Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Beauty and the Beast and Power Rangers
Media representation is a hot-button issue right now – with good reason. As discussions about identity become more popular and accessible, fans and critics alike are better equipped to discuss the messages within today’s films and TV shows. While film and TV have predominantly depicted the political “norm” — white, heterosexual characters — for decades, there seems to be a change in the wind. Moonlight just took home the Oscar for Best Picture, becoming the first film to do so with an all-black cast and the first winner depicting gay themes, and primetime TV shows feature well-written gay characters and racially diverse casts. Both gay and nonwhite media representation has come a long way since the days of the Hays Code, a set of filmmaking regulations in place from 1930 to 1968 that prevented films from depicting “miscegenation” and “sex perversion.”
Gay representation, or the on-screen depiction of any non-heterosexual characters, has seen a strange and stilted evolution since the late 60s. Despite the Code being long-defunct, gay characters on screen are few and far between, and those that do exist are usually either villains, woeful martyrs, and/or, you know — dead. Happy gay characters are relegated to the indie world of low-budget film productions and webseries, rarely accessible to those not actively seeking them out. Therefore, when mainstream, widely-released films and TV shows do depict gay characters, gay fans are rightfully thrilled. Not only does the inclusion of gay identity in mainstream film mean that gay fans are able to see themselves reflected in some of their favorite characters, it means that viewers questioning their sexualities will be able to feel more comfortable with themselves. The stakes for gay representation are high, even today.
That’s why, when fans are promised gay representation in big franchise films, and said films don’t make good, it can feel like a punch to the gut. Gay fans who were looking to put their money towards films with positive representation may feel cheated or betrayed. Unfortunately, current box office opponents Beauty and the Beast and Power Rangers are two such offenders. The former film caused a media firestorm when director Bill Condon revealed that Gaston’s lackey LeFou would have an “explicitly gay moment” in the film, and Trini from Power Rangers has been repeatedly touted as the first (cinematic) LGBT superhero. It turns out, though, that neither film exactly busts through the homophobic glass ceiling — more steps up to it, gives it a polite tap, and then swan-dives back into piles and piles of money.
Make no mistake, both films are currently dominating the box office. Disney has rolled out yet another hit with Beauty and the Beast, which has already recouped its $160 million budget seven times over since its March 17 debut, while Power Rangers is set to gross similarly impressive (if more modest) figures after just one week on screen. The gay content in both films, however, is paltry — LeFou shares a three-second dance with another man at the tail end of Beauty and the Beast, and Trini makes no comment when asked whether or not she’s interested in women. Yes, really, that’s it for both films — unless, of course, you pick apart all of the characters’ other same-sex interactions with tweezers. Then, maybe you get some weird, unexplained teen angst between Trini and her family and a few ha-ha-being-attracted-to-your-straight-best-friend-is-hilarious interactions between LeFou and Gaston.
While it would have been awesome to see Trini actually come out, LeFou is a head-scratching choice for Disney’s “first openly gay character.” The character is an ingratiating toady by nature – the main villain’s twerpish right-hand man who wants to see the film’s beloved protagonists separated and miserable. In a utopian world where gay characters have run the gamut of roles, a gay villain wouldn’t necessarily mean anything, but LeFou piggybacks onto a history of twee, bumbling-yet-sinister caricatures (from Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon to Zuse in Tron: Legacy) that have existed for decades. LeFou’s actor, Josh Gad, is hardly a stranger to Disney’s bizarre maybe-gay-but-not-really controversies, as he also lent his voice talents to mega-hit Frozen, in which gay fans eagerly sought representation (whether via protagonist Elsa or an androgynous tertiary family). Gay fans were also excited for a possible lesbian couple in Disney’s summer hit Finding Dory — another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that the film’s execs did not care to confirm or deny.
It would be easy to say that Condon’s interview about LeFou was swept away in a media storm of clickbait journalistic practices — and Condon has said as much himself — but it’s hard to feel sorry for giant Disney’s treatment by the big bad media when countless gay fans have no doubt put their coin in this non-representational coffer. Condon’s remarks may have been blown out of proportion, but they were pretty excessive to begin with. The director promised fans a LeFou who “on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston,” and gets a “pay-off” at the end of the film with an “exclusively gay moment.” Based on these statements, it was not unreasonable for gay fans to expect the “Be Our Guest” treatment in theatres — instead, they were only offered representational crumbs.
It would be one thing if Condon and co. had pulled back on their self-congratulating after gay fans expressed disappointment, but backpedaling occurred suspiciously close to announcements that Russia was considering banning the film and one Alabama drive-in would refuse to screen it. Power Rangers is under similar fire from Russia for its sliver of gayness, but that film’s non-representation has been less overblown by the cast and crew itself so much as it was fueled by excited word-of-mouth. That said, director Dean Israelite and Lionsgate haven’t exactly refuted claims that Trini is the so-called first LGBT superhero, with Israelite even stating in interviews that her moment of barely-there acknowledgment is “pivotal.”
Not all gay representation has to be centered around the character’s gayness, but attraction to people of the same gender is inherently what lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals have been persecuted for in the history of our society. That persecution has thus necessarily instigated a loud, unapologetic reclamation of same-sex love by gay communities, celebrated for decades in pride parades, kiss-ins, and the like. Since homophobic rhetoric makes gay love a political issue instead of a human rights issue, the gay community is (at times unwittingly) tied up in those politics; thus, the importance of issues like media representation.
It would be easy (and lazy) to argue that characters in major films exist in a vacuum devoid of any sociopolitical influence, and that they don’t influence audiences in turn, but that’s just not the world we live in. It is possible to have an actually gay character in a movie — i.e., one who speaks explicitly about being gay or is in a noticeable romantic relationship with someone of the same gender — without tokenizing them. Chiron in Moonlight, for example, lives a life hugely influenced by closeted same-sex attraction and homophobic bullying, but he is also a young person navigating parental abandonment, black adolescence, and the confines of masculinity. Making characters gay does not have to inherently restrict them, if you are a talented writer.
Whether intentionally or not, both Beauty and the Beast and Power Rangers prove that big studios and franchise films still care more about financial viability than actual gay representation. It’s disappointing to see, especially from Power Rangers, which actually follows through on its promise of a black autistic character. The takeaway here should not be that real gay people need to be less invested in seeing positive representations of gayness on screen, but rather that today’s biggest media powers should stop taking advantage of gay fans. In 2017, it can be easy for some to confuse “marriage equality” with “total social equality everywhere always” for gay people. In fact, homophobic hate crimes still occur regularly around the world, various officeholders remain hell-bent on dismantling marriage equality, and workplace discrimination remains a pressing issue for all LGBT people.
Gay fans hoping to put their money towards films that will make them feel more at home deserve thoughtful writing, not lip service. It’s one thing to have subtextual gay representation in your movie, and another entirely to claim that that representation is actually textual, or even groundbreaking. We hope that, next time, Disney and Lionsgate will quit baiting, and instead invest their time in producing thoughtful characters. If they wanted to help finance independent films that are doing all of that work already, we wouldn’t exactly be mad, either.