We convened two Slate writers to dissect Beauty and the Beast’s ballyhooed “exclusively gay” moment and the ensuing fallout. Their conversation follows.
Jeffrey Bloomer: Sorry, David, but I need to lock you in my castle to discuss a matter that Bill Condon, Josh Gad, and especially Disney wish we would just forget: the “exclusively gay” moment in the new Beauty and the Beast. The one where LeFou, the bumbling sidekick to beloved villain Gaston, becomes the supposed first gay character in a Disney movie. Be my guest?
David Canfield: I suspect that Condon et al. would rather we talk about the film’s undercurrent of bestiality at this point. But certainly!
Bloomer: A few weeks ago, Condon made presumably inadvertent headlines around the world by suggesting to Attitude, a British gay magazine, that LeFou would be in love with Gaston in the new movie. And not in a coded way: LeFou would actually be gay. This was a break from Disney tradition, which is to be as gay as possible without acknowledging it. Cue ire from Alabama drive-ins and Malaysian censors.
I think there are two items to discuss here: the movie itself and the comically overblown reaction. The first conversation should be short, because when it becomes to the movie, there’s not much to dissect.
Canfield: Yes—the “moment” itself is either hilariously brief or insultingly fleeting, depending on how you feel about how Condon hyped it up and then quickly walked it back. It consists, for a second or two, of LeFou (Josh Gad) accidentally in the embrace of fellow Gaston henchman Stanley (Alexis Loizon) as they dance during the film’s grand finale. That’s basically it, but it’s the culmination of brief teases for both characters: At one point, Mrs. Potts tells LeFou he “deserves better” than the villainous Gaston, while a key scene finds Stanley elated when the Wardrobe forces him into a ball gown. The queerness is more explicit than you might expect, and there’s some benefit to this unexpected visibility, I’d wager.
But then there’s the flipside: LeFou is the comic relief for much of his screen time, and it feels as if Condon treats his gayness as a punchline. Which seems counterproductive, to say the least.
Bloomer: Right: It’s hard to separate buffoon LeFou from gay LeFou, and the movie often conflates the two. LeFou is the sad gay guy who falls in love with a jocular straight guy and then sings about it. When talking about ambiguous characters in movies like this, I’m often accused of imposing an agenda where there is none, but I was surprised to find that Gad—and Condon—play this in a pretty blatant way. There are some explicit winks, like the strange bite mark he flashes from Gaston, and also Gad’s general, Broadway-inflected flamboyance, which honestly felt over the top. My audience laughed awkwardly at each eyebrow flutter and hip shake, as if to say: We get it, he’s gay. That said, I found the pervasive queer vibe of the character to be a surprise, and overall, I’m inclined to see all the hijinks as a good thing. It’ll be a while before a young prince marches into a haunted castle searching for the boy he’ll love one day, but I’m not bothered by how Beauty and the Beast took up its particular gay agenda.
Canfield: I’m with you there. I was most encouraged, actually, by the snippet involving Stanley, which provided a nice gender-bending tease. For all the talk around LeFou—and I agree wholeheartedly that the flamboyance was excessively played up—Stanley’s update was the real surprise, even if he remained a background character and his moment was equally minor. Put another way: Given the very standard, slightly patronizing gay reading of LeFou (so many longing glances!), it was nice to see the movie expand its queer boundaries a little there.
But enough of what actually happened in the movie—on to the premature reaction! I can’t deny that I would have seen the film very differently had Condon not set himself up for such a backlash.
Bloomer: Yes. In an era when many blockbusters have real, breathing (if barely out) gay characters—Independence Day 2 and Star Trek Beyond, for recent examples—Condon’s self-congratulation in the gay press seems ridiculous. You might argue this is more a milestone because Beauty and the Beast is a Disney movie or it’s targeted toward younger viewers, but: not really. This feels more like the now-standard Disney practice of slipping in jokes for older audiences that will fly over kids’ heads.
Canfield: What’s really frustrating about this is that Condon both oversold and undersold his depiction of LeFou’s sexuality. On the one hand, yes, he needlessly amped up the moment. But as you smartly pointed out, the movie itself is actually richer in its gay content than I’d expected. It does some smart things and takes some significant strides, so it’s puzzling that Condon chose to single out a scene that’s neither commendably nor “exclusively” gay. For me, it was most disappointing to see that he considered such a slight queer nubbin—even by the film’s standards!—to be worth celebrating at the expense of the more significant, surprising stuff. It matters what blockbuster directors like Condon consider “important.”
Bloomer: Leaving aside Condon, what’s your read of how LeFou himself, Josh Gad, has become haughty at any mention of this, notably when he dodged a question about marriage equality in Australia?
Canfield: That flub was ridiculous. I was speaking with some friends who took the position that he was right to stay out of a “political situation,” but if you’re an ally—and Gad has proudly identified as one for a while now—marriage equality is not some thorny international issue to dance around. I’m not sure what would stop him from advocating for that baseline of queer allyship, but it’s not worth excusing, even (especially?) if he was taking his instructions from publicists.
Bloomer: On that note, Luke Evans, who plays Gaston, has said he thinks the gay read of LeFou and Gatson’s dynamic is wrong altogether. Which is awkward for an entirely different reason: In 2011, the gay media had some … thoughts when Evans’ publicists appeared to force him back into the closet after he confirmed he was gay in a 2002 Advocate interview. Evans retreated right around the time he seemed poised to become an (openly gay) action star in movies like The Immortals and Fast & Furious 6. Dare we even go there?
Canfield: Jesus, yes, what to make of Evans’ read of the LeFou/Gaston relationship? I’d rather not speculate on whether his own repression manifested into his repressive take on the characters—though I guess I kind of did there—but I remain stumped by his thoughts. It’s funny: This all started because Condon dared to highlight the movie as relatively gay-friendly for Disney, which is probably true. But he, Gad, and Evans now seem determined to avoid these conversations. Why? They’re running away from the movie’s (very tame) LGBTQ content, which seems pretty pathetic to me. It undermines whatever small steps forward this Beauty and the Beast may have taken.
Bloomer: If there is one entity to praise, it might be Disney, which, amid the unwanted controversy, stood by the movie and refused to cut the scene for Malaysian censors. (The censors had threatened to block the movie’s release there.) Malaysia is a tiny film market, but 20th Century Fox apparently removed a chaste gay embrace from Independence Day 2 to appease the country last summer. Disney’s firm posture wasn’t a given. And on Tuesday, it appeared those censors had backed off, allowing the film to screen unaltered. That’s not nothing.
Canfield: It’s a victory, no question. While it’s true that Beauty and the Beast was primed to break box-office records and inch toward $1 billion worldwide with or without Malaysia’s help, there’s something to be said for Disney standing firm.
But let’s not be too hard on Condon. He botched his own handling of this, to be sure, and initial speculation over “the moment” could only get us so far. But he also helped spark deeper discussions around inclusion—not just about the presence of an explicitly gay character in a blockbuster release but about what our expectations can and should be in 2017. Condon bragging about his film’s tiny moments indicates his own expectations are too low. Yet the movie itself—and Disney’s steadfast handling of it—suggests that we really are moving forward in how LGBTQ stories can play on a mainstream scale. The debate seems to have evolved.
Bloomer: Very magnanimous, David. I release you from the castle for now, but don’t stray too far. I hear there are wolves out there, and possibly a gay Power Ranger. Please visit me soon.