The live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” has been out for less than a week, but even before it hit the silver screen it garnered worldwide praise and criticism for one thing: Disney’s decision to make LeFou canonically gay.
The decision to give a side character in the story an “exclusively gay moment” has already caused the film to be banned from at least one Alabama drive-in theater and made Disney pull all screenings from Malaysia entirely when the company found out that censors had cut the moment from the version that would be showing in the country. It has also caused Russia to restrict those under 16 from watching this movie that was made in large part for children.
Activists and actors like Sir Ian McKellan, a gay man himself, have spoken out against the censors and critics.
“People who don’t like the idea of gay characters appearing in fairy stories should think what they would think if they were gay themselves and why they should be excluded,” McKellan said at the film’s New York premiere.
His point gets at the heart of why so many members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies are praising Disney for this move. Despite an upsurge in the cultural acceptance of LGBTQ+ folk, the community is still very under-represented in the media, especially in the realm of complex characters who are not stereotypes or the butt of a joke.
Hopefully, the Lefou in this version of “Beauty and the Beast” is the beginning of more explicit representation from Disney and other production companies that may follow suit. Explicitness is crucially important in LGBTQ+ representation. It is easy to watch the animated version of “Beauty and the Beast” and speculate that Lefou might “play for the other team” and have a crush on Gaston. There is plenty of subtextual evidence suggesting that.
The problem with having potentially not-straight characters’ sexualities only hinted at subtextually is that people who don’t want, say, animated Lefou to be gay don’t have to see him that way, and thus production companies can deny his identity to dodge controversy by telling fans of subtextually queer Lefou “you’re reading too much into it.”
Is Lefou the perfect first explicitly gay Disney character? No. He’s the side kick of the main villain of the story. While many think of Lefou as a sympathetic character, he is still in many ways an antogonist, so making him queer is perhaps uncomfortably reminiscent of the tradition of recent films to queer-code their villains.
Essentially, queer-coding means that villains were given affects or lines that suggested they were queer to enhance their deviancy. Scar from “The Lion King,” Hades from “Hercules” and Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” are examples from Disney films alone.
In a perfect world, there would be queer heroes and villains and everything in between. People would not make a distinction as one being more problematic than the other, because in real life queer people are just as complex as non-queer people and film roles would just be reflecting that.
Consider the state of underrepresentation of explicitly queer characters and the tradition of queer-coding though, it would have been nice for a character who is clearly a protagonist to have gotten the first “exclusively gay moment” in a Disney film.
I was personally rooting for #GiveElsaAGirlfriend or for a budding romance between a certain Rebel Alliance fighter pilot and Stormtrooper deserter to be Disney’s first crack at explicit representation (Although I refuse rule out either of these for the future).
Given the international controversy a minor character like Lefou managed to stir up, it may have been prudent for Disney to start small. Making Lefou queer may not have been the perfect first choice in my book, but he certainly appears to be a step in the right direction. Provided, of course, that Disney and companies like it continue to make an effort to make queer people visible in their stories and give them roles that go beyond caricature or side kick.