Published on HuffPost on March 17, 2017
Disney is making history this weekend with the inclusion of its first “exclusively gay moment” and openly gay character in its remake of Beauty and the Beast. Too bad “making history” only applies in the most technical sense.
The gay character in question is the villain’s sidekick, LeFou. Without spoilers, I can say that it takes the form of a (very brief) shot at the end of the film that does imply the character is gay and also seems to indicate a redemption for the character. But even a redemption arc can’t save us from the truly terrible implications of making LeFou the first openly gay character in Disney history.
To start with the basics, his name: LeFou literally means “the fool” in French and can also mean “the madman.” These are typical stereotypes that have been used against the LGBTQ community for centuries and are still entrenched in media portrayals of gay men especially.
LeFou is both a villain and the comic relief sidekick. This not new or groundbreaking, not for the film industry or for Disney itself. Queercoded villains or fools — characters that are not explicitly shown to be gay but given traits associated with queerness or effeminacy — are an incredibly common trope. Just in Disney’s stable we find: Governor Ratcliffe (and his sidekick Wiggins), Scar, Jafar, Ursula, Prince John, Captain Hook (and his sidekick Smee), Hades, Ratigan, and Dr. Facilier. Making LeFou gay is merely making explicit Disney’s long tradition of implicitly queercoding its villains.
Gee, I wonder what this is code for?
He is also in love with the main villain, Gaston, a symbol of runaway heterosexual masculinity. Gaston physically abuses and uses LeFou for most of the original film, and it’s hard to imagine this new film will abstain from the jokes about LeFou’s lack of traditional masculinity or the abusive nature of their relationship. Not to mention that as a sidekick he has very little impact on the plot.
Altogether, this would have been cutting edge a decade ago, maybe. And those involved with the film are already walking back and playing down the importance of the moment. Yet Disney is patting itself on the back for inclusion and progressiveness while giving us a stereotypical, villainous, foolish caricature. A fawning sidekick trailing after the hypermasculine villain who abuses him.
Are they really telling those of us begging Disney for better queer representation that this is the best they can do?
Even just taking from the original film, there are better options for gay characters to explore. Have we not all been making jokes about Lumière and Cogsworth being an old married couple this whole time? These characters are protagonists who get a happy ending, together, and showing a relationship between the two would not necessitate any changes to the plot. It’s that simple.
Frankly, we’re all so desperate to see ourselves represented — to see our stories told — that we’ll take anything we can get. But we deserve better. After a long history of ignoring and insulting us, of invisibility and coded negative stereotypes, Disney needs to better than simply throwing us a bone. They need to think about how they’re including this long-overdue representation and what story they’re telling through it.
It’s long past the time that queer lives were represented on screen. Especially given everything Disney owes to the gay community and our stories.
Because Disney has already had its first gay hero: Howard Ashman.
A gay man saved Disney
Ashman was a gay Jewish man fighting AIDS in the 1990s. He was one of the creative forces behind Beauty and the Beast. He also saved Disney animation as we know it.
In 1988, Disney was directionless, bleeding talent and in dire financial straits. Ashman discovered Little Mermaid in development and suggested both a return to the fairytale musical films of early Disney and an adoption of the Broadway storytelling style. Ashman and Alan Menken came onboard the creative team, later joined by Stephen Schwartz and Tim Rice, largely due to Ashman’s idea to work with Broadway talent.
These four wrote the music and lyrics for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules. These films saved Disney and propelled it to the powerhouse it is again today. Ashman’s ideas and work were central to developing the Disney style and cementing their financial success.
Ashman produced and co-wrote The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, as well as a large part of Aladdin. He died of AIDS halfway through the production process for Aladdin, months before the final release of Beauty and the Beast. He never got to see the huge impact of that film or the legacy of his creative influence, but looking back, we can easily say that Disney animation would not exist in its current form without him.
Back then, Ashman couldn’t have told the stories of himself and his community, at least not openly. Protests would have been immediate and powerful, and the blowback could have easily tanked the company. The best he could do was metanarrative, subtle coding and sanitized stories about his experiences. But make no mistake, his experiences of isolation and hate and community and difference and bravery were central to these adored films.
And now? Disney is a media superpower with arguably the most power, influence and money in the industry. They can afford to take the (much reduced) risk they couldn’t take during Ashman’s life. They could, with just a little courage, give him the respectful representation he wasn’t allowed while he was saving their company and creating the signature style that revolutionized animation.
Instead, they’ve given us a fool. A character that bullies others who are different, that leads the mob of villagers who originally represented those who wanted to see people like Ashman dead.
Howard Ashman deserves better. LGBTQ kids deserve better. We all deserve better.
Then again, even this bare minimum attempt at representation faces blowback. Comments abound on social media complaining that this inclusion is “pandering” or makes the film less family friendly. Many have called for a boycott of the film. A theater in Alabama pulled the film from its lineup entirely. As has the entire country of Malaysia.
To be clear, this is hardly a huge groundswell of protest or a well-planned boycott, and the chances are small that these complaints will actually impact the film’s success or bottom line. But it’s also not simply a tiny group of loud bigots either. Complaints and homophobic comments about the “gay moment” are widespread enough that it’s difficult for Disney fans or LGBTQ people to avoid them — on social media, news stories about the film, and in life.
This reaction makes it clear that, weak as it is, this representation is having an impact. It also shows how important it is for Disney to continue with this representation and go bigger and better next time.
Despite these criticisms, I’m still excited. And Ashman likely would be too. It may be the bare minimum of steps forward, complete with negative implications and groan-worthy cowardice, but it is still progress. It’s still something we haven’t seen before that is taking us in the direction of the healthy, open representation we crave.
And it’s still bothering the homophobes, which is always nice.
So, fine, Disney. If this is the hurdle we have to get through to make gay characters possible and convince the Powers That Be that the world won’t end if you show queerness on screen, we’ll take it. But don’t expect fawning praise for doing the bare minimum to rise above the queerbaiting and queercoding you and the rest of Hollywood have always engaged in.
And, frankly, you better make it worth it by giving us better soon. (Like, perhaps, the interracial gay couple we’re rooting for in the next Star Wars film.)
“To our friend, Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman (1950–1991).” — Dedication at the end of the original Beauty and the Beast