Somewhat unbelievably, the upcoming Beauty and the Beast reboot boasts Disney’s first live-action, overtly gay character, which has caused backlash and boycotts including at least one Alabama drive-in and possibly the whole of Russia.
In light of the hysteria, Bill Condon has, perhaps understandably, said that it’s all been “overblown”, asking people “to not make a big deal about it”. He’s right, of course – but not necessarily in a good way.
Don’t get us wrong, it’s a great thing that Disney has included an “exclusively gay moment” in a classic live-action adaption. And Beauty and the Beast, a movie which carries a narrative of open-mindedness and tolerance, seems like a great place to start. But let’s not get carried away – this is hardly the ‘watershed’ moment it could have been. #GiveElsaAGirlfriend it is not.
To recap, LeFou, played by Josh Gad, is the sidekick and right-hand man to Gaston (Luke Evans), the preening, arrogant – and later despotic and murderous – would-be suitor to Emma Watson’s Belle.
“LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston,” said Condon. “He’s confused about what he wants. It’s somebody who’s just realising that he has these feelings.”
During the course of the film LeFou is used as comic relief, adoring lackey and marginalised sidekick but then also slips into the roles of accessory to attempted murder, rabble rouser and inciter of hate crimes. Indeed, LeFou supports Gaston as he literally persuades a posse to murder Dan Stevens’ Beast because he is different.
Sure, LeFou eventually realises he’s backing the wrong horse, abandoning massive douchebag Gaston in favour of the good guys in the process. And at the happily-ever-after point, when Beast and all his furniture are back in human form, LeFou gets his “exclusively gay moment”: a dance with another male soldier at the ball, when everyone is paired off.
But is this really the pinnacle of the progressive and positive gay characters we can expect in 2017? ‘Le fou’ literally translated means ‘the fool’. It’s the name of the bumbling side-kick in the animation, granted, but why choose him then?
From the start LeFou is a secondary character and (reluctantly perhaps) one of the villains. He’s neither handsome – sorry Josh Gad, we think you’re cute but not so much in B&B – nor heroic and doesn’t especially drive the action. He’s certainly in no way a role model nor an aspirational character – stand down Alabama and Russia, we don’t reckon Disney is going to be selling out of LeFou costumes any time soon.
But then, even if he had been a hero, could LeFou ever have been a gay role model anyway? After all, as Condon says, LeFou is confused about his feelings. Does he want Gaston, or does he want to be Gaston?
This confusion is perhaps compounded in LeFou’s final dance. Yes, it’s with another man, but it’s with a man who has been dressed and made up as a woman by a cheeky enchanted wardrobe. While several of the soldiers get a makeover, this one seemed to particularly like the look. Is LeFou attracted to men in drag then?
Disney’s debut of its first openly gay character makes the tired old misstep of conflating homosexuality with cross-dressing and effeminacy. Is the soldier supposed to be transgender? He never gets any character development, so we simply don’t know.
Here, enjoying wearing women’s clothing is immediately identified with being gay – and of course, as a gay man, that’s exactly what LeFou would be into. The execution, however well meaning, is clumsy, clichéd and embarrassingly out of date – like something lifted straight out of a ’70s sitcom.
If Condon, quite rightly, wants audiences to “not make a big deal about it”, it might have been better if the film hadn’t made such a big, and slightly confused, deal about it either.
Take the aforementioned cheeky wardrobe, for example – in human form she’s Audra McDonald, whose character Garderobe is married to Stanley Tucci’s harpsichord Cadenza. As furniture, it’s established they’re a couple; when they’re turned back into people, it turns out they’re an interracial couple. No big deal.
(Believe it or not, they also shared Disney’s first live-action interracial kiss ever. But at least they got that one right.)
Why couldn’t Cogsworth and Lumiere have been a couple, for example? They’re secondary characters it’s true, but noble and heroic ones, shown to be in a long-term, warm and respectful relationship. In this case not a sexual relationship, sure, but we see no reason it couldn’t have been. It would certainly have been a huge step up from choosing a cowardly, “confused” villain for its first gay character.
To include any diversity of characters is progress, and this is fuelling debate at the very least. With any luck it will open the door to more discussion and increasingly varied characters and relationships in mainstream cinema. But this tale as old as time hasn’t quite caught up with the present day just yet.
Beauty and the Beast will arrive in cinemas on March 17.