There are many thoughtful updates in Disney's newest adaptation of Beauty And The Beast. Belle is still a misunderstood bookworm, but she’s also a fledgling engineer who helps her father build music boxes and designs rigs for her manual chores. The other townsfolk are much more ethnically diverse. This is a fantasy in which all kinds of people are allowed to exist—if only in the background as supporting characters for its white, titular leads.
Of all the changes, though, the one that's generated the most buzz is the sexual orientation of one of the film's lesser villains, LeFou. As in Disney's original Beauty and the Beast in 1991, 2017’s LeFou (played by Josh Gad) is the bumbling sidekick of Gaston, a menacing soldier who wishes to kill the Beast in hopes of winning Belle's affections. But there’s one big difference this time around, which director Bill Condon first revealed to Attitude magazine earlier this year: This LeFou doesn't just like Gaston, he's got a crush on him.
“LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston…He’s confused about what he wants," Condon said. "And that’s what has its payoff at the end, which I don’t want to give away. But it is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.”
To some, this was yet another example of the progressive left pushing the “Gay Agenda,” but for others, a gay LeFou held the promise of Disney updating its canon to tell more inclusive stories. If Maleficent could be reimagined as a feminist icon championing against sexual assault, then perhaps LeFou could, in a small way, be Disney's first step towards substantive, explicitly positive LGBTQ representation (sorry, Jafar).
That was my hope, at least. Then I actually saw the movie and saw just how stunningly bad its queer politics are.
Without radically rewriting Gaston to be anything other than Beauty and the Beast's central evil, there was never going to be a version of LeFou who wasn't, in at least some way, associated with evil. That itself isn't necessarily a bad thing—queer people deserve the chance to be villainous just as much as straight people.
But whereas Condon's description of LeFou's sexuality is frank and impossible to misinterpret, in the movie LeFou reads less as "silly sidekick who happens to be gay" and more like "emotionally repressed henchman who, blinded by his unrequited love, follows a straight asshole in his quest to murder an innocent man." It’s an outdated queer character archetype that feels out of place in a movie that manages to be modern in so many other ways.
At various points throughout the movie, LeFou hints that his feelings for Gaston might be more than platonic through little gestures of affection—a flirtatious wink here, an enthusiastic shoulder rub there—but he never explicitly comes out to Gaston and professes his love for him. Instead, he quietly simpers in Gaston’s shadow while keeping his feelings mostly bottled up, coding gayness as something to hide.
You could argue that Beauty and the Beast is making a comment about queer people’s fear of societal rejection when considering whether they should come out. But that argument falls apart when we remember that there were no multiethnic villages in the French countryside with interracial couples in 18th century France. Beauty and the Beast is trafficking in high fantasy on a number of levels, but when it comes to a gay man’s sexuality, its narrative is retrograde and unimaginative.
While LeFou himself is never given the opportunity to come out to audiences, there is a sequence towards the end of the film that could be interpreted as queer-affirming—or not, depending on how you look at it. During a battle between the Beast’s enchanted servants and a lynch mob of angry townsfolk, a trio of men square up against Madame Garderobe, a magical, singing wardrobe (portrayed by Audra McDonald).
As the three men advance on the wardrobe, she attacks them all with streamers of flowing fabric, wrapping them all up in a flurry of silk. When the fabric falls away, it’s revealed that the wardrobe has forced all the men into dresses. Two of the men run away in terror. But the third man marvels at his new powdered wig, curtseys, and skips away after thanking Madame Garderobe, presumably for giving him the opportunity to dress in a way that makes him feel comfortable.
In a perfect world, that scene would have reflected some sort of character growth for the man, a moment where his gender expression was casually affirmed. Instead, the pacing and framing of the shot make it clear that it’s meant as comic relief; the audience I saw the movie with pointed and laughed.
The Man in the Dress makes the briefest of cameos in the film’s closing as the townsfolk gather at Belle and the (newly transformed) prince’s castle for a ball. The “exclusively gay moment” that Condon hinted at is, all things considered, rather innocuous. As the heterosexual couples swirl across the dance floor, we briefly see LeFou dancing with the Man in the Dress (who is back to dressing in men’s clothing). And then, the movie’s over. That’s it.
Beauty and the Beast is a visually stunning, charming update to its predecessor. But in its attempt to finally represent queer people, it just ends up reinforcing age-old stereotypes.