Beauty and The Beast – A queer storm in a teacup and another opportunity missed

I’ve always had a soft spot for Disney movies, I supposed because I was raised on them, and I’ve carried my love of fantasy and fairytale with me into adulthood. As I’ve got older though I’ve had to face up to the fact that some of my favourite childhood classics are deeply problematic (the opening song in Aladdin or the entirety of Pocahontas for example), so when I heard that there was going to be a live-action remake of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ I was skeptical but intrigued.

Disney have been taking small steps to produce more progressive movies in recent years. ‘Inside Out’ is a triumph in addressing the gender imbalance in kids movies and adopts a pioneering approach to encouraging children to talk about their feelings and thus their mental health, and ‘Brave’ and ‘Frozen’, despite some continuing issues represent real examples of films with strong, female protagonists. It is truly my hope that one day, films won’t need to be about ‘strong female’ leads, because their presence will be the norm.

I then found out that Emma Watson would be playing Belle and whilst her feminism is not really my feminism, I was hopeful that someone as outspoken on feminist issues as Emma would bring something fresh and even subversive to the role. Then last week, I started to see rumours circulating on the web that the movie would feature a gay character; at last I thought, some meaningful LGBT representation in mainstream cinema! Across the deep South of America the movie was being pulled, Malaysia too has said the film must be edited before release (kudos to Disney for refusing) and a general conservative stink was rising; generally a good sign; if the conservatives are pissed then something wonderful must be happening somewhere!

**Spoilers to Follow! **

Now, the storyline for B&tB is fundamentally problematic to begin with;

  • Pretty girl is deemed too weird for her community because she likes books
  • Same pretty girl rebukes romantic advances of odious and abusive good looking man whilst waiting on her father hand and foot like the good girl she is
  • Pretty girl is imprisoned by violent and abusive man (in beast form) but develops Stockholm Syndrome, falls in love with him and does the emotional labour required to ‘save’ him from his beastly imprisonment.
  • Film attempts to teach us that love is not about the way a person looks but what is inside whilst simultaneously reminding us that our heroine is a ‘Beauty’.
    • Ergo men can be ugly if they develop kindness, women not so much.
  • Insert happy ending

There was only so much that Disney could do with this basic plotline and I knew this as I bought my cinema ticket last night. I was going in hopeful, but realistically cynical as to how much progress could really be achieved on a storyline which fundamentally documents an abusive relationship.

The film is visually stunning, the music, costumes and performances on point, and the content has certainly been modernised as one would expect following a remake 25+ years after the original, but the modernisation only feels skin deep and kind of cosmetic. The opening scene reveals a much more diverse cast than is present in the animated version, but as the film moves on, it is clear that all of the main cast are white. The most high profile character of colour is the singing wardrobe ‘Madame Garderobe’ who, even when depicted Ikea-style still manages to present a fairly tired caricature of the curvaceous ‘sassy black woman’ despite a strong vocal performance from Audra McDonald.

Attempts are made to make the romance between Belle and the Beast feel more genuine by showing them making each other laugh and sharing a love of Shakespeare, but again these feel superficial and equate to her falling in love with him because he has read things! In truth, though more attention to detail is given here, I am not sure there is anything they could have done to prevent my questioning the authenticity of a romance fundamentally build on such problematic foundations.

Other subtle changes are made too. If memory serves, in the original cartoon when Maurice is sent to a mental institution the term ‘insane asylum’ features more prominently. It can be argued that the term is keeping with the period in which the film is set, but I remain deeply uncomfortable with its use in a film targeted at children. In the remake the terminology is not as strong, and my friend noticed (though I confess I missed) one of the angry villages shouting words to the effect of ‘a hospital surely (would be more appropriate than the asylum)’ which does try to acknowledge the historic barbarism of such institutions. I remain unconvinced though, as we are supposed to feel angry that Maurice is being treated unjustly not because of a poignant commentary on the horrors of mental institutions, but because he is not ‘mad’ so should not be sent there, if he were mentally ill it is implicit that the ‘insane asylum’ would be the appropriate response.

Having heard the rumours about a gay character in B&tB I spent a good portion of the movie trying to work out who it was. It became apparent that people must be talking about Gaston’s sidekick LeFou, not because of any meaningful LGBT narrative, but because he is a bit flamboyant and there wasn’t really anyone else it could be. I think when you go into the movie knowing that there is a gay character, you can read LeFou’s affection for Gaston as mildly homoerotic, but it is so ambiguous that you have to be looking for it in order to see it. At the very end of the film there is a shot lasting no more than 2 seconds of LeFou dancing with a man in a dress (a ‘baddy’ who was ‘attacked’ with women’s clothing but actually appeared to like it, ’cause obviously cross-dressing is hilarious *sigh*), and that was it, blink and you’ll miss it (as my friend and movie companion did). The first ‘openly gay’ Disney movie character is at best, a clumsy, half-arsed stereotype, and at worst, a sad and pathetic loser who tags along with the bully. In reality though, it is neither. The queer content is so minimal and apologetic that it might as well not be there at all. I suppose it is implied that LeFou gets his happy ending with the man in the dress, but if Disney had only made a little more of it they could have projected an earnest message about LGBT folk overcoming hardships, letting queer kids know that ‘it gets better‘. Alas, it feels as though Disney have chickened out before they even really began.

Its frustrating too that Disney clearly didn’t feel able to do more here. They are one of the most powerful media corporations on the planet and if they had wanted to create real LGBTQ content, they absolutely could have done and have the resources to deal with the fallout. I just don’t understand why, when TV has come so far in this regard (think the popularity of Modern Family, or that Jim Parsons is one of the highest paid actors on American television- neither without their problems but both displaying TV’s boldness on queer issues), the mainstream movie industry is lagging so far behind.

I feel like as a queer person, I’m expected to be grateful for the tiny little bone that Disney has seen fit to through our community, and this enrages me more than if they hadn’t bothered at all. They have done less than the bare minimum required to receive a queer pat on the back, and as for those in ‘uproar’ – GET.A.GRIP! The way the right wing have responded, you would think (hope) that they’d given Ellen herself the keys to the storyboarding office at Disney HQ! I left the cinema feeling  sad and disappointed that Disney have missed yet another opportunity to really acknowledge their many queer fans, and bemused by the ‘storm’ which B&tB has caused in conservative teacups across the globe. If those criticising Disney’s ‘blatant homosexual agenda’ really want to see queer then lets give them something truly fabulous to moan about!

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