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Beauty and the Beast: Are we still uncomfortable with gay stories in children’s films?

From Ghostbusters to Harry Potter to Frozen, kid’s films rarely include genuinely thoughtful portrayals of homosexuality.

Unless you’ve been hiding from Hollywood since the Oscars debacle, you’ll know that the new Beauty and the Beast film is released in the UK next week. The actors and directors have been making headlines whilst promoting the latest of several Disney remakes – from Emma Watson’s “hypocritical” tits to Alabaman outrage.

This particular Disney revamp has been selling itself on its progressive credentials. While promoting the film, Emma Watson has spoken at length about the film’s more feminist approach to Belle: she’s an inventor, she doesn’t wear corsets, she’s empowered. There are even featurettes devoted to the concept of the New, Empowered Belle.

The director has repeatedly reffered to Belle as a “21st century heroine”, and some of the film’s new jokes revolve around the other characters stereotyping and underestimating Belle 2.0.

But the film has more than this new Belle to set itself apart from the animated classic. Lefou, the arrogant hunter Gaston's comedy sidekick, is portrayed as a gay character. Speaking to Attitude, director Bill Condon described this as a landmark moment for LGBT representation. “It may have been a long time coming but this is a watershed moment for Disney,” he said:

“By representing same-sex attraction in this short but explicitly gay scene, the studio is sending out a message that this is normal and natural – and this is a message that will be heard in every country of the world, even countries where it’s still socially unacceptable or even illegal to be gay.”

We can all recognise this as, to an extent, a PR stunt: drip-feeding information about the revamped film’s shining moments of inclusion as the release date approaches. Yes, Disney are using gay characters to help sell a film to audiences – isn’t that, in a way, a good thing, showing how far we’ve come?

Perhaps. But retrofitting progressive narratives into the fringes of a heteronormative classic is also a very good way of securing brownie points for inclusion without ever having to put gay characters and stories at the heart of a work for children. (The response to this film’s fleeting moment of man-to-man flirting shows that that would still be a big risk for the studio.)

We’ve seen similar tactics with Kate McKinnon’s character in Ghostbusters, Dumbledore in Harry Potter, Smithers in The Simpsons, Oaken (nope, me neither) in Frozen, and, of course, those random two women on screen for a literal split second in Finding Dory. All these works have sizable child audiences, and all only acknowledge the homosexuality of certain characters retroactively, if at all. Depressingly, it seems we’re still extremely nervous about putting gay people on screens where children might really see them.

The new Beauty and the Beast does frame Lefou as gay (though Condon’s use of the word “explicitly” seems a stretch, as neither Lefou nor anyone else discusses his feelings in unambiguous terms). But his storyline is a marginal one, played mostly for laughs. Lefou comically pines after Gaston in the film’s opening scenes, and, after breaking free of this obsession towards the end of the movie, finally flirts with another man – dressed in comedy drag – during the feel-good final dances. In terms of representation, his characterisation is hardly ground-breaking. Josh Gad’s Lefou is effeminate and slightly ridiculous, marked out from his dirty, masculine peers by a pristine pink pussy bow. It seems clumsy and 2D.

So, of course, this character cannot withstand the burden placed on it when it is sold as a landmark moment in popular culture. Condon has since tried to distance himself from his own comments: “Oh God,” he said to ScreenCrush. “It’s all been overblown. Because it’s just this… it’s part of just what we had fun with. You saw the movie, yeah? You know what I mean.”

But regardless of whether or not it had been sold as a bastion of enlightenment, there’s an argument to made against updating characters like Lefou. What do we gain from an obsession with remakes that forces us to retroactively bend stories to give the illusion that they fit contemporary social politics? It's not unlike the British TV establishment's fixation on period dramas, which implicitly excludes many of our best contemporary actors.

Surely it would be more productive to lean out away from nostalgia? Insead, film-makers could provide a new generation of children with fantastical stories that still belong to the world they live in. That starts with the idea that homosexuality is more than just a whispered joke.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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