Just before the release of Disney’s new live- action remake of “Beauty and the Beast,” Bill Condon, the director of Disney’s new live- action remake of “Beauty and the Beast,” told Attitude magazine that in the upcoming film, Gaston’s bumbling sidekick Lefou will be gay and that there will be an “exclusively gay moment” with him that is somehow also “subtle and delicious.”
Condon’s comments sparked a slew of reactions. Russia immediately restricted the film to 16+ audiences as part of its “gay propaganda” ban, and a group of evangelical Christians is petitioning for the movie to be recut to remove the “LGBT agenda” it supposedly pushes. However, among members of the LGBT community itself, a different controversy has arisen: Is Disney’s movie good or bad? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle.
Disney has been making gay-coded villains in its animated films for decades. From theatrically dramatic Scar to sassy and effeminate Hades to drag queen-inspired Ursula, the LGBTQ community has been represented subtextually, if not textually. This is no coincidence; thanks to cultural norms surrounding gender, deviance from standard gender roles is essentially visual shorthand that tells audiences a character is evil. It’s the same reason many villains have darker skin or large hooked noses; the roots of racism and anti-Semitism run deep.
Lefou himself was arguably already part of this gay- coded Disney villain canon with his short stature, pink hair bow and a love for Gaston so intense that he made up an entire song to cheer Gaston up when he was feeling down. This new movie just reaffirms something we already suspected about a character, making it a smaller step forward than Disney would perhaps like us to feel. Still, it’s good that LGBT characters are moving from subtext to text; if Disney can acknowledge onscreen that LGBT people exist, they can continue to do so in future films.
However, the fact that this is a step forward for Disney doesn’t let them off the hook. For starters, Lefou is a minor comic relief character in a movie about Belle and the Beast falling in love. If this reboot remains true to the original film, he’ll spend most of the movie being the butt of jokes and reinforcing Gaston’s ego, when he gets any screen time at all. The first gay character in a Disney movie doesn’t get to be the hero in his own story — he only gets to be the villain in someone else’s.
Making Lefou gay also plays on homophobic tropes and stereotypes. As was previously mentioned, he’s a short, effeminate man who, according to Condon, is in love with his best friend, Gaston, who is a strong and handsome hunter adored by women and presented as the epitome of heterosexual masculinity. Having Lefou be in unrequited love with Gaston plays on the trope that gay men are predatory and that they are attracted to straight men, especially their straight best friends. Lefou is a laughable, weak and pitiful figure in contrast to the conventionally attractive, strong, talented huntsman that is Gaston. At any rate, according to Buzzfeed, the “exclusively gay moment” that has been getting so much press coverage consists only of Lefou dancing with a man at the end of the film.
I’m still excited to see “Beauty and the Beast.” I’m glad Disney is taking a step forward; today we have gay Lefou, tomorrow we might have a gay character who’s one of the good guys, and someday, maybe, we’ll have a trans lesbian Disney Princess. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that the first gay character in a Disney movie is an obsessive sidekick with little screentime who was already coded as gay in the source material. Disney could have chosen to gender-bend either Beauty or the Beast, or make one or both main characters transgender. Changing Beauty and the Beast into Beau and the Beast would be a fitting tribute to the legacy of Howard Ashman, the director of the original animated picture who was also a gay HIV+ man. Instead, we get gay Lefou, a pretty disappointing way for Disney to make cinematic history.