The "Tale As Old As Time" Retold: Representation of Gender and Sexuality in Disney's Beauty and the Beast

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The latest in the series of Disney’s planned remakes, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast stirred up controversy prior its release over the filmmakers’ revelation that this adaptation would feature a Disney movie’s first “exclusively gay moment” with the character LeFou, played by Josh Gad. This decision correlates with Disney’s wider efforts to increase inclusivity in representations of modern gender roles and sexuality in order to appeal to a wider contemporary audience; recent films in the Disney brand exemplify this strategy, such as Tangled (2010), Brave (2012), and Frozen (2013) with their proactive heroines who reject the damsel-in-distress archetype often foisted upon fairy tale females and instead, display character traits that subscribe to contemporary Western feminist values.

Disney’s relationship with the Beauty and the Beast tale has always been progressive on issues of gender representation. In TIME magazine, Eliza Berman hails Belle as Disney’s first feminist princess, and attributes that to the efforts of the 1991 animated film’s screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, the first woman to write a Disney film. The article also details the challenges Woolverton faced in attempting to realize her vision of Belle, whom she was determined to make “a new kind of Disney heroine,” one more active and intellectually curious than her predecessors.  2017’s treatment of Belle, played by Emma Watson, furthers the portrayal of modern sensibilities on gender roles and juxtaposes current gender politics with those of the indistinct eighteenth-century time period of the film: Belle, rather than her father, is the inventor (she applies this trade to the domestic chore of laundry through the invention of a rudimentary washing machine), her bookish quality is expanded to include a scene of her teaching a young girl to read (an act met with hostility against female literacy), and her father describes her as a woman ahead of her time when she voices concern that the townspeople find her odd.

In her introduction to Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World (Penguin Books, 2017), Maria Tatar points out that while different cultural iterations of Beauty and the Beast still feature the heteronormative romance as their centerpiece, their variations express cultural  and generational differences in ideas about social issues. Disney uses the version of the tale published in 1756 by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont as a foundation for their adaptations, but brings its themes into the twenty-first century by eschewing de Beaumont’s moral of virtue to convey a message of acceptance. The 2017 adaptation distinctly underlines the concept of self-identity to resonate with a diverse contemporary audience. This emphasis on being true to one’s self is particularly appropriate for the filmmakers when navigating representation of gender and sexuality in a time of shifting attitudes on these subjects. LeFou may remain a supporting character, but his character arc is updated to reflect the movie’s themes of self-discovery and acceptance. According to the film’s director Bill Condon, “He’s confused about what he wants. It’s somebody just realizing that he has these feelings [...] And that’s what has its payoff at the end”.

From oral storytelling to film adaptations, fairy tales endure because of the manner in which they reflect a shared set of cultural norms and values. Disney’s latest Beauty and the Beast adaptation continues that tradition by expanding the film’s inclusive representations of gender and sexuality to reflect the changing cultural landscape.

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