By Sexualizing Male Friendship, Disney Makes a Mockery of the Original Tale
For all of Hollywood’s recent talk about the need for art to resist politics, the new Beauty and the Beast film sells out a classic fairytale for political fashion, moral posturing and publicity.
The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Attitude Magazine and others have celebrated Disney’s decision to modernize the new Beauty and Beast film with a more feminist Belle and first ever “exclusively gay” character. Emma Watson wants the main character, Belle, not simply to be a reader of books but an assertive, feminist inventor who wears riding boots. The newly added character of LeFou, for his part, struggles with his identity and same-sex attraction toward Gaston, the boorish frat boy that tries to woo Belle.
Adding such politically fashionable themes has indeed generated press and gained the praise of cultural elites. But the new Beauty and the Beast reveals some dark truths about Hollywood. Film makers claim to view art as a form of “resistance.” But in this case ideology, political posturing and publicity stunts trumped doing justice to the original story.
It Fails as Art
The biggest problem with adding shock value to the film is that it is just bad storytelling. Despite powerful cinematography and impressive graphics, what we end up with is not art but kitsch. Disney could have wrestled with the challenge of conveying the powerful original tale — written by Gabrielle Suzanne Villanueve de Barbot in 1740 and famously abridged in 1756 by Madame de Beaumont. Instead, Disney used as its source text … its own animated version from 1991. The original version doesn’t even have the characters Gaston and LeFou, which were added by Disney in the 1991 version.
The original fairy tale is rich in meaning and human struggle. It explores:
- the virtue and sacrifice of Belle
- her struggle to see beyond appearances
- Belle’s love for her father and willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of her desires
- the effects of wealth and poverty on the family
- the vices of envy and avarice
- jealousy and struggles among the sisters
- the agony of making decisions in the face of an impossible situation
- the redemption that comes from sacrificial, other-directed love.
The original story and the famous 1756 version, written by women, were more authentically affirming of women than the dumbed-down 2017 production.
Little of this survived in the Disney cartoon, a garish romance whose shallowness was disguised with fireworks of sentimental tunes and computer graphics.
For the new, live version, Disney “updated” the old timey 1991 version by adding a character with same sex attraction. The story thus becomes a tool to shock audiences and promote a political agenda. Story and art are sacrificed on the altar of political fashion. The actors and producers get a chance to virtue signal, as Emma Watson does in a recent Vanity Fair article showing off her feminism. It takes very little courage to be applauded as sophisticated by one’s peers.
Bumper Sticker Feminism
The other artistic failure is the portrayal of Belle as the assertive feminist. This misses the point of her character and power as heroine of the story. In contrast to her superficial and materialist sisters, who care for nothing but themselves and their own advancement, Belle is serious and scholarly. She has interior resolve, integrity, profound courage and love that enable her to sacrifice her life for her father, to see beyond appearances and redeem the beast.
Her power is revealed in her character and her actions — not in exterior assertiveness and a willingness to buck convention by wearing riding boots. Her whole life bucks the convention of mediocrity and selfishness, which is why she is the protagonist. Instead of all the authentic character virtues Belle exhibited in the original tale, we get bumper sticker feminism and “girl power.”
The original story and the famous 1756 version, written by women, were more authentically affirming of women than this dumbed-down 2017 production.
Distorting Male Friendship
Beyond the obvious problem of sexualizing everything, the relationship between Gaston and LeFou also distorts and undermines authentic male friendship. This not only hurts boys and young men. It also hurts women because it relegates their brothers and future husbands to a frat boy “bro” culture.
As C.S. Lewis notes in The Four Loves, friendship often begins with mutual appreciation of some thing, idea or activity. It is directed toward something. Aristotle explains that while friendship can be grounded in utility or having a good time, authentic friendship is grounded in virtue and a desire to live a life of excellence.
Beauty and the Beast’s distortion of male friendship into same sex attraction not only denies boys real friendship, it harms women by creating weak men.
Men need these authentic friendships that challenge and inspire them. It is quite normal for a young man, especially one entering manhood, to admire and look up to other, often older men. They see their masculinity and seek to emulate it — especially if it is in an area they lack, but desire to excel in. While this attraction and admiration often includes the physical, it is rarely sexual. This is the stuff of growing up, of friendship and camaraderie. It is a normal way a man learns to become himself.
Beauty and the Beast distorts this natural pattern by sexualizing it. Director Bill Condon comments that “LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston. … He’s confused about what he wants.”
Men are confused about a lot of things, especially when they are young. Disney exploits it. Beauty and the Beast’s decision to sexualize the male friendship of LeFou and Gaston undermines real friendship and creates confusion in young men — who might now begin to wonder if their “attraction” to a man is somehow sexual. The upshot of this will be to create further barriers to real male friendship and encourage the insipid and dehumanizing “bro” culture of the frat boys whose shared activities are narrowed to sports, drunkenness and reducing women to sexual conquests.
Any genuine sensitivity to the arts, to deep human emotion or to authentic love that respects a woman in her integrity is looked upon as effeminate, an sign of homosexual tendency. This is bad enough. But the problem is made even worse by Beauty and the Beast, which portrays the heterosexual man as a predator and womanizer. The distortion of male friendship into same sex attraction not only denies boys real friendship. It harms women by creating weak men whose only friendships are based on use or pleasure.
The new Beauty and the Beast could have been a real work of art that addressed the depth of human love and redemption. Instead it is a political puff piece. When the shock wears off, it will be forgotten. But hey, at least it made the headlines and gave the actors and writers a chance to preen to political fashion. And as we’ve seen lately, isn’t that what Hollywood is all about?