When Disney announced that Beauty and the Beast would feature their first openly gay character, the response on social media was explosive. Many fans were excited to finally see some diversity in a company that has recently come under fire for exclusionary practices.
Others were apprehensive. They wondered whether the character, LeFou, would be portrayed accurately or would enforce negative stereotypes.
Well before the film even came out, people worried that LeFou’s sexuality would be the butt of the movie’s jokes. Additionally, there was concern that the character, regardless of his sexuality, would be portrayed negatively because of his role in the story as the antagonist’s sidekick.
These concerns were valid. After all, Disney has a history of queer-coding villains (Ursula, anyone?). There is no doubt that the company has had a complicated relationship with many minorities during its long history.
Now, it was one thing to see those reactions before the film came out, because it was all based on speculation back then. I was still hopeful that Disney would get this character right. However, after Beauty and the Beast premiered, I saw more of the same complaints online and was disappointed.
Still, I figured I’d better go see it for myself, and I was surprised by how tastefully LeFou’s sexuality was portrayed.
Admittedly, I’m not sure whether their attempt to make him a more active character paid off, because his role in the story felt a bit forced. However, giving him a half-baked redemption arc in which he realizes that Gaston is wrong was far preferable to him ending up sad and alone and evil or, worse yet, killed off.
Let’s back up a bit. In the beginning of the film, LeFou is clearly crushing on Gaston. Now, showing a gay character unrequitedly in love with a straight guy isn’t ideal. However, the references to LeFou’s feelings at the beginning of the film aren’t overt, and they don’t frame him as a pathetic gay guy who audiences should be laughing at. Instead, jokes about his pursuit of Gaston’s romance are appropriate and funny.
They add a dimension to his character that was absent in the original film: He doesn’t just mindlessly serve Gaston. Instead, he is a bit wrapped up in his feelings at the beginning and slowly comes to realize, after seeing Gaston abuse Belle’s father, that his pursuits might be misguided.
I was also pleased that he didn’t embody gay stereotypes that have become pervasive in television and film. He wasn’t a queenie, effeminate character, the type the straight audiences immediately know to be wary of, the type whose sole function in the story is to be gay and get straight audiences to laugh at their gayness.
Instead, LeFou was an actual character who played a role in the story and was comprised of complexities beyond a reductive stereotype of sexuality.
There were many ways that Disney could have brought diverse queer identities into Beauty and the Beast. For many, making the villain’s sidekick gay was insufficient, and I agree: Disney shouldn’t consider LeFou the pinnacle of their efforts for diversity.
For one thing, I’m tired of seeing straight actors play queer characters. As well-suited as Josh Gad was for the role, I want to see those opportunities given to queer actors. Disney could also use their massive influence in the industry to influence or enact any changes towards better diversity without much risk to themselves, yet they are applauding themselves for one minor gay character.
However, as fun as it might be to imagine Cogsworth and Lumiere as a domestic gay couple or wonder how much better the story would have been with a lesbian beast, these aren’t realistic first steps.
That’s really what LeFou is: a first step. I’d like to see this small representation in Beauty and the Beast lead to more representation later down the line. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction, and queer communities should be encouraging Disney to follow that step.
Slamming them for every small mistake will only discourage them altogether. We should be holding them to the standards we expect as consumers while also letting them know that we appreciate the attempt.
LeFou’s sexuality certainly came out better than it could have, and it’s up to queer communities to let Disney know that, while they still aren’t perfect, they are getting there, making efforts to do better. And they deserve credit for that.