Monday, March 20, 2017

Something Sweet and Almost Kind: Queer Theory and Interpretation of Disney's Beauty and the Beast

In 1991, Walt Disney Animation Studios brought their follow up to their previous musical animated adaptation of a fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast.

The story had initially been a parable to encourage women into learning to love their husbands they were made to marry by arranged marriage. Ever one to eschew source material for a more marketable story, Disney heavily reworked the story to give both of the title characters more of a sense of agency to the proceedings. Beauty became Belle, a strong, intelligent young woman who speaks for herself. The Beast becomes a vulnerable figure who lashes out in rage but opens up to kindness and eventually, love.

Rounding out the cast were a villain, Gaston, inspired by the character Avenant in Jean Cocteau's 1946 film adaptation of the story, and his sidekick, the buffoon LeFou. Belle has her father Maurice, her horse Philippe, and the Beast's castle is staffed with people who have been transformed into objects, most notably Lumiere the candelabra, Cogsworth the clock, Mrs. Potts the teapot, and Chip the childish teacup.

The storytelling of Disney's version would use a good number of songs that would move the story along or establish the characters (the lone exception "Be Our Guest" being a welcome showstopping spectacular). Key to these and the overall story process was lyricist Howard Ashman, who had worked on the predecessor, The Little Mermaid.

The movie became a hit and became the first and only animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. A couple of years later, a Broadway musical adaptation premiered, and a few direct to video midquels were released, telling more stories of Belle's time in the castle during the enchantment. Last week, Disney's live action/CGI remake was released.

The remake courted controversy during its press tour when director Bill Condon revealed the character LeFou was gay in this version. Although some balked that a character previously depicted as a comedic buffoon whose name literally means "the fool" would be Disney's first canonical LGBT character, others saw this as pushing a dangerous agenda and called for boycotts. Regardless, the film has already made over twice its budget in its first weekend.

LeFou's story in the new film has been rewritten. While still comedic, he is not such a buffoon, now clearly in love with Gaston, frustrated that Gaston goes after Belle. During the climax of the film when the villagers attack the castle, LeFou is pinned down and left behind by Gaston and decides to change sides, highlighted by saving Mrs. Potts when she falls. LeFou's story is one that many LGBT people know too well, loving someone who doesn't love you in return.

But the queer influence in Beauty and the Beast was already there. Howard Ashman was a gay man who had AIDS and died before the animated film was completed. And it's believed that the Beast's living under the enchantment became an allegory for living with AIDS.

Life for people with AIDS was lonely, and finding love appeared to be impossible because not only was it a contagious death sentence (access to more effective medication was a few years away), but public knowledge of it was so poor. It was a scary thing, just like the Beast's appearance. In addition, the Beast's curse is depicted as degenerative: if he doesn't love and earn love in a certain amount of time, he will become a Beast forever with no hope of recovery. (The musical adaptation suggests that his violent outbursts are a symptom of the curse about to become permanent.) It is not until the Beast recognizes Belle as an equal that he can hope to have the curse broken.

Belle's love as a cure for AIDS might not be the easiest analogy, but the allegory really becomes strong in the third act when Belle reveals the existence of the Beast to the villagers. Despite her claim that the Beast is kind and gentle and her friend, the toxic male Gaston makes the baseless claim that "The Beast will make off with your children! He'll come after them in the night! ... I say we kill the Beast!" This launches "The Mob Song," in which the villagers give into fear, and inflate the believed threat the Beast poses, ending with the line, "And fifty Frenchmen can't be wrong," suggesting that as a majority, they must be right.

Substitute the idea of the Beast with the LGBT community, and the parallel draws itself. The Beast and his servants seek only to live peacefully and better their lives, but they're being made out to be a danger and being unfairly persecuted. (The new film makes it clear that the villagers would be the friends, family and neighbors of the staff if not for the curse.) One might even try to compare the raid on the Beast's castle to the Stonewall Riots.

Gaston's defeat is by the Beast having Gaston at his mercy but choosing to let him live, proving that he is not the monster he has been made out to be. Gaston, however, stabs the Beast in the back (a traditionally cowardly move), then loses his footing and falls to his presumed death. Perhaps this is hopeful thinking on Ashman's part when the allegory is considered.

I could say more about the LGBT people who have worked on the various iterations of the Disney version of the story, or the cross-dressing attack the Wardrobe uses ("Be free!" she cheers in the new film), but that's really going into semantics. The point is that Disney's version of the story already has queer fingerprints and they aren't going anywhere.

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