Row over ‘gay moment’ in Beauty and the Beast

Something there: LeFou “wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston.” © Disney

The live-action remake could be the biggest film of the year — but not in Malaysia. Despite the country’s request, Disney has refused to cut its first same-sex subplot. Is it the right call?

It is, as everyone knows, a tale as old as time. A cursed prince. A beautiful, lonely bookworm… And a man who “wants to kiss” his male best friend?

This is Disney’s $300m remake of Beauty and the Beast, which will be released tomorrow. It has already broken records, racking up 127.6m views for its trailer in 24 hours. And last week, director Bill Condon announced that it will include Disney’s first ever “exclusively gay moment”. The brief scene will involve Gaston’s sidekick, LeFou, who is “confused” about his sexuality.

The decision has been praised as a “watershed” moment by many commentators in the West.

But Disney films are watched around the world, and some countries are less pleased. Russia has given the film a 16+ rating. In Malaysia, where homosexuality is illegal, officials requested that the subplot be cut in their version, “because many children will be watching”.

At first it seemed like Disney had agreed. But yesterday it insisted that the film “has not been and will not be cut”. It has now postponed its Malaysian release indefinitely.

For a company known for telling heterosexual love stories, Disney has long been a surprisingly progressive studio. LGBT critics have noted that many characters, from Dumbo to Frozen’s Elsa, are seen as “different” from their peers. They are bullied and repressed until they learn to embrace that difference and fly — sometimes literally.

Beauty has a particularly special place in LGBT film history. Its original lyricist, Howard Ashman, was openly gay. He died of AIDS in 1991, a few months before the animated version’s release.

The film — about a “cursed” man who is shunned by society and is desperate for a cure before time runs out — has been described as Ashman’s “personal story” by its composer Alan Menken.

Considering all this, was Disney right to stick to its guns and refuse to censor its first openly gay character?

Be our gayest

Yes, say some. It is 2017 after all. Some characters are gay; Malaysia should get over it. Studies suggest that showing LGBT people on screen can help to reduce prejudice in the real world. That is why it is so important to include all types of people in children’s films. If anything, Disney should try even harder. When will we see the first gay Disney princess, for example?

Countries like Malaysia are simply not ready, say others, and we shouldn’t force them to be. They only asked to cut four-and-half minutes. Surely that is better than not showing the film at all? After all, western tourists are used to covering their shoulders or wearing headscarves when travelling abroad, even if they do not agree with local customs personally. Why should entertainment be any different?

You Decide

  1. Should Disney have agreed to cut its first “gay moment” in Malaysia?
  2. Will there ever be an openly gay Disney princess? (Or prince?)

Activities

  1. With a partner, list three LGBT characters whom you have seen on film or TV, and discuss whether they changed your perceptions.
  2. Produce a storyboard for a new children’s film, in the style of classic Disney, that you would like to see.

Some People Say...

“Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives.”

Walt Disney

What do you think?

Q & A

A side character with a crush doesn’t seem like a big deal…
To most modern Western audiences, it is not — they have become used to seeing far more explicitly gay characters on screen. But these are noticeably absent from children’s films. When ParaNorman (made by an independent studio called Laika) included a gay side character in 2012, there was an uproar among concerned conservatives.
If Disney is so progressive, why has this taken so long?
Partly due to money — the inclusion of anything too controversial could mean a direct hit on takings at the box office, so Disney has been making one small step at a time. But it has recently stepped up its efforts to include more diverse characters. It created its first black princess in 2009, and its first Polynesian princess last year with Moana.

Word Watch

$300m
The film cost $160m to make, and has a $150m marketing budget. It is expected to earn at least $120m this weekend.
Russia
In 2013 the country banned the promotion of “gay propaganda” to minors. Russian MP Vitaly Milonov urged the government to ban the film if it is found to contain “elements of propaganda of homosexuality”.
Version
LGBT characters can be shown in the country, “but only if they are portrayed negatively or repent”.
Howard Ashman
The songwriter also worked on Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. Earlier in his career, he helped to write The Little Shop of Horrors. He won a posthumous Oscar for the song “Beauty and the Beast”.
AIDS
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) can develop in people with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). The virus can be transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse, particularly between men. Thousands died in an epidemic during the 1980s and 90s.
Studies
Edward Schiappa from the University of Minnesota has completed at least five studies to this effect. “These attitude changes are not huge… But they can snowball.”

Subjects