Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast, which hits theaters nationwide on March 17th, looks primed to be a delightful update to the classic animated tale. And with Tuesday’s news that the film’s director has cast Gaston’s sidekick, Le Fou, as a sexually confused man possibly in love with his buddy, it’s been catapulted into newly political territory, quickly becoming a figurehead in the ongoing political fight for LGBTQ representation in media.
“LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston,” director Bill Condon told the UK’s Attitude magazine. “He’s confused about what he wants. It’s somebody who’s just realizing that he has these feelings. And Josh [Gad, who plays Le Fou] makes something really subtle and delicious out of it. And that’s what has its payoff at the end, which I don’t want to give away. But it is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.” The move comes as a reinterpretation of the story by Condon (who is openly gay), possibly in light of the fact that Howard Ashman, the original film’s gay co-songwriter, was dying of AIDS while working on the original.
Condon’s announcement that there will be an “exclusively gay moment” in a Disney film is historic, but it’s been a long time coming. (Full disclosure: Disney is an investor in VICE Media.) Pressure has been building from fans and media watchdog groups for more LGBTQ content in children’s movies for a while, and Tuesday’s announcement comes a little late for the industry as a whole. While it’s nice that we’re no longer tiptoeing around the idea that children’s movie characters can be gay, studios and those involved in their projects have a lot more catching up to do.
Just last year, Disney subsidiary Pixar’s Finding Dory turned heads when the film’s first trailer was released. Fans barely caught a glimpse of what could maybe possibly be a lesbian couple—a shot of two women with a stroller walking through a park—but that was enough to launch them into a frenzy. USA Today asked the film’s co-director Andrew Stanton if the rumors were true, a question he evaded by answering, “They can be whatever you want them to be. There’s no right or wrong answer.” When prodded further, a producer added, “We never asked them,” referring to the imaginary couple themselves. Upon the film’s release, fans were disheartened—unfortunately, that ephemeral moment in the trailer was the only sighting of the two women in the film. (Disney did not respond to VICE’s request for comment.)
Even Ellen Degeneres, one of the most notable out lesbian figures in entertainment and a star of the film, has dodged the question. When asked about it in a press conference, Ellen chalked it up to a bad haircut. “Just because someone has a short, bad haircut doesn’t mean she’s gay,” she said. Disney’s 2013 film Frozen also had characters that sparked gay rumors. Jennifer Lee, the writer and co-director of that film, ducked similar questions about their sexuality.
Playing it safe is an in-house trick at Disney. In May of 2016, Frozen fans launched the social media campaign #GiveElsaAGirlfriend, in which they demanded the film’s protagonist, Elsa, be the first lesbian princess in Disney history. The hashtag surfaced after Walt Disney Studios released 11 films in 2015 with zero LGBTQ characters, prompting LGBTQ media watchdog GLAAD to give them a failing grade in their annual Studio Responsibility Index. GLAAD noted that Walt Disney Studios had the “weakest historical record when it comes to LGBT-inclusive films” of all studios tracked by GLAAD’s yearly report, first launched in 2012.
While Elsa’s voice actress Idina Menzel expressed her support for the campaign, Disney refused to address it head on; when asked by The Washington Post about it, the company merely stated that “[Disney] has always been inclusive, with stories that reflect acceptance and tolerance and celebrate the differences that make our characters uniquely wonderful in their own way.”
Though uncommon, LGBTQ characters aren’t completely nonexistent in children’s movies—but by and large, when they exist, it’s their films’ directors and performers who are filling in gaps in fan curiosity. There was Zootopia, the 2016 Disney hit which won Best Animated Feature at the 2017 Academy Awards. When prompted on Twitter about a fan theory that two minor male characters in the film were in a relationship, Jared Bush, the film’s director, tweeted that “they are a gay married couple.” Then there’s Gobber the Belch, a Viking character in DreamWorks Animation’s 2014 film How to Train Your Dragon 2. That film’s director, Dean DeBlois, also confirmed that Gobber was gay. As an innocent bystander during a public marital dispute, Gobber quips, “This is why I never married. This and one other reason.”
DeBlois’ confirmation is proof that Disney is far from the only studio facing an LGBTQ problem. Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me franchise and Blue Sky Studios’ Ice Age films, to take two prominent examples, also lack gay characters. And in both Zootopia and How to Train Your Dragon 2, no mention was made in the actual film about the nature of those characters’ sexuality. It was the directors of these films, rather than the studios themselves, that have had to rise up to address public clamoring for some—any—shred of tangible LGBTQ identity, and that’s almost always the case. A notable exception can be found in Mitch, a jock voiced by Casey Affleck in the 2012 LAIKA animated film ParaNorman, who was largely noted as being the first out LGBTQ character in a mainstream children’s movie. That remains a rarity, and that it was released by Focus Features, a major indie presence in Hollywood, is telling.
“LGBTQ representation in all-ages programming is incredibly important,” Megan Townsend, Entertainment Media Senior Strategist at GLAAD, told VICE in response to Disney’s announcement. “These portrayals both help real LGBTQ youth to recognize they aren’t alone, and know their identity is valid when they see someone they can recognize themselves in on screen, creating a safer environment for LGBTQ young people to be authentically themselves.”
But why the decision to do this now, as opposed to in years past? Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, chalks it up to money. In an interview last year with The Hollywood Reporter, Ellis noted, “When you look at the global market, so many of the big studios look to the international box office, and there are a number of LGBT issues abroad, so they want to be careful not to be cut out of countries.” She’s not wrong: Frozen is the 9th highest grossing movie of all time. Universal’s Minions and Disney Pixar’s Toy Story 3 both grossed over $1 billion worldwide. But according to Townsend, the hesitance major studios feel is outdated. “If the film industry wants to remain competitive and relevant, they must begin to embrace new stories which authentically reflect the world the audience knows,” she said.
Beauty and the Beast‘s portrayal of an LGBTQ character is undoubtedly monumental. But it’s a lack of forthrightness on the part of all ages film studios leading up to this moment that makes it so, and that doesn’t make it great.
Follow Jillian Gutowitz on Twitter.