Having LGBTQ+ characters in entertainment media is not a new idea. Gay and lesbian characters were implied in movies and TV shows, long before LGBTQ+ activism became a staple in American culture. But as time has changed, media—including youth media—has been testing the waters with openly LGBTQ+ characters.
Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson has been making headlines since it was announced that in this version, Gaston’s adoring sidekick LeFou would be openly gay. Though many have been supportive of Disney’s choice to feature an openly gay character in a family movie, some states and countries have voiced their disapproval by banning the film from their theatres. If LGBTQ+ characters have been around in media for so long, then why the fuss about LeFou?
From the 1930s to the 1960s, gay characters were only implied in movies. Because of “The Hays Code”, a film censorship law, most gay characters were either represented as a joke, a villain, or not represented at all. Because of the strictness of the code, these characters were not even allowed to be open about their sexualities. Instead, it would be implied by voice, behaviors, and clothing choices that may culturally be associated to members of the LGBTQ+ community. By consistently showing subtle gay characters, audiences have been allowed to quietly poke fun at the LGBTQ+ by regarding them as villains or jokes, rather than like a hero or an average person.
Having a powerful family media company such as Disney have an openly gay character in a classic story shakes up our ideas of characters needing to be ‘in the closet’. Audiences have been happy to laugh at ‘the gay best friend’ character or root against a less-than-masculine villain (like Scar from The Lion King, Hades from Hercules, etc.), but to have a character’s sexuality affirmed as something other than straight can disturb audiences who aren’t as accepting of the LGBTQ+ community in real life.
Additionally, LeFou’s character in the original 1992 Disney animated Beauty in the Beast was presented as a form of comic relief, a bumbling little henchmen to the strong Gaston; ‘LeFou’ in French literally translates to “the fool”. So while LeFou may be ‘out’, the fact that the ‘out’ character is a minor, comic relief character is not all that surprising. But when it comes to representation, little steps can make a big difference.