The new “Beauty and the Beast” doesn’t open until March 17, but Disney’s marketing team has probably already suffered several convulsions.
The internet lit up with opinions last week when director Bill Condon revealed the live-action reboot would feature a “nice, exclusively gay moment,” whatever that means. Condon had said too much, igniting understandable concerns about the details of this plot point: LeFou (Josh Gad), obsequious manservant to the dastardly Gaston (Luke Evans), would be “somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston. He’s confused about what he wants. It’s somebody who’s just realizing that he has these feelings.”
On one hand, Condon’s words indicated we might see a coming-out story in a Disney release, a progressive move for a studio that has barely hinted at overt LGBTQ inclusiveness. (Last year, for example, director Andrew Stanton wouldn’t confirm that a purported lesbian couple appeared in a “Finding Dory” scene.) On the other hand, we’ve got a flamboyant sidekick pining for a burly straight man, which isn’t exactly “exclusively gay” ― or maybe it is, because, again, what in the world does that even mean?
In a tale as old as time, the internet was flooded with premature reactions. The takes were hot, especially considering the movie hadn’t yet screened for press. No one knew how Condon’s revelation would actually play out, but some outlets had already condemned the development. (Naturally, the conservative side of the spectrum was even more reactionary. An Alabama theater refused to show the film. Sigh.)
I saw the movie a day after Condon’s quotes spread like a viral infection. So, let’s talk about just how gay “Beauty and the Beast” is. (Warning: inconsequential spoilers to follow.)
It’s not that gay, nor is it exclusive, nor is it a fantastic film. But it is progress.
The script, written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, codes LeFou’s sexuality. It’s there, if you know to look for it. Had Condon not announced anything ahead of time, it might have come as a pleasant surprise. (Damn you, anticipation culture!) We would have spent the runtime thinking, “Wait. Is LeFou gay? I think he is. Oh, wow, he definitely is! Well, that’s nice.” LeFou flirts with Gaston, caresses his hand, massages his shoulders, fawns after him, suggests Gaston could spend spend his life with him instead of Belle, and briefly attempts to grind with the irascible hunter while singing the ode “Gaston.” Unsuspecting viewers could read all of that as a bromance, but Gad displays enough bumbling, googly-eyed wonder to make for a convincing unrequited yearning.
Given LeFou is the only semi-demonstrably queer character on hand, it would be interesting to see a gay man long for a straight man if the narrative were able to delineate such nuances. Many (all?) once-closeted queers relate to harbored affections for heterosexual specimens. The experience can be shattering or enlightening, or anything in between. But for a character still coming into their sexuality, treating this as a pioneering moment in cinema is a bit regressive. It’s like a stopgap on the path to equality. After the many, many straight love stories Disney has told throughout its 94-year history, it will have to be franker in its intentions to count as anything revolutionary. Until popular culture can openly and positively portray LGBTQ lives in children’s content, there will never be true parity. Kids will still grow up seeing queerness as something that cannot be embraced in mainstream contexts.
But wait! The movie does redeem itself in the end, sort of.
You know the story of “Beauty and the Beast,” so I won’t retread the minutiae. When the last fateful rose petal falls and the Beast’s curse is broken, LeFou sticks around for a decadent ball that reunites the castle’s servants in their human forms. Gaston has died, leaving LeFou without his wicked crush. Everyone has a dance partner, including him. But it’s a woman. I felt a flash of outrage at the sight, assuming the movie would culminate with a total cop-out. But then! A man steps in and dances with LeFou instead. It’s a callback to an earlier scene when a bewitched wardrobe attacks three of Gaston’s henchmen by shoving them into gowns and wigs. Two of the men are perturbed, but a third gazes at his feminized appearance and smiles. And now that man, no longer wearing a dress, gets to dance with LeFou. So we end with a dose of gender-bending camp and a glimpse of actual contact between two ostensible homosexuals.
Within the Disney canon, this is progress ― still semi-coded, yes, but the most candid LGBTQ exhibit yet. Must we demand more, like, say, an actual queer love story? No doubt. But strides come in increments, and this is far better than the “Finding Dory” evasion or the maybe-Elsa-is-a-lesbian fantasies or Kuzco’s crossdressing in “The Emperor’s New Groove” or the theory that Timon and Pumbaa are actually life partners. It’s more on par with a blink-and-you-miss-it allusion to Oaken’s gay family in “Frozen.”
The problem lies in Condon’s words. He meant well. He is an openly gay man himself, and to be able to vouch for Disney’s gayest subplot is an honor. And anyway, the internet attacking a film’s plot sight-unseen seems unfair. But coded sexuality is not “exclusively” anything but coded sexuality.
Condon, who also directed “Dreamgirls” and a couple of “Twilight” installments, recognizes his blunder. He is now gabbing in interviews about the ordeal being “overblown.” As Condon told ScreenCrush’s Erin Whitney last week, “It’s part of just what we had fun with.” Gad told USA Today the script actually never designated LeFou was gay. (Men can dance together platonically, after all. Try not to gasp too dramatically.)
At some point, Disney (or another studio) will craft a romance for two animated gay characters. It’s bound to happen, probably sooner rather than later. If all goes well, it will be a “nice, exclusively gay moment” worth celebrating. But as long as the word “gay” remains taboo and there’s no same-sex kissing allowed, you are right to curb your enthusiasm ― as long as you’ve seen the movie and fashioned your own assessment first.
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