The studio has promised fans its first exclusively gay moment in the live-action fairytale but that betrays a history of covert messages in its animated films
Its unprecedented for a major studio blockbuster, much less a family film, to pursue the LGBT audience. Gay viewers seeking mainstream self-identification in the cinema have usually had to settle for winking nuances and allusions, or at worst, the more oblivious homoeroticism of sundry Michael Bay-style brawnfests. No more, apparently: in an age when a film as overtly queer as Moonlight can win the establishment honour of a best picture Oscar, a corporation as large as Disney can also finally acknowledge the love that once dared not speak its name.
Well, sort of. A flurry of headlines ranging from the overly enthused to the overly outraged greeted Beauty and the Beast director Bill Condons announcement in Attitude magazine that the Mouse Houses live-action remake of their 1991 fairytale smash would boast the companys first exclusively gay moment. The more we heard about this supposedly startling breakthrough, however, the less encouraging it got. Historys first overtly gay Disney character, it turns out, is LeFou, unctuous manservant to preening, hyper-macho villain Gaston an underling who, in Condons words, on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston.
An obsequious servant who alternates between worshipping and hopelessly desiring his straight master? With a name that translates as madman and has also been used as a gay slur in French? In the reliably aggravating form of Josh Gad? Its not exactly the recognition that gay viewers have been waiting for, even if the finished film gives LeFou the most fleeting of hints at future romance with a kindred spirit.
Condon, a gay film-maker known for such intelligent queer investigations as Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, must realise that this is no giant leap forward for on-screen representation, though credit him for stoking the off-screen conversation on the subject. This week has also seen him advancing the theory, allegedly founded by the 1991 films late lyricist Howard Ashman, that the Beasts story functions as a metaphor for Aids: He was cursed and this curse had brought sorrow on all those people who loved him and maybe there was a chance for a miracle and a way for the curse to be lifted, Condon explains. The phrasing is wince-inducing its fair to say most people with Aids would prefer not to think of themselves as cursed, or indeed as beasts but its a bolder way to queer the material than working a comic-relief subplot around a secondary characters sexuality.
Exclusively gay is a curious turn of phrase, not least when appealing to a community for whom inclusivity has always been a higher priority. One presumes Condons implication is that LeFous desires are unambiguously homosexual, not that theyre identifiable or relatable exclusively to gay viewers. For Disney animation has a long history of LGBT coding, intended and otherwise, that makes Beauty and the Beasts more official gay gestures look rather colourless.
Disney may not have granted a gay identity to any of its characters prior to LeFou, but audiences have been doing so for decades. A quick graze of the internet will provide fan theories to feed any hunches youve long felt about the happy-go-lucky companionship of Timon and Pumbaa, and their effective adoption of baby Simba, in The Lion King or indeed the foppish villainy of the same films Scar, an alpha lion who has never found a mate in the pride. Same goes for Baloo, the nurturing, carefree single bear of The Jungle Book, or the coy, eyelash-batting male skunk who introduces himself to young fawn Bambi with the immortal words, You can call me Flower if you want to. A few playful Disney animators have even teased us with queer allusions of their own: the character design of Ursula, the vampy, spectacularly tentacled sea witch of The Little Mermaid, was famously modelled on superstar drag queen Divine.
Speculating in this manner can be superficial, stereotype-dependent fun but doesnt really get to the essentially queer heart of so many classic Disney narratives, in which socially isolated outsiders yearn either for acceptance or transcendence. Pinocchios dream of being a real boy is a journey of self-actualisation that has prompted many a metaphorical comparison to the coming-out process; the same goes for sweet, sensitive Dumbo, whose chief point of difference from the rest those enormous ears at first makes him a figure of fun for bullying peers, before it enables him to soar.