One of my earliest memories is of watching Disney’s “Cinderella” on VHS. The TV sat on the floor of what was our playroom, what later became my younger sister’s bedroom. I sat directly in front and watched as the white pumpkin carriage carried Cinderella and her prince off to Happily Ever After. Disney showed me a path for the attainable destination of perpetual happiness: “finding my prince” and hetero-marriage. These life goals led to pitiful grammar school crushes on the boys everyone else liked. They led to my elementary and middle school self striving to be a girl who boys would have crushes on. I spent my free time watching bad romantic comedies and reading teen romance books. Where some saw stories, I saw my life trajectory. Follow actions A, B and C to get the desired outcome. Get a boy to like me, date him, get married some day, achieve happily ever after.
Disney fucked me up.
It took me until eighth grade to realize that something was off about my romantic feelings; it took until my junior year of high school to accept myself as queer. If you were to ask me what took so long, all I have to point to is media. Lesbians were presented to me as ugly man-haters with bad fashion. I exclusively wore dresses sophomore year of high school. I was told by TV that bisexuality isn’t a real thing, that people are either on one side or the other. I wasn’t a 100 percent gay, so I had to be straight. Until the age of 16, I’d never read a book narrated through a queer woman’s perspective nor seen a movie with a female protagonist who falls in love with a woman. Ask me to point to an openly queer person from my childhood, and I’d come back empty-handed.
Some may argue that’s why LeFou’s gayness in “Beauty and the Beast” matters. To be honest, it’s why I really don’t care.
Disney’s history of semi-queer representation is synchronically short. One of the most obvious queer Disney characters from recent memory is Ryan Evans (Lucas Gabreel) of “High School Musical.” Ryan was clearly written to be gay. For reference, Troy Bolton acts in a high school play … Ryan Evans does theatre. Even 2006 me knew the giveaways of gay manhood, as these signs receive considerably more media representation than other stereotypical displays of queerness. In a 2016 interview with Gabreel, he confessed that “After reading the script, the first thing I said to (director Kenny Ortega) was, ‘OK, Kenny, Ryan’s gay, right? I know it’s Disney Channel so I’m not really gonna be gay, but I mean, yeah, right?’ … He talked to me about his own life and he was like, ‘I see a lot of myself in Ryan. Yeah, I knew I was gay in high school, but I didn’t tell anybody.’ ”
The most stylish of the core group (for 2006), Ryan is the sole member who doesn’t end the first film in a relationship. A further hint, Ryan has an extended song-and-dance number in the sequel, titled “I Don’t Dance,” with Chad Danforth (Corbin Bleu). Nevermind that Chad’s proclamation of “I Don’t Dance” has the same syllable count as “I’m Not Gay,” Chad and Ryan end the sequence in swapped clothes. These small, confirming clues were subtle, though perhaps damning: Disney has Ryan end the trilogy romantically with Kelsi, the piano girl. This last installment grossed $252,909,177 worldwide.
In 2012, Merida of “Brave” was reported to be a lesbian after refusing a royal marriage. “Because any 15-year-old girl who resists an arranged marriage has gotta be gay,” Colbert memorably joked. (“I’m not gay, I’m just a feminist,” 13-year-old me thought resultantly.) The film made $538,788,207 worldwide.
In 2013, Disney’s “Frozen” was a site of mock-outrage over a scene approximately two seconds long, in which a store clerk waves to his family. There are two older-looking characters in the group — one is either his wife or daughter, the other either his husband or son, based on unconfirmed interpretations. My roommate’s Missourian, Mormon family refused to see the film after learning of this scene.
Others saw the fact that Elsa in “Frozen” is not coupled with a prince as proof of her queerness. The overplayed “Let it Go” was derided as her queer coming-out anthem. As a result of this, some boycotted the movie. Others launched a “#GiveElsaAGirlfriend” Twitter campaign. Regardless of either factor, the film grossed $1,276,480,335 worldwide.
In 2016, two women stood with a stroller between them in a trailer for “Finding Dory”; one had short hair. Outrage over visible lesbians in a children’s movie was spouted, never mind that Dory is voiced by lesbian Ellen DeGeneres. The film made $1,027,188,617 worldwide.
And that’s the thing. “Beauty and the Beast” is going to make Disney a ridiculous amount of money, gay character or not. Maybe the number of people boycotting the film will be directly offset by people deliberately seeing it to support Disney’s movement in the “progressive” direction. Maybe those two groups are small enough to be rendered statistically insignificant. Regardless, “Beauty and the Beast” will be a box office hit because it’s a PG-rated, Emma Watson-starring, live-action Disney remake of a classic ’90s animated film. Each of those factors could be valued at at least $200,000, gay character be damned.
The monetary revenue “Beauty and the Beast” will make is near indisputable. Even subtracting the $6,000 “loss” Disney is taking from the mother who canceled her family’s trip to Disneyland to protest the film, from the theatre in Alabama that refuses to screen it and from Russia’s ban on viewers under 16, this movie is going to make an incredible amount of money.
And with nothing to lose for Disney, why not take a bigger risk?
Some argue LeFou’s subtle queerness is necessary as a stepping-stone for Disney’s someday achievement of real LGBTQ representation. Maybe the insignificant scene at the movie’s Big Gay Ending in which LeFou dances with a man (oh no!) is its apology for not being more explicit about Timon and Pumba, about Ryan, about Elsa. Maybe it’s a “testing” of the waters for a future Disney movie with a gay kiss or, heaven forbid, a queer main character.
Until that day, Disney gets no brownie points for “inclusivity.” Until there’s something other than rigid heterosexuality (with the subtlest of hints to the contrary) in a Disney movie, there will be queer kids who don’t see themselves onscreen, who don’t know that their existence is OK. For now, they know that their love is not “a tale as old as time”; their love is controversial and “inappropriate for children.” No two men dancing will change that. And because Disney movies are near-universally formative in American childhoods and childhoods around the world, this is Disney’s burden to bear.
So call me when a Disney movie is explicitly queer. For now, I’m seeing “Beauty and the Beast” to watch its completely unproblematic, original story: a teenage girl falling in love with her beast-man captor.
Contact Caroline Smith at [email protected].
A previous version of this article misspelled Lucas Grabeel’s name.