If you’ve read my December ‘top 10’ article, you may recall that the majority of the movies I watch are children’s cartoons, and that my family has been playing a game called ‘give all our money to Disney.’ My daughter is two. Disney movies occupy a great deal of my consciousness. On the whole, while I think that Disney films, especially those made in the nineties or later, have a positive impact on children and the world, many are also problematic. It is important that we discuss these problems. It is perfectly fine to enjoy problematic media, for example movies that perpetuate harmful stereotypes, but only if we are aware of the problems and discuss them. The discussions take on even more importance if we chose to share the problematic media with our children.
There has been no shortage of harmful stereotypes in Disney movies over the years, including traditional gender roles, colorism, and some very uncomfortable portrayals of people of color (…and lack thereof. Hey, Disney: consider making a movie that takes place in Africa and actually stars African people. Like, human people. Who are not white. I’ll give you even more of my money, promise). However, one trope that they can’t seem to shake is the ‘queer-coded villain.’ (2)
Disney’s catalog of bad guys is full of effeminate men and strong, single women. Think Scar, Jafar, and Facilier. Think Maleficent and Ursula (who somehow manages to check stereotype boxes for both ‘butch’ and ‘drag queen’). I adore Moana but, given the history, it’s unfortunate that it’s two villains are a powerful female and a male character based on David Bowie. It doesn’t exactly do anything to subvert the pattern, is what I’m saying. Sometimes I find myself asking, “can’t we ever have a straight-coded Disney villain?”
Then I remember that we do.
Beauty And The Beast’s Gaston may not be the only villain without explicit queer coding, but he’s unique in the Disney catalogue in that his very straightness and adherence to gender norms are what makes him so villainous. Gaston is the original Kylo Ren: a man who inserts himself into the female lead’s space, ignoring her signals and insisting that he knows what she wants when he obviously knows nothing of the sort. He is the epitome of masculinity (there’s a whole song about it), and he wields his male privilege as a weapon against Belle and her friends. He doesn’t have any magical powers; what makes him scary is his size and strength and lack of empathy.
I think that the ‘realness’ of the baddie is a large part of what makes Beauty And The Beast so popular, even 25 years on.
Of course, with the live action remake hitting theaters, Beauty and the Beast has been back in the news lately. Specifically, the 2017 film has been making headlines because it features Disney’s first canonically queer character. After a lot of fan speculation about Cogsworth, Disney revealed that the gay character is LeFou, Gaston’s obsequious sidekick. Controversy erupted. Many were outraged at the mere presence of a gay character is a children’s movie; one Alabama theater pulled the showing entirely. (3) On the other side of the ideological aisle, many were thrilled to have a step forward for representation… but not every reaction was positive.
Teen Vogue’s Ryan Houlihan writes about it in his article, “Disney making LeFou gay isn’t the representation I need.” He brings up a number of valid points, including concern that the ‘exclusively gay moment’ touted by Disney will be an afterthought that could easily be edited out, that wouldn’t be as emotionally resonant as the reveal in Laica’s Paranorman. He’s also, understandably, concerned that the first confirmed gay character in a Disney film is a villain. Houlihan argues that Lefou doesn’t break the Disney tradition of queer-coded villains, “he’s simply an admission by the company of what viewers have believed for decades: that if a character is queer, it’s going to be the villain.” (1)
I think that, as Becca Bunch would say, “the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.” For one thing, LeFou as portrayed in the 1991 film doesn’t fit the mold of Jafar and his ilk. He’s short, tubby, poorly groomed, and anything but graceful. There is nothing feminine about him -except for his obsession with Gaston. So, while making him gay doesn’t really affect the ‘villain’ pattern, it at least shows us a very different kind of gay villain, which is worth something. Diversity in representation, even among gay Disney villains, leads to the breakdown of stereotypes.
Furthermore, I believe that it was a good story choice on the part of the writers. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I think there’s a potential for LeFou’s subplot to be interesting and beneficial. There are a lot of things to love about Beauty and the Beast, but, revisiting it as an adult, the thing I love the most is that it focuses on toxic masculinity and how it affects a person. The Beast slowly learns to overcome his toxic masculinity over the course of the film, whereas Gaston acts as a foil/cautionary tale for what happens when a man lets the cultural pressures that come with masculinity take over. I think that sexual orientation, and how it interacts with identity and the societal ideas of what a ‘man’ should be, is a part of the life stories of men all over the world. It’s an idea that deserves to be explored on screen.
Furthermore, I take issue with Houlihan’s assertion that the producers of the live action adaptation, “muddled the issue by making him sexually “confused” – just to hedge their bets.” My last article was on the visual novel Ladykiller in a Bind, and a lot of the conversation around that game is about ‘messy’ queer stories and that they deserve to be told, not censored. Not everyone’s experience is the same. That ‘one day wants to be, next day wants to get with’ feeling that Houlihan references is something that I experience, and that I’m sure a lot of people with same-sex attraction experience. Most importantly, I think it’s a feeling that plenty of young people, still trying to figure out who they are, will identify with when they see the movie.
Finally, I feel the need to point out that Houlihan’s parenthetical comment describing LeFou’s live-action portrayer, Josh Gad, as straight. I’m not entirely sure this is relevant, but more importantly, I’m not entirely sure it’s true. He’s married to a woman (actress Ida Darvish), but I don’t recall ever hearing that ‘straight’ is how he identifies. It seems to me that Houlihan is making a pretty big assumption about the orientation of someone he’s never met. Director Bill Condon describes Gad’s performance as “subtle and delicious.” (4) A friend of a friend even suggested that the entire queer subplot may have been Gad’s idea. While there’s no way to know for sure without being told, it’s possible that he may have been drawing from personal experience.
Houlihan ends his article saying, “Taking a villain that was already coded as gay and letting him finally, blessedly, come out is a step in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to do so that LGBTQ people feel truly recognized, not just pandered to.” I agree. There is a long road ahead, but I’m glad that this story is being told. Back in 2015, Vice’s Hugh Ryan wrote, “Personally, I hope we see more gay villains—just ones who are gay gay. Gay heroes as well, and sidekicks and straight men and bit parts, too. I hope the pansy doesn’t disappear just because he’s a stereotype, but I hope he’s allowed to be more than just a stereotype.“ LeFou shows us that those hopes are starting to come true. At the very least it’s gotten us all talking about queer representation in children’s movies, and that’s worthwhile in and of itself.