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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: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.