Today, with much glee and back-patting, Disney announced that their upcoming live action version of their animated version of Beauty and the Beast would feature a gay character: the villain Gaston’s goofy sidekick, LeFou.
Disney has, arguably, had gay villains for decades. Many others have written about the way classic bad guys like Scar, Jafar, and Ursula have been coded queer– though of course, they never have real romances, so it’s easy to deny. But LeFou, we are assured, will have an “exclusively gay” scene– whatever that means.
I’m not usually one to critique the politics of a movie before it comes out. Just because something seems regressive or uncomfortable in a capsule summary doesn’t mean it actually plays out that way. But Disney is remaking their own movie: we already know the plot, and among other things, it’s safe to assume that, like in the animated film, Gaston dies. So this “exclusively gay” moment is probably not a double wedding.
But even if LeFou somehow gets the (misogynistic, abusive, self-centered) guy in the end, the rest of the story he’s telling is nothing we haven’t seen before. It is, arguably, the most well-trodden and cliche image of gay characters in cinema: the goofy, slightly pathetic guy who is secretly, piningly in love with his best friend.
One example is a lesser-known Cary Grant film, one of his first, called Holiday. Cary Grant plays a young man who is engaged to one woman, but falls for her livelier, less conventional sister. On the eve of Grant’s engagement party, the sister (played by Katharine Hepburn) gets drunk and melancholy and allows her brother Ned to guess at her feelings for their sister’s fiance. Ned (played by Lew Ayres), who has spent most of the movie swanning around drinking too much, offers a startling commiseration: “It’s hell, isn’t it?”
It goes without saying that Ned does not end up with Cary Grant, or anyone else.
Depending on how you want to read it, you can even go as far back as Shakespeare: poor old Antonio in Twelfth Night gives him his ship, his money, and his freedom so that he can follow Sebastian through Illyria. Poor old Antonio in the Merchant of Venice does more or less the same thing for his Bassanio to travel to Belmont.
Or we can look more recently: Janice Ian in Mean Girls is repeatedly shamed for appearing to inhabit this role, and though the accusation is intended to be proof of the self-centeredness of the accusers, it’s also proof of the durability of the lovelorn sidekick stereotype. It is, after all, an easy way to establish that a character is indeed gay without having to give them an actual romance. And it’s also a stereotype that has been used as ammunition for mockery and abuse for countless queer and straight kids who are perceived to be too close to or too affectionate with their friends.
Given that most of these stories end with the queer character being roundly rejected, perhaps LeFou getting a fairy tale ending of his own would be a positive change (if that is indeed what “exclusively gay moment” means). But happy ending or no (and a happy ending that would either depend on him hooking up with the aforementioned abusive misogynist, or with a completely random character made up for the purpose), we’ve had plenty of gay LeFous. We’ve had plenty of gay sidekicks whose feelings or mannerisms are played for laughs, whose relationships are considered good enough for a joke or a subplot but not for the main event.
For the first time, the Oscar for Best Picture went to an LGBTQ-themed film. There is increasingly vibrant LGBTQ representation across film and television, including at least two animated children’s shows that have respectfully and explicitly depicted lesbian relationships. It’s insulting to be asked to applaud such a cliche, token effort.