It doesn't matter what race, gender, or sexuality you are — as a kid you no doubt consumed #Disney movies with a vengeance. For many (if not most) of us, Disney was a fantasy we lived vicariously through, laughing at the fools, adoring the princesses, and learning the difference between heroes and villains. Disney has built a veritable empire on teaching girls to see themselves as princesses and boys as heroes, capitalizing on our basic human desire to experience stories about ourselves. But what about those of us who don't fit into society's tight boxes?
For decades, #LGBT people have been crying out for Disney to incorporate queer characters into their movies. Last year, GLAAD (a non-profit organization supporting LGBT representation in media) criticized Disney for not representing the LGBT community. And now, finally, queer people will get a Disney character in #BeautyandtheBeast — and believe me when I say this wasn't worth waiting for.
Dropping the news to just as much media praise as Disney no doubt expected, on March 1st, director Bill Condon revealed that Beauty and the Beast's LeFou will be gay in this new version of the classic animated movie.
"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 that’s what has its pay-off at the end, which I don’t want to give away. But it is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie."
Ah yes, just what we always wanted — for the first Disney character to not only be a villain, but a laughing stock, stuck in an abusive relationship with a narcissistic misogynist who berates him one minute and ignores him the next. Oh and to top it off, he's "confused" about his sexuality.
[Updated: 03/17/2017] Now that the movie has been released, we can safely say that the portrayal of LeFou as Disney's first gay character somehow exceeded our expectations — in that he was far more insulting to LGBT people than even we thought he would be.
Josh Gad's simpering LeFou has all the genuine personality of a tired, "musical theater gay" stereotype, amping up the camp just to hammer the point home that even though he isn't allowed to call himself gay, subtext doesn't have to be subtle. Mimicking Gaston's mannerisms, LeFou really does embody the misconception that queer people are unsure as to whether they want to just be the person they're attracted to.
However, LeFou can't really care that much for Gaston, as he switches sides in the final battle to help Beast out instead. This could have actually been an interesting deconstruction of yet another one of Beauty and the Beast's abusive relationships, seeing as Gaston left LeFou for dead minutes earlier, and yet, this opportunity sails past and LeFou's choice is barely explained, making it seem contrived.
As for that big coming out, the "exclusively gay moment" that we were promised, this is mere seconds long and is comprised of LeFou just dancing with a random extra in the film's finale. Oh, and to add insult to insult, the movie explicitly states that LeFou is illiterate — just in case you didn't get from his name that he's a fool.
That's why this character choice isn't just an insult to the queer community, it's also really, really damaging for LGBT children. And the worst thing is, this isn't the first time Disney have pulled something like this.
Coding Villainy As Queer
Let's just get one thing straight (pun not intended). Representation in fiction isn't just about making the story interesting, it's about providing people with characters they can identify with, avatars that act as their representative in the worlds we create. If the first gay character in Disney's cinematic history is a ridiculous antagonist, that's what Disney is saying we are — that queer people are at best "the Fool", and at worst we're the villains.
Annoyingly, this is only the latest in a long, long tradition of coding queer characteristics as intrinsic from villainy. "Coding" is a literature term to describe how various social norms are incorporated into a character without obliquely stating it. So, by giving characters stereotypically gay characteristics (making them effeminate, "camp", dramatic, etc), a narrative can associate this character with queerness in a viewer's mind — and then make any comments about LGBT people that they want to. Disney is definitely guilty of this.
This may seem like conspiracy theory territory, but coding is an established part of fiction writing. You can read more about it here.
The upshot of this? From childhood, we're taught these mannerisms, that being gay, is evil, or at the very least it will lead you to being cast out from society. This kind of oppressive storytelling has hurt the queer community for decades, as when we're children we're unable to think critically or separate social ulterior motives from a story we're presented with.
But all of this is subtextual, so for many people it's a mere association, something that may affect how they see people but it's not an oblique message. Until LeFou solidified the association between being gay and being bad once and for all.
The Damage To Young Viewers
Just for a moment, imagine yourself as a young gay kid. You're just starting to accept who you are, and you're facing a lifetime of prejudice. Then Beauty and the Beast comes out. Now, kids are calling you LeFou (or some imaginatively homophobic play on his name) in the playground, mocking you for being just like that funny, weird, baddie from the movie.
Although LeFou might make the heroic choice in the end, the fact is that he's is a figure to be laughed at. And by making him gay, Disney are associating that ridicule with queer people. The bullying writes itself.
Then there's the fact that the relationship between LeFou and Gaston is far from healthy, which people have already picked up on.
The importance of showing children healthy romantic relationships has been stated over and over again. Even ignoring LeFou's status as a foolish antagonist, the fact that Gaston constantly berates him sends a very disturbing message to queer kids.
And the weird thing is, Disney had the entire cast of Beauty and the Beast to choose from, so why choose LeFou, a ludicrous antagonist, to be their pioneering first gay character? Was this some way to appease the homophobes among their viewers, by shoving the first gay character into the villain category? This is especially strange considering that Cogsworth and Lumière are right there — these are two male characters with a very close relationship, which would be a lovely way to positively introduce LGBT representation to Disney.
But, instead of showing us a longterm healthy romantic relationship between two genuinely nice characters, queer people get LeFou as their representation. Okay. Call me when you've finally got a gay princess Disney, because until then you've lost me.