In the past week, much has been made of the fact that the Beauty and the Beast live action remake, starring Dan Stevens, Emma Watson, has Disney’s first out-gay character in Gaston’s sidekick Le Fou played by an ultra-flamboyant Josh Gad. From Vanity Fair to the BBC to the furthest reaches of the feminist internet, news of Le Fou’s specifically gay scene (what could it be?) had everyone pretty much losing their shit. The film was going to be a big deal no matter what, of course. But with the teased info of Le Fou’s (“the fool”) outness quite brilliantly flipped the script on what have seemed like a primarily money-making venture. Remaking the Disney classic for 2017 suddenly wasn’t just about raking in those sweet, sweet no$talgia dollars– it was about freeing tortured gay lyricist Howard Ashman’s suffering characters from the prison of subtext.
It might be prudent to point out—as Vanity Fair does—that Ashman was dying of AIDS while writing the original libretto for Beauty and the the Beast.
Like the creator of the now-corporatized Broadway behemoth Rent, Howard Ashman is not here to reap the rewards of his brilliant word. And the world we’re living in now, where it’s fine to be out and proud (sort of) and it’s cool to talk about AIDS (again, sort of) maybe still isn’t the magical, beautiful world Ashman dreamed of. Not yet. We have a chance of getting to that world, I think. But only a chance. And only so long as we don’t waste precious time with patting ourselves on the back.
If you paid any amount of attention to Disney films as a little queer kid, you’ll have noticed something very, very important. In the films starting around 1989 (Beauty and the Beast) to 1997 (Hercules), you can find a number of queer or queer-adjacent characters that are, for all intents and purposes, out there flaunting their stuff. I’m talking about BDSM relationships, from the traditional top-bottom pairing of Lumiere and Cogsworth to the sadistic, larger-than-life drag queen persona of Ursula, to the weirdly elderly threesome of the gargoyles in Hunchback of Notre Dame, kinky queers are pretty much everywhere. And it doesn’t even take a gay kid looking for it to figure that out.
Howard Ashman made most of us pretty damn clear about what those films were all about: They were about being different, being doomed, being a really unpalatable person, physically and emotionally, in a world of people who are similar enough to each other to get along.
Sometimes they stand out because of what they want: Ariel wants to live on land instead of in the sea. Sometimes it’s about what they don’t want: The Beast wants to return to his original form and stop living in a hairy, monstrous, exiled body surrounded by talking furniture and shit. Other times, it’s just about poor and living in a time of prejudice, like Aladdin, who just wants to be seen, for chrissake. Usually what it takes for these poor unfortunate souls to step out of isolation is for someone—usually a sexless, hilarious, clearly gay sidekick and a dour, campy gay villain—to challenge them. And there you have the great formula for the films of the Disney Renaissance—a roughly 10 year period from 1989 to 1998. Ashman died in 1991.
Beauty and the Beast kicked things off in 1989. Four years before, Les Miserables (super gay) had opened on the West End. Four years later, Rent would open on Broadway. Musicals had been gay before and they would be gay again (they never really stopped) but this was the moment when AIDS was becoming something crucial in musicals: A consistent, powerful metaphor. In Beauty and the Beast, lyricist Howard Ashman transposed his own struggle with AIDS onto the character of the hunted beast– transformed by a spell rather than a virus, cut off from the world, feared, and doomed to watch his life tick away as each new petal falls from his enchanted, imprisoned rose.
Now that’s fucking symbolic!
It’s the kind of thing you appreciate—as a queer person—more and more as you grow older. Ashman, by weaving the personal details of his R-rated story into the PG tales of street urchins and mermaids, created a complex, rich set of fables that can never really be translated without being, in some way, ruined. AIDS and gayness infoms the work, but it isn’t the key to the door. The work is too good for that. So to celebrate the remake of Beauty and the Beast in this century for its explicit gayness is really to applaud the least revolutionary thing about it. It’s cutting Ashman out, in a very important way, while celebrating him for a kind of martyrdom he didn’t ask for, and probably would have preferred not to endure. Just like the creator of Rent probably would have preferred not to die before his musical became a Broadway sensation. Just as every other AIDS casualty probably would have preferred to remain part of our world.
Having an out gay character define the legacy of a very in-gay movie doesn’t feel like progress. It feels like erasure. It feels like talking down to a generation of kids who have grown up, and think they’re smarter than they were than they were 8. But they’re not. We’re not.
We’re just older.