When the news first broke that Beauty and the Beast would feature Disney’s first gay character, LeFou (Josh Gad), it came as a shock to many. While the film had already drawn massive levels of hype, it was not perceived as being a particularly groundbreaking film in terms of representation. However, the inclusion of the studio’s first major, canonically gay character means that this film has taken on a political life of its own – perhaps more so than director Bill Condon anticipated. With a little over two weeks left until the film’s release, the decision has already drawn both praise and ire.
On the one hand, many have praised the decision to include an LGBT character in the film. On the other, many others have rightfully pointed out that the character of LeFou is little more than a bumbling sycophant who, by being in love with a straight man, falls into stereotypes; given Disney’s history of queercoding villains, this is an understandable fear. It’s hard to judge the film before it is released, and based on the little information given, it’s anybody’s guess whether or not the film will handle this gracefully or whether LeFou’s sexuality will simply be a punchline.
There is reason to hope that the “exclusively gay” subplot is handled with taste and respect. Lyricist Howard Ashman, who worked with Alan Menken on Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, was battling AIDS as he worked on the music for the original animated film. It was his idea to make the Beast a more central character to the story, rather than have the film solely focus on Belle. Live-action Beauty and the Beast director Bill Condon, an openly gay man, said that for Ashman, the film “was a metaphor for AIDS. He was cursed, and this curse had brought sorrow on all those people who loved him, and maybe there was a chance for a miracle—and a way for the curse to be lifted. It was a very concrete thing that he was doing.”
According to Beauty and the Beast’s producer Don Hahn, one song that Ashman wrote specifically while thinking of his disease was “Kill the Beast,” Gaston’s villainous number in which he encourages the villagers to join him on a mission to kill the Beast. The context adds a new layer to the song, which contains lyrics such as “we don’t like what we don’t understand / in fact it scares us,” explains why the film has drawn such affection from the LGBT community, particularly gay men who identified with the feelings of being ostracized for being different.
Ashman, who passed away in 1991 before the release of the film, left his mark on the Disney community. Therefore, it is hard to fathom that they would allow their first openly gay character to be little more than a bumbling stereotype, particularly as part of Ashman’s legacy. Still, the worries of the LGBT community are valid. Disney has long drawn from the gay community for their villains; for example, The Little Mermaid’s Ursula was based on the drag queen Divine. LeFou, who’s name translates to mean “the madman,” would be hardly anyone’s first choice for Disney’s first LGBT representation. After all, too often gay characters are reduced to punchlines or lisping villains. LeFou’s feelings for Gaston also have come off to some as yet another story of a gay man pining after a straight man, another stereotyped role.
Once the film is released, there will no doubt be a thousand thinkpieces released on whether or not LeFou was good representation. However, what will ultimately decide if LeFou is an offensive caricature or a sensitively handled character is if he is Disney’s only gay character, or merely the first. As mentioned in the initial article breaking the story, Disney received a failing grade from GLAAD last year in terms of representation. However, the House of Mouse is starting to make strides in a positive direction.
On the heels of the announcement about LeFou, DisneyXD animated series Star Vs. The Forces of Evil featured the network’s first same-sex kisses, albeit between background characters. This is also a huge step forward, as conservative pundits have described affection between LGBT couples as being not appropriate for children. This is not the first children’s show to break ground in terms of LGBT representation—that title would probably go to Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe—but it does show progress for Disney, a highly conservative company.
Fans have been calling for some form of representation in Disney, as well as Disney-owned properties. Consider the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend campaign, for example. A more widespread campaign to have the character of Poe Dameron in Disney-owned Star Wars be gay, as well as romance fellow lead Finn, has even drawn support from Lucasfilm employed authors. While it’s doubtful that Disney is about to announce it’s first lesbian princess, LeFou’s sexuality might mean that other doors are opening up. Poe Dameron might be revealed as gay in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (hey, the shippers can dream). An openly LGBT character might appear in a Marvel movie. We could see a mutual, affectionate same-sex romance sooner rather than later.
If this doesn’t seem to matter to you, if your first instinct is to say “what does it matter if they’re gay or straight,” please consider the noise that was generated when Pixar’s Finding Dory appeared to show a lesbian couple. It was never made apparent whether or not those characters were a couple, and they only appeared for a handful of seconds. But for a short time, people praised Disney and Pixar for the representation. It generated more positive buzz than negative, and made LGBT fans feel more accepted by the studio.
Studies have shown that representation matters, especially to marginalized groups. Matt Cain, the editor of Attitude who first featured the story on LeFou’s sexuality, said that he hoped the film would send “out a message that this is normal and natural.” While the concerns about the choice to make LeFou gay are all valid concerns—the debate over bad representation vs. no representation rages on—one can only hope that this is the first step Disney is taking on a road to showing a more diverse and inclusive world on screen.
LGBT fans, especially younger ones, deserve to see themselves represented onscreen. Hopefully this is the start of a new Disney renaissance, and soon we will see LGBT heroes as well as villains. After all, everyone deserves to see themselves as the heroes of stories that are truly at the heart of our culture, not just as fringe jokes. As one of the studios responsible for numerous blockbusters, Disney has a responsibility to showcase the diversity of the world it reflects. It’s time for them to step up.