t just be good from the start, they have to put effort in to earn the right to be accepted.

True representation would mean having plenty of complex and interesting LGBT characters on both sides of the good and evil spectrum. But this is not the case. The utter dearth of LGBT characters on the good side is made all the more apparent by forcing the LGBT characters who do eventually get there to work so hard to earn any respect or affection they get from the audience.

This trope persists because LGBT characters in mainstream media are written for a heteronormative audience far more than they are written for an LGBT audience. They exist as a nod to the LGBT community to make heteronormative people feel good about including them, rather than as accurate representation that has a genuinely positive impact on how the LGBT community is perceived.

Too often, LGBT characters – and other minority characters, including non-white and disabled characters – are tacked onto movies almost as an afterthought. They are not protagonists and they don’t have a lot of personality or development. They are seen, in the background, but not explored as real characters. They are acknowledged, but acknowledgement does not equal representation.

Sometimes, they are not even really seen. For a minor character especially, something like sexuality can be expressed so subtly that it gets missed entirely for many in the audience. This is increasingly common in family friendly films that announce in advance that they will feature an LGBT character.

A big fuss was made about there being a scene in How To Train Your Dragon 2 in which a character would officially come out as gay. A lot of people were excited to see some representation for the LGBT community in a family film. But when people finally went to watch it, a lot of the audience – including almost all of the children who saw it – missed it entirely. The entire coming out scene consisted of Gobber saying “This is why I never married. This and one other reason.” The “other reason” is supposedly that he is gay, but there is never any explicit mention of that, so a lot of people didn’t realise that that was what it meant at all.

This is almost understandable because Gobber wasn’t necessarily gay the entire time. It is said that the original line made no mention of another reason and that voice actor Craig Ferguson chose to give it that meaning and ad-libbed the rest. It literally was an afterthought and comes across quite evidently as such.

But a similar thing happened in the 2016 Star Trek Beyond, in which it was announced that Sulu would be gay, a decision that was made very purposefully as a tribute to the original Sulu actor, George Takei, who married his long term partner Brad in 2008. The film included a scene in which Sulu is reunited with his husband and their daughter upon returning from the mission. The embrace they share, though, was so subtle that many mistook the man he was greeting to be his brother or some other close friend or relative. To make matters worse, it was later revealed that a kiss between the two of them was filmed and then edited out of the movie.

It’s all very well saying that a film will feature LGBT characters, but if no one sees them as LGBT, it’s not real representation. It doesn’t do enough to give the LGBT community someone to identify with. It doesn’t do enough to encourage young audiences to accept and normalise non-heteronormative behaviour in society if they don’t notice it at all, if they are so used to whatever coding they do happen to recognise as being indicative of villainy or some other negative stereotype, instead of a normal part of a diverse society.

Beauty and the Beast runs the risk of falling into this trap with Le Fou as well. Bill Condon has described Gad’s portrayal of Le Fou’s sexuality as “subtle and delicious”. But if it’s too subtle, it could become yet another failed attempt at representation. Even if all the stereotypes and tropes are successfully avoided or subverted, it’s not going to be representative of anything if it doesn’t register at all.

It has been reported that Le Fou’s “explicitly gay moment” at the end of the film lasts just four seconds. If someone isn’t paying close attention to that final scene, it could be pretty easy to miss.

The decision to make Le Fou gay is clearly because Le Fou has always doted on Gaston and it makes sense to make it explicitly romantic. It is unlikely that anyone was trying to purposefully add more negativity to LGBT representation. The decisions certainly seems to have been made with the best of intentions. And those four seconds of Le Fou dancing openly and joyously with another man may well be some of the sweetest seconds in the movie.

But that doesn’t necessarily make it the positive representation that the LGBT community needs.

It is hugely important that films – especially those that claim to be championing LGBT representation – take all of this into account when they decide how they will do that. The LGBT community has been very harshly stereotype and massively underrepresented in the mainstream media throughout the history of cinema. When big and influential companies like Disney make an attempt to provide representation for minorities, they have a responsibility to acknowledge how poorly this has been done in the past and to provide a genuinely progressive alternative.

While it is true that this is a milestone for Disney to explicitly state that a character in one of their movies is gay, it clearly illustrates just how far the industry has left to go when it comes to offering the LGBT community fair and equal mainstream representation.

Category: Featured, Film

Tags: , , , ,