Ever since Bill Condon, the director of Disney’s latest iteration of Beauty and the Beast, announced last week that one of the film’s characters (LeFou, chief sidekick to the chief villain Gaston) was going to have an ‘exclusively gay moment’, social media has been buzzing with reactions from the right and the left. Predictably, many are outraged that homosexuality should enter the domain of family entertainment. However, the LGBTQ community is fighting back to say that people shouldn’t be so put off by a gay character when the film’s central romance is between a teenage girl and a buffalo with horns.
Here's the official trailer of the much-awaited film:
Although everyone will have to decide for themselves how they feel about this latest development – and I do have my own very strong opinion on the matter – here perhaps it is more pertinent to explore what this will mean for Disney as a brand. First, I want to say that despite Condon’s claims that this is somehow a new (and progressive) era for Disney films, in reality several seemingly innocent films (think Frozen, Bambi, The Little Mermaid, Jungle Book etc) have featured characters who are subtly gay. Let’s just say that Disney has for a long time been broaching this topic, but in a covert and hush-hush sort of way – precisely the same way that homosexuality has been approached by the rest of society.
We shouldn’t be at all surprised that homosexuality is now making an appearance in a Disney film because it is exactly in keeping with the brand’s mission and values – inclusiveness and keeping up with the times.
But why would a brand that stands for family entertainment – and more to the point, children’s entertainment mess around in the realm of politics and sexuality? I believe the answer lies in the disconnection between the perception versus the reality of Disney’s core values.
When I think of Disney, the first three words that come to my mind are: awe, amazement and children. So for me (and for most of us) Disney stands for childlike wonder and awe… which is not entirely incorrect based on the types of films they produce, the theme parks, the merchandise etc. Creating a world of wonder that will amaze and ignite children’ imaginations is certainly part of the package but there’s more.
The Walt Disney Company’s fairly succinct mission statement is ‘Disney does it right’ and underpinning this statement is a three-pronged approach to using market research to ascertain how to please clients, considering who those clients are, and then making sure all cultures are adequately represented, all of which leads up to pleasing people the ‘Disney Way’. Therefore, in essence Disney wants to be relevant to its target audience (which it’s important to note, isn’t just children, but also grown-ups!) at every point in time.
After reading this statement I thought back and it occurred to me that over the years Disney movies have tackled all sorts of complex and difficult issues, including colonisation, racism, child abuse, environmental degradation, changing perceptions of beauty, etc., and in most cases they have got it right. So actually we shouldn’t be at all surprised that homosexuality is now making an appearance in a Disney film because it is exactly in keeping with the brand’s mission and values. In fact, contrary to our perception, this is exactly what the brand stands for – inclusiveness and keeping up with the times. Whether we like it or not is another matter entirely.