The rapidly growing self-cannibalization wing of Walt Disney Pictures has manufactured a new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast that courted controversy from the moment it was announced. First people were upset by the casting of normal human actors in roles previously intended for enchanted knick-knacks (where else is a talking candlestick supposed to get work nowadays?), but soon they moved on to something else: the inclusion of a character whose sexual orientation is strongly implied to be non-straight.
This tempest in a teapot (which is also what Mrs. Potts calls P.M.S.) is overblown and based on faulty information -- some of it from the filmmakers themselves -- but it warrants discussion because of the longstanding issues it highlights. You see, Disney is in an awkward position when it comes to the Gays. The brand's most enthusiastic supporters are conservative, religious, family-values types, among whom there tends to be a certain, shall we say, disdain for the Gays, and a faction of which feverishly scours each new Disney release for signs of the dreaded Gay Agenda.
This wouldn't be a problem for Disney were it not for the fact that their second most enthusiastic supporters are the Gays (including me), who love colorful musicals, campy villains, and headstrong princesses nearly as much as little girls do. At any Disney theme park or movie screening, much of the crowd will belong to one of these groups, the Families or the Gays, each eyeing the other distrustfully. It's like if Applebee's appealed primarily to Israelis but also had a strong customer base of Palestinians.
The Disney company has to balance between these groups and appeal to everyone equally while pretending to do the opposite. They want the Gays to think of Disney as a progressive, inclusive company, but they want the Families to think of it as a traditional, old-fashioned institution. The result is usually that Disney pays lip service to progressivism without really doing anything about it, because while the Gays are an important secondary market, they do not represent as big a chunk of Disney's profit as traditional families do.
This conflict was brought to a head earlier this month, when director Bill Condon told the British gay magazine Attitude about LeFou (played by Josh Gad), the round little sidekick who follows Gaston everywhere. Here's what Condon (who is openly gay) said:
"LeFou is 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. And Josh makes something really subtle and delicious out of it. And that's what has its payoff at the end, which I don't want to give away. But it is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie."
This raised eyebrows, and not just because it's the first time the word "subtle" has been applied to Josh Gad. As headlines screamed about "Disney's first gay character," fans around the world reacted by listing the other Disney characters who were clearly gay: Ursula, Cruella de Vil, Scar, Jafar, Timon and Pumbaa, Elsa from Frozen, Gov. Ratcliffe from Pocahontas, Chip and/or Dale, and (statistically speaking) probably one of the seven dwarfs. Not that any of these characters were vocal about it -- but neither is LeFou. But nobody had seen the new Beauty yet, and all we had was the director's description, which made it sound as gay as a Frenchman.
The response was predictable. A movie theater in Alabama said it wouldn't show the film on the grounds that "we will not compromise on what the Bible teaches," presumably referring to the Good Book's stern injunctions against interspecies relationships and female literacy. People started petitions urging Disney to remove the "exclusively gay moment," whatever it was. "How will we explain this to our children?" people asked, mistaking the minefield of parenting as being anyone's problem but their own. (How will you explain it? I dunno. How do you explain Santa Claus? By lying? OK, do that.) Some even confused this story with the recent same-sex kiss in a cartoon on Disney XD (which is like the Disney Channel but with extra D) and started spreading the rumor that Beauty and the Beast showed two dudes kissing.
(I learned of this rumor when two different acquaintances, totally unconnected to each other, texted to ask if it was true.
Always glad to be of service.)
Let me tell you what actually is in the movie. LeFou does indeed seem to have a crush on Gaston. He doesn't say anything explicitly gay like "I'm gay" or "I'm in love with Gaston" or "Let's watch a Ryan Murphy show," but to any viewer over the age of about 12, it's clear that his affections run deeper than the ordinary villain-stooge relationship. (Think of Mr. Smithers and Mr. Burns back when The Simpsons was still being coy about it.) Even apart from Gaston, LeFou tends to act kind of bitchy, which is movie shorthand for gay.
Then, during the attack on the castle by the ill-informed, easily riled up villagers (why does that sound familiar?), there's a gag where the Wardrobe swallows three goons and spits them out again dressed as women. Two shriek in horror and run away, the sight of themselves in drag being exponentially more soul-shattering than the sight of haunted furniture defending a cursed buffalo-man. But the third guy looks at himself in the mirror and likes what he sees. This is the movie's code for "This guy is gay, too!"
(Is it offensive to imply an automatic overlap between "cross-dressing" and "gay"? Probably! Most things are!)
This sets up the "exclusively gay moment" at the end of the film, the one Bill Condon got everyone so worked up about. People are dancing at Belle and Prince Beast's wedding, and for two or three seconds, LeFou finds himself dancing with the other guy. LeFou looks startled and uncertain, and we cut away. The end.
Well. You are probably gay now just hearing about it. Two male characters DANCING? There has never been such an "exclusively gay moment" in a Disney film before!
Like I said, tempest in a teapot. Not a big deal. But whose fault is the controversy? Disney's own damn. More specifically, Condon's. After the initial brouhaha, he tried to walk it back:
"It's all been overblown. [Are we not doing phrasing anymore?] Because it's just this, it's part of what we had fun with.. I wish it were -- I love the way it plays pure when people don't know and it comes as a nice surprise."
In other words, Condon, who exaggerated the movie's gay content to curry favor with a gay magazine, was now disappointed that the movie's gay content had been exaggerated.
Something similar happened last year with Finding Dory. People noticed a moment in the trailer where it looked like a baby stroller was being attended by two women, did the math (2 women + 1 baby stroller = LESBIANS), and either pounced or celebrated. It wasn't totally clear, though, and nobody had seen the movie yet, so journalists (well, USA Today) asked co-director Andrew Stanton whether this briefly seen pair of women were indeed lesbians. Stanton's reply:
"They can be whatever you want them to be. There's no right or wrong answer." A producer added, "We never asked them."
Haha! It's cute to create people out of your imagination and then pretend not to know what they are thinking!
That's Disney's attitude in a nutshell: put something out there that could be read as supporting the gay community; let fundamentalists get angry and homosexuals get excited; and then neutralize both anger and excitement by refusing to commit one way or the other. Then, when people see the movie, they realize it was nothing and forget about it. I doubt anyone at Disney told Condon to exaggerate the LeFou thing in interviews, but it followed the studio's playbook. Beauty and the Beast got some extra pre-release buzz without having to actually include an openly gay character doing anything openly gay.
This James Franconian approach to sexuality is unsustainable. Disney will undoubtedly put a same-sex couple in a movie eventually, probably in the periphery, and almost certainly without any physical displays of affection. (Not a lot of PDA in Disney films generally, even among straight couples.) The fundamentalists will be upset, of course, and will want to know what they're paying Disney all this money for if Disney isn't going to raise their children according to their instructions. But maybe by that time the conflict between the Gays and the Families will have diminished as more people accept the overlap between them. Gay people love their families, and every family has a gay person in it somewhere. And we all like stories about imprisoned girls falling in love with their captors.
Eric D. Snider lives in Portland, Ore. As a rule, he does not dance.