Saturday, March 25, 2017

The 'Gay Moment' in "Beauty and the Beast" Is About as Revolutionary as Wearing White After Labor Day

The fungal growth of remake-itis at the Walt Disney Company shows no sign of letting up, though, granted, this particular syndrome has a side effect of insane amounts of money. However, the savvily marketed 'controversy' attached to the wholly unnecessary and slavishly devotional Beauty and the Beast remake promised us all inclusiveness for the LGBTQ community in the form of a so-called 'gay moment.'

Okay, we all are aware that Disney isn't exactly a bastion of progressivism. In fact, the company remains one of the most conservative in Hollywood. These gestures towards inclusivity are calculated to increase good publicity, but even if we're willing to be starry-eyed for a moment, these 'moments' are not cutting it, their utter cluelessness obliterating whatever good intentions might possibly have lurked behind them.

Let me explain: LeFou, Gaston's short and fatuously adoring sidekick, has been announced as 'the first canonically gay Disney character' (the fact that Disney refers to its stable of characters as 'canonic' is a subject for another ironic essay). His identity as a gay man is indicated by a few less than subtle gestures, to wit, LeFou is slobbering with unrequited lust for Gaston, a straight man who is also volatile, violent, and abusive to pretty much everyone in his immediate vicinity. He caresses Gaston's shoulders, takes his side when he knows he shouldn't, allowing him to get away with, among other things, attempted murder, and begs to be rescued from a falling harpsichord. When Gaston shrugs him off, LeFou finally realizes that Gaston sucks and falls into the arms of a nameless henchman whose gayness is identified by the pleasure he takes in being dressed and made up as a woman by the talking wardrobe. The last we see of LeFou he is whirling about in the arms of this henchman.

Oh, how problematic this is, let me count the ways. First of all, LeFou's infatuation with a straight man contributes to one of the most deeply entrenched and homophobic stereotypes: that gay men fall in love with straight men. I'm not claiming that this is impossible, but it's not a good beginning for the first 'canonically gay character.' One of the first paranoid claims made by homophobic straight guys is that gay guys will hit on them, the assumption being that a gay guy would somehow prefer to run into a wall rather than seek an actual relationship with someone who shares his interest. This adds LeFou to a long line of unhappy gay male characters, whose unrequited love and apologism for lousy straight men compounds their alienation from 'normal' society and renders them objects of abjection or, at best, pity. Think of Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. Despite his jocularity, LeFou seems pretty miserable.

Second, gayness is aligned here with femininity, lisping, and cross-dressing. These signals are all deeply stereotypical and collapse gayness into maleness that identifies with femaleness. Underlying this collapse is a stringent adherence to absolute concepts of maleness and femaleness, in which gayness must be excluded from maleness. This binary is too strictly enforced to allow for any alternatives and thus gay men are assumed to participate in performed femininity of the most blatantly hackneyed type. A man who enjoys wearing a gown must be gay because otherwise he violates the gender definitions that Disney films, the princess films in particular, cling to with white-knuckled tenacity.

Third, the inclusiveness hardly stretches very far. It's frustrating, if perhaps inevitable, that the first 'canonically gay character' turns out to be a white man, in love with another white man, who ends up with yet a third white man. This is least-common-denominator inclusivity and it rings hollow. This is gayness tamed, an alternate route to monogamy within a strictly paternalistic system. The 'exceptional' is safely nestled in the 'normal.'

In the end though, if LeFou's identity as a gay man feels regressive, it might have something to do with the fact the Disney 'canon' is replete with queer narratives and characters that seem obviously queer. There is a reason why Disney films have a central place in the queer cultural pantheon and much of this has to do with the fact that nearly all of the films are about characters that don't fit in in the places where they are told to be. Some of those characters take on obviously queer dimensions, like Mulan, Ursula, Captain Hook, and the Reluctant Dragon, and others more subtly so, but the truth is that in framing LeFou as 'canonically' gay, his gayness has been stripped of any transgressive meaning. LeFou, like all of the other characters in Beauty and the Beast, is swiftly coupled up, his happy ending the exact mirror of Belle's: inclusion in a strict social order that forbids deviation from particular models of living.

Belle's feminism, if one can even call it that, is a band-aid feminism. It allows for certain declarations of independence, few of them reflected in her actions, but Belle's yearning for adventure is translated into duty-bound obligations to the men in her life. Her fate is to marry into the aristocracy, her desires for experience and excitement carefully corralled into a matrimonial aspiration, perhaps based on love, but one that precludes most possibilities for her.

As the couples dance in romantic pairings at the end of the film, Belle with the Beast, Lumiere with Plumette, a miserable Cogsworth with the town battleaxe, the wardrobe with the harpsichord, and so on, LeFou is enfolded into this Noah's Ark society. A gay man can officially exist in a Disney film, but only as a gay man who essentially wants the same things that straight men and women are required to want in a patriarchal society. This is gayness domesticated, gayness that stays neatly within the boundaries of conservative respectability.

However, this movie is very explicitly and carefully set in France in the 1770s. The royal love-nest is going to be awfully uncomfortable for all of its residents come 1789...

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