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.

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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 culture editor of the New Statesman.