It’s a tale as old as time, or so we’ve been told by Disney: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy eventually gets girl, and in between each plot point lies an “I want” song, a “happy village” song and an anthem sung by a disgruntled villain in a minor key.
But what if this traditional Disney trope were tweaked to reflect today’s culture? A plot line might go something like this: boy meets boy, boy loses boy, and boy gets boy.
Disney is testing the waters with the release of their new live-action “Beauty and the Beast.” And when we say, “testing the waters,” we mean dipping in a toe.
The movie’s director, Bill Condon, recently created a buzz by stating that a minor character in the film would be shown revealing some romantic feelings for his friend, antagonist Gaston, but trust us, these two gentleman won’t be slurping the same strand of spaghetti, ala “Lady and the Tramp.”
It’s no surprise that this hint of homosexuality, especially in the arena of children’s entertainment, is meeting some resistance. The film’s release has been delayed in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country that allows gay people to be depicted in a film only if they repent or die.
A movie theater in Alabama has refused to show the film, a Russian lawmaker has urged the Russian government to officially ban it, and reports of boycotts and canceled trips to Disney theme parks circulate throughout social media.
Of course, if the idea of a gay character in a movie is troublesome, there’s always the less theatrical response: Don’t buy a ticket.
But Disney’s newest offering does invite the question: Is America ready for a gay storyline in youth entertainment? Clearly, some Americans aren’t, but perhaps the question of America’s readiness should be irrelevant.
Fifty percent of LGBT youths report contemplating suicide, and 25 percent have made an attempt. Youth suicides are the highest among this population. Students who express transgender identity or gender nonconformity reported higher rates of harassment (78 percent), physical assault (35 percent) and sexual violence (12 percent).
In spite of the 2012 Supreme Court decision granting LGBT full rights, they have yet to feel the full dignity afforded their heterosexual counterparts. Adding positive portrayals of people who identify as LGBT in youth entertainment wouldn’t fix this completely, but it could help with normalization instead of perpetuating marginalization.
For decades Disney has featured romantic storylines between animals, insects, fish, household objects, robots, cars, aliens and a sundry of toys, but the entertainment conglomerate has yet to feature two characters of the same sex sharing romantic affections.
It would be a risky venture for Disney to do so, but if anyone can afford to go out on a limb, it’s Mickey Mouse.
The rodent is loaded: Disney pockets $10 billion per year in theme parks, movie studios, television networks and sports franchises; none of this would come to a screeching halt if future characters happened to be LGBT.
Disney, as the premier arbiter of children’s entertainment, is poised to make a change and help families around the world see that people who identify as LGBT do not belong in the shadows of every story.
If Disney needs an ethical rudder, they need look no further than their own movie.
In this new rendition of “Beauty and The Beast,” ingenue Belle, like most of her Disney counterparts, is happy-go-lucky, innocent, modest, and seems to have a preternatural relationship with wildlife, but she also has brains, an attribute Disney plays up. Like her father, Belle’s an inventor.
But it isn’t Belle’s smarts that ultimately saves her and the Beast from a wretched spell; it’s love. Belle looks past the teeth, hair and claws and sees the Beast’s true essence. Moral anecdotes like this are Disney’s secret sauce and they come in every film, like a prize at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.
If Disney could harness all the moral courage they’ve given Belle and see past things like boycotts, market-risk-analysis and profit margins, they could create a narrative, instead of a mere insinuation, that includes an LGBT character.
Maybe it’s time for Disney to tell that tale.