The dazzling tale of Beauty and the Beast has re-captured the world’s attention with the release of Disney’s live-action re-make. Although the film’s doing great in the box office making almost $877 million world-wide, there are a lot of controversial issues which have sparked conversations about race and homosexuality in Disney films.
The re-make features characters of colour as two iconic pieces of furniture, a wardrobe and a feather duster. Madame Garderobe is played by Audra Mcdonald and Plumette by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. This doesn’t seem to be an issue. The issue is the way Disney is treating this ‘inclusion’ as revolutionary.
Disney misses a crucial component of inclusion and diversity: discourse. Yes, they have included the ‘other’ into a film that was predominantly an all-white animated film. They’ve inserted an official ‘Gay’ character into their film. But that’s all they’ve done. Disney has created visual representation, nothing more, nothing less.
University of Toronto Professor Cheryl Thompson is a Feminist Film Critic. She says the problem with these Disney films is that all the tropes of the white, western culture are still there. The narrative of the film itself hasn’t actually changed in any way, Disney has just inserted diversity.
“The vantage points of the stories really haven’t changed. Faces might be diverse, take Moana- everyone in that movie was brown but you don’t get the specificities of who these people are, and what their culture is,” said Thompson. “The story that was told is no different than the Cinderella story from the 80’s- it’s just now they maybe coconuts instead of apples or pumpkins. The fruits might reflect an exotic land but the narrative is pretty much the same.”
Globe and Mail columnist Nathalie Atkinson is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. Atkinson says Disney is full of stock-characters and stereotypes that won’t ever change. Homophobia, for one, is still used as a punchline in mainstream films.
In The Little Mermaid, Ursula is, as Atkinson says, “this sort of butch character stereotype that does have a precedent in queer culture, as a she-bear, but at the same time she’s just reduced to that.”
The question becomes, is misrepresentation (with increased visibility) better than the absence of representation?
This is a complicated thing to actually give an answer to because on the one hand, people need to be represented to be able to have a voice. But, on the other hand, those same people aren’t controlling the narrative- the voice they’ve been given isn’t their own.
“Media can be liberatory and really uplifting but also really oppressive and dangerous at the same time. One image can do the same thing at the same time,” Thompson said.
Thompson calls this the politics of addition. Disney is just adding the ‘others’ to the ‘pot’. They have simply added a ‘Gay’ character to the movie without really thinking of the type of representation people of the LGBTQ community want.
“Adding a ‘gay character’ to a cartoon while it seems like a step in the right direction, that gay character has to be encoded as gay. It’s going to perform to a lot of those stereotypes that they think about gayness,” Thompson said. “Is that a positive representation of a gay person? If gay people are sitting there thinking ‘well I don’t act like that. Is that for me, or is that for straight people who think they know what being gay is all about?’”
So why is it so hard for Disney to grasp this idea of inclusion as more than just the insertion of others?
“They’re commercial, and they do what’s straightforward for them,” Atkinson said. “It’s not really explicable to me. I don’t understand why it’s so hard. You look at representations of everything; class, gender and race, in the lion king and others… Disney is choosing to be ambiguous and coy, because they don’t want to come out and say it.”
All of these characters that have a precedence in the LGBTQ community such as Ursula, Scar, Elsa, and now LeFou- they all have one thing in common: they are villians.
“Disney chooses not to alienate its mainstream base, because it’s a complicated time for them and they want to still be ‘family friendly’. That’s the norm. It’s the nuclear. Everything else is other. Disney won’t give them the dignity of confirming things like this. They get to enjoy that popularity without actually having to do anything except be mildly metaphorical,” Atkinson said.
This has been true for characters of colour as well. Take Princess and the Frog for example. Tiana is an African American character but, as Atkinson says, Disney went back to “Jim crow’s Louisiana in the south and it’s like, she’s in the ghetto. They perpetuate these social and other stereotypes.”
This isn’t the progress and inclusion and representation Disney should be proud of.
Their first gay character is someone who is an antagonist, the right-hand man of a cruel villain. Gaston and LeFou are in a very abusive relationship. Gaston is selfish and doesn’t care about anyone but himself while LeFou does everything to get his attention.
To be fair (spoiler alert!) LeFou does end up turning on Gaston in the end, but that doesn’t change their narrative.
“It’s basically the same narrative: join us, as opposed to, let’s leave Cinderella please, and let’s create different stories around different sets of characters. That to me is more liberatory,” Thompson said.
So, what’s the solution? Stop watching these films?
No, because we all know that will never happen. These tales have shaped us all in some way or another. We all want to feel like we are a part of the fairytales we grew up with.
The Beauty and the Beast live-action film was like a dream-come-true for me. In fact, I’ve watched it twice already. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take a step back and really understand what I’ve just watched.
It’s all about the narrative that people take from the story they are given. All media is meant to affect you in a certain way whether it be to inform you, to move you, or even to entertain you. We need to have healthy discussions about the things we see and learn from others. See what they saw versus what you saw and keep an open mind about it all.
Enjoy the film, then talk about it.
By: Fatima Al-Sayed
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.