Beauty and the Beast: Is the film’s gay character really as progressive as Disney hopes?

The studio makes an important statement with its latest big-budget offering, but many viewers may come away from the experience somewhat disappointed

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As soon as the revelation arrived that Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast would – as the director exactly stated – feature an “exclusively gay moment”, certain corners of the world seemed to descend into chaos. While the vast majority praised the studio’s decision to finally include an openly gay character in one of its films, there were the inevitable conservative institutions that began frothing at the mouth – including one cinema whose reaction was to cancel all screenings of the film.

The fact that Disney’s statement triggered such shock and horror amongst those stuck in the unfeeling past is perhaps all the evidence needed to prove it’s a historic moment for the studio, and for LGBTQ representation in film at large.

On paper, it certainly feels like a breakthrough, especially for a studio that has been so frustratingly shy about LGBTQ inclusion in its films in the past; restricting representation to small hints and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos, from Finding Dory’s inclusion of two women pushing a stroller to Poe Dameron’s telling lip bite when admiring the way Finn wears his jacket in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. 

Beauty and the Beast is bound straight for momentous box-office success, meaning it’ll be an opportunity for the studio to confirm to the world (and to itself) that, yes, a film can include openly gay characters without suffering any negative financial impact. Even Russia’s threats to ban the film won’t be enough to provide any significant dent on the film’s profits, and we all know how well anti-diversity boycotts have gone in the past – remember the one that railed against Rogue One for its diverse cast? Didn’t stop it being the highest-grossing film of last year.

However, those hyped on the idea that Beauty and the Beast is a revolutionary film for the LGBTQ community may end up disappointed by the film’s actual content. The gay character in question is Josh Gad’s Le Fou, the loyal companion to the film’s villain Gaston. What Disney has essentially done here is turned what many had already deemed as subtext in the original 1991 animation (really, he does seem particularly enamoured by Gaston’s “incredibly thick” neck) into more explicit text. 

Yet, the text here isn’t particularly loud or elaborated upon, especially in the light of so many past Disney characters having already been interpreted as gay-coded by audiences: characters like The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, Frozen’s Elsa, or The Lion King’s Scar can be easily read as gay without Disney explicitly defining their sexuality. 

Le Fou’s affections for Gaston are obvious in 2017’s Beauty and the Beast; he’s constantly batting Belle down as an unfit partner for Gaston, while alternately sighing and making goo-goo eyes at the object of his desire. However, his feelings are never vocalised in a satisfying, concrete way, and it's arguable Josh Gad’s exaggeratedly camp performance isn’t much of a progression from the gay-coded characters of Disney’s past. That’s not even broaching the issue that Le Fou’s sexuality is almost entirely played for laughs; specifically in how his wink-wink suggestiveness is entirely lost on the self-centered Gaston. 

New trailer: Beauty and the Beast

Thankfully, Beauty and the Beast doesn’t completely leave Le Fou stranded as a character (*minor spoilers incoming*); he both finds a moment of self-empowerment when he realises the extent of Gaston’s villainy and ditches him to join the inhabitants of the castle in their fight, while also sharing a suggestive glance with another man as they dance together in the film’s final ballroom scene. Yet, these moments are so brief, it’s hard to walk away from the film feeling like Le Fou’s yearnings are granted even half the sincerity of the romance between Belle and Beast. 

It’s the kind of overly cautious step on Disney’s part that undercuts how laudatory their decision was to include a gay character in the first place, since Le Fou’s sexuality is ultimately presented as more of a comic quirk – light, humorous, and ultimately lacking in meaning. Indeed, director Bill Condon (who himself is openly gay) has since underplayed his remarks and labelled the reaction “overblown”, and it’s understandable why. 

Disney’s explicit statement that one of its characters is gay is certainly landmark for a studio which has such a poor track record for LGBTQ characters onscreen, but Le Fou’s characterisation is testament to how much more needs to be done here. We’re a long, long way from having LGBTQ characters lead major studio films, and Hollywood across the board continues to be frustratingly coy; from Captain Sulu’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it husband in Star Trek Beyond to Ghostbusters’ refusal to openly recognise Holtzmann as gay

It’s a constant case of compromise for gay viewers, it seems; either their sexuality is restricted to subtext, or it’s aggressively sidelined to the point it feels essentially marginal. Alien: Covenant appears to tease a same-sex couple as part of its colonisation space crew, but will these characters, for once, be prevented from fading into the background? At the moment, everything feels like baby steps. 

What Disney has done here is important. Standing solidly by their inclusion of a gay character in one of their films – not shooing the whole thing away by claiming it’s “up to a viewer’s interpretation” – will inevitably be a big deal to a lot of people. But, at the same time, the studio’s caution around Le Fou’s depiction proves its not being as brave as it could (or arguably should) be. As with most progressions in Hollywood, Beauty and the Beast is a fairly solid start – but it should only be the first step in a complete revolution. 

Beauty and the Beast is in UK cinemas from 17 March