Wednesday, March 22, 2017

New, and a Bit Alarming

I usually shy away from latest pop culture faux outrage war distractions. Who cares about red Starbucks cups or the Ten Commandments in courthouses except journalists who need to fill airtime and column length? But yes, I will delve into this one.

Beauty and the Beast was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. It’s my favorite Disney film; I still want that library. So I was already trepidatious of the announcement of its live-action remake. I don’t need a realistic-looking candlestick or Belle’s mother’s backstory; I have the classic. And yet the nostalgic millennial in me wants to see that ballroom scene anew. So as the release date got closer, I expected the usual debate: do we really need to be remaking the classic Disney films? Yet, that wasn’t the debate I got.

Instead the debate was about Disney’s first “openly gay” character and his “gay moment” and the boycotting of the film based on that. First off, I doubt that it is indeed Disney’s first openly gay character. Characters sexual interests aren’t always on display in children’s film, seeing as they have nothing to do with the plot (Frollo et al offering exceptions). It certainly, in my opinion, isn’t the first Disney film to have a gay character. As for first “openly gay?” Maybe, depending on what one has to do to qualify as “openly.” But it seems regressive to blatantly single out that aspect of the character and call that monumental.

Second, they picked the wrong character to make gay. When I heard there was a gay character, I immediately thought it would be Cogsworth. Why? No particular reason. But there is no particular reason to make any side character gay. LeFou is Gaston’s sidekick, the dorky comic relief to the villain (my opinion on whether Gaston is a villain notwithstanding). He greatly admires Gaston and wants to be like him and follows him around, hoping to receive some Gaston’s greatness by proximity. Some people have interpreted his admiration of Gaston as sexual attraction since 1991. And I think it’s a valid interpretation. I think it’s plausible. But it’s better character development if he’s not.

If we're going to explore a side character, wouldn't be more interesting to have a character struggling with never being popular/strong/handsome enough and dealing with the jealousy and idealization he has for his friend? And how does Gaston react, helping the poor guy or basking in the power he holds over him? My problem with LeFou’s added open gayness isn’t the normalizing of homosexuality or a studio pushing an agenda and evangelicals getting over-reactionary (haven’t they supposed to have been boycotting Disney since the ‘90s anyway?). My problem is that an interesting interpersonal dynamic is reduced to sex. Again.

Our culture sexualizes everything. Two people can be friends, but if they are too friendly, then it is sexual. Intimacy is a sign of sexual feelings; it is assumed everyone is repressing or expressing attraction. LeFou can’t have an obsessive admiration for another man without it being sexual. This over-elevates sexual attraction to the height of relationship. And it undermines other interpersonal dynamics of intimacy, kindredness, and friendship. A true friendship is deeper and more intimate than plain sexual compatibility. Our culture does not value intimate friendship. Deep, platonic love doesn’t sell.

Beauty and the Beast departed from the Disney formula in a major way: Belle and Beast did not like each other at first. In fact, they hated each other, and had an unhealthy, uneven power dynamic. They develop a friendship. They sacrifice for one another. And then they fall in love. The romance is slow and rooted in friendship. (Compare it to Little Mermaid, which came out just two years earlier. Arial and Eric fall in love without even talking.)

I want more movies that value platonic soulmates. I want characters who love one another and are the most important person in each other’s lives and who have zero sexual interest. I want friendship properly valued and celebrated. I want sexual interest to be only a component of a deeper relationship, and I want romance to grow organically.

I know that’s a lot of ask of a Disney children’s film. But children’s films often tackle heavy issues. And they reflect the values of the surrounding culture, which is why it’s so disheartening to see the sexualization of a character that need not be sexualized. After all, who needs superfluous sexual desire when there’s “far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, [and] a prince in disguise?”

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