The new version of Disney’s classic Beauty and The Beast is giving us plenty to talk about. After the initial furore of Emma Watson’s under-boob, we’ve now moved on to the film’s inclusion of an openly gay character.
The film’s director, Bill Condon, has been quoted as saying that this is officially Disney’s first openly gay character – the sidekick LeFou (played by Josh Gad) has unrequited affections for Gaston (Luke Evans) but ultimately finds happiness in the final scenes of the movie.
It’s a big move for Disney. While there have been plenty of coded references and signals of gayness in Disney productions throughout the years, it’s a different ball-game when the creative team go on record to articulate that the film includes an openly gay character.
The reaction has been fairly predictable. Russia considered banning the film altogether, but have opted to restrict viewing to people over 16. Malaysia have delayed the film’s release indefinitely – a Disney spokesperson in Malaysia told the BBC that the delay was over concerns regarding the gay character.
Josh Gad has described the representation of LeFou as “subtle but incredibly effective”, in a similar vein Emma Watson spoke up and described Gad’s performance as LeFou as fantastic, praising the way that the relationship between LeFou and Gaston is portrayed: “I think it’s fun, I love the ambiguity there.”
However, I tend to side with Ewan McGregor (who plays the candlestick Lumiere), speaking to Stephen Colbert on The Late Show recently: “If you live anywhere near Alabama, you should not see this film. What would Jesus think? He is a gay character. It’s 2017. For fuck’s sake!”
Having a positive representation of a gay character in a film like Beauty and the Beast may not seem like a big deal – for those of us that live in the UK and other western countries, there’s plenty of examples of fully-realised LGBTI characters in popular culture. But think of it from the perspective of a young person living in Russia, or Malaysia, or other places around the world where being gay is illegal. If you're struggling to make sense of your sexuality, trying to work out who you are, and you’re being told that what you feel and think is wrong or somehow against the natural order, you're going to be feeling isolated and alone.
To be able to see a gay character, on-screen, in a big-budget, mainstream move, to see a gay character just being themselves is incredibly powerful. It's no exaggeration that Josh Gad's performance as LeFou will save the lives of countless young LGBTI people – a character that you can identify with, connect with, engage with, can give you the strength you need to carry on.
LeFou should be celebrated as an LGBTI hero.
Join the conversation about media representation of LGBTI people at Digital Pride's event at the Hospital Club on Sunday 19 March 2017.