The LGBTQ artists that made the Disney Renaissance deserve better
This week’s Beauty and the Beast will feature Disney’s first openly gay character — but the excitement that followed director Bill Condon’s announcement quickly turned to frustration on the realization that this character would be Le Fou, Gaston’s bumbling sidekick. Many have asked for years that Disney include an LGBT character in one of its films, which doesn’t seem too farfetched given Disney’s number of LGBT artists, but the company is still dragging its feet on inclusion where its competitors have excelled. The announcement that the nearly one-hundred year old company’s first openly gay character would be a villain’s foolish accomplice was underwhelming and somewhat offensive.
This isn’t the first time Disney has placed LGBT characters as the enemy. (Though this isn’t just Disney — the trope has existed for years and transcends hundreds of different mediums.) The queer-coding of Disney villains has been under debate amongst Disney fanatics for years, with Jafar of Aladdin and Scar from The Lion King as two commonly-cited examples. While never directly stated, many of these villains have been drawn and voiced to mimic the body language and manner of speech of stereotypically feminine men and drag queens. The Little Mermaid’s Ursula has a resemblance to the famous drag queen Divine that’s been remarked upon plenty — even by her creators. As many still equate femininity in men with homosexuality, equating it with villainy as well sends an odd and damaging message to children.
It’s not a wonder that some queerness has slipped into Disney films over time, with many of their animators and character designers being gay men, like Andreas Deja, the supervising animator for Scar, Jafar and Gaston. Many of the classic animated films of the Disney Renaissance, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, were released during the height of the AIDS crisis. All of these films had gay men working as animators, character designers, and songwriters on them.
That includes Howard Ashman, who wrote the lyrics for many of the musical numbers, including Beauty and the Beast. Ashman even received an Academy Award for the film’s title song posthumously, after passing away before the film’s theatrical release due to AIDS-related complications. Ashman was one of over 28,000 American citizens who had died from the disease by 1991. His award winning title song, “Beauty and the Beast,” received a new cover by Ariana Grande and John Legend. It, and the rest of his songs, will appear throughout the 2017 remake of the animated film.
Some have highlighted the inclusion of Le Fou being gay as a commemoration of the late Ashman; others have called it an insult to him. One might ask, how does a company honor one of their most awarded lyricists with a throwaway villain’s sidekick? Disney has a history of only lettings “gayness” slip in when it’s portrayed through villains.
The original, animated version of Le Fou has already been the subject of a fair share of fan speculation. The bumbling sidekick seems to admire Gaston just a pinch too much. He’s willing to pick up after this man with little payout, and even sings a song admiring his masculinity and physique. Often times, Le Fou’s lyrics, “My what a guy, that Gaston!” in the song “Gaston,” are misheard for, “I want a guy like Gaston!” The late Ashman wrote this track, and much like the other Disney songs he had written, perhaps he put a little bit of himself in there.
During the height of the AIDS crisis, gay men flocked towards their muscular compatriots due to their physique, which was often hoped to be proof that a person was not HIV positive. At the time, there was not yet at test for the virus, and very few knew whether or not they’d contracted the infection. For a gay man who was living with an AIDS-related illness to write lyrics ogling a man’s muscular physique during this particular time in gay history — it’s no wonder touches of same-sex affection might be coded into the song. That, along with a touch of jealousy, as muscularity insinuated good health. “Every guy here’d like to be you, Gaston!” Many gay men affected by the illness would have given anything to be like Gaston.
In this new adaptation, Le Fou seems to have been treated with the same level of openness as Disney films of the early 90s. His “exclusively gay moment” in Beauty and the Beast is the bare minimum. It will go over most audiences heads, unlike the gay moment in Laika’s ParaNorman where Mitch openly states, “You’re gonna love my boyfriend!” ParaNorman was released four years ago.
The Disney label has been one of the slowest family-oriented companies to show prominent LGBT characters in their children’s media, despite their history of working with gay artists. Vaguely coded villains and “could they possibly be…?” is the most audiences are awarded with. In recent years Disney has given only glimpses or odd coincidences with Finding Dory and Frozen or in one episode of Good Luck Charlie, while their competitors include recurring, explicitly LGBT characters. Laika’s ParaNorman, Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe and Clarence, Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra and The Loud House are all popular examples.
Disney has proven several times that it is gay-friendly to its staff and employees, but only behind closed doors. Disney Parks have seemed to support the unofficial Gay Days events by “just happening” to put out rainbow products, but refuse to actually state support on official websites, which it does with Christian events.
This is probably due to fear of backlash from conservative populations — the company more than likely believes if it neither confirms nor denies any claims, than it can’t be held responsible for being too liberal or too conservative. An Alabama theater is already refusing to show Beauty and the Beast because of the recent announcement that Le Fou will have his minuscule “is he or isn’t he?” moment.
But does the multi-billion dollar corporation really hold the small profits it might lose over the safety and sanctity of a minority population that has shared their creative talents with the company for decades? It would be unfortunate if the backlash Disney has received from anti-LGBT groups for such a minimal act of representation forces the company back in the closet. The company have been progressing, just at much slower rate than its competitors.
Disney is still taking baby steps in 2017, while Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and others have pushed much further and have a better handle on brushing off the backlash. For a company with such a history of working with LGBT artists, one would think it would be the first to include some major representation in their family films and TV. Seems gay people will only be a part of Disney’s world if they’re in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments, pigeonholed as villain’s sidekicks.
An interesting read via Polygon – Full