Here’s a tale that’s actually as old as time: Sometimes boys kiss boys and sometimes girls kiss girls. The mainstream cultural regard of same-sex love and attraction has experienced the steepest of narrative arcs in the past 100 years, from an almost total lack of acknowledgement to villainization to pity to begrudging acceptance to something verging on an attempt at understanding. Hollywood, as always, is slow on the uptake—but it is taking it up, nonetheless.
The past two weekends have brought openings of kid-aimed movies with characters that could broadly be described as queer, or as falling somewhere within LGBTQ identity or, simply, as not straight. That both of these movies, the live-action Beauty and the Beast and Saban’s Power Rangers, are retellings of existing narratives makes the queer inclusion readable as a mea culpa. You were always there, but now we’re comfortable enough to admit it, these movies might be saying about their queer characters, and to the queer and allied members of their audience. History, given its biased emphases and its telling by reliably fallible humans, is always due for a revision.
Progress is relative and it is slow. If we can admire Disney and Lionsgate’s/Temple Hill Entertainment’s symbolic gestures, including the implied refutation of Christian Right nonsense advocating that children be protected from gays (a mere 40 years after the formation of Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign), we must also acknowledge that symbolism and gesturing is only as far as these Hollywood studios will go. The overtly queer characters in these movies are just more crumbs in a slowly amassing pile that Hollywood has been tossing in the direction of LGBTQ people for a while now. They’re quick, easy ways of suggesting “diversity” without actually disturbing the fundamental status quo. The queer characters of Beauty and the Beast and Saban’s Power Rangers are more a manifestation of the arm’s length at which the larger culture keeps LGBTQ issues and people than they are signs of revolution.
Nonetheless, they arrive having been touted by the filmmakers who helped bring them to life. Earlier this month, Beauty and the Beast director Bill Condon made international headlines when he teased an “exclusively gay moment” experienced by LeFou (Josh Gad), the sycophantic sidekick of Gaston (Luke Evans). In the 1991 Disney animated movie that Condon’s version renders in flesh and CGI, LeFou was a hanger-on with questionable motivation for so openly admiring Gaston—in the grand tradition of queer-coded Disney characters (which generally come in the form of effeminately affected villains like Aladdin’s Jafar The Lion King’s Scar), LeFou barley registered as family. Back then, his ambiguity was less like a code for the lack of socially acceptable ways to discuss non-heterosexuals, and more like an observation of the nature of close male relationships and how one dude admiring another dude—a longstanding socially acceptable practice in mainstream culture (see: sports)—could seem kinda gay... or something.
Gad’s LeFou, though, is more dainty than the buffoonish cartoon, his bow is bigger and pink, his overtures are more overt (“Who needs her when you’ve got us?” he says as Gaston pines for Belle), and his moment is “exclusively gay”—it’s a blink-and-miss few seconds of him dancing with another man during the movie’s triumphant final number. Were it not for Condon’s announcement, it’s likely that this moment would have lived in ambiguity, scrutinized in think pieces wondering if LeFou is or isn’t. But with the director’s intent in mind, the specific identifying of LeFou as gay (or, at least, capable of having an exclusively gay moment) flattens the character with its literalism. In the cartoon, LeFou may have been a fool for sticking by someone as vain, selfish, and ultimately mean-spirited as Gaston; in the live-action version, he’s a fucking idiot for falling for a straight guy. At least he gets his happy ending (but certainly not like that).
Conversant with Disney history and its regard for queer-seeming characters, Beauty and the Beast transforms subtext to a subplot. It’s very much that way in Saban’s Power Rangers, too, and just as Disney has a quiet history of tip-toeing around queerness, so do the Power Rangers (actor David Yost left the ‘90s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV show after experiencing harassment for being gay). In this update, Becky G’s Trini Kwan (eventually the Yellow Ranger) is tough and brooding in a way we’ve seen relatively frequently in butch female action-movie characters, like Aliens’s Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), Max Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa (Charlize Theron), or Michelle Rodriguez in just about anything. But unlike them, Trini has her coming out... of sorts. It happens when she and her team, who barely know each other when nature calls on them to become yet another iteration of this batch of superheroes, sit around a campfire bonding. She mentions her family’s inability to understand her relationships. Her fellow Ranger Billy asks, “Boyfriend problems?” She pouts slightly harder than usual and Billy re-guesses: “Girlfriend problems?” She pouts slightly less signaling agreement. She puts her identity into explicit words, really, but she goes on to bemoan her family’s normalcy and their belief in labels. “I don’t know how to tell them what’s really going on with me,” she says, adding that she’s never admitted any of this stuff out loud before. And that’s basically that.
That’s about the extent of Trini’s characterization, too. Throughout the movie, when she is referred to at all, it’s to say that she’s unknowable. She is generally stoic, and unlike LeFou, who at least gets to press his skin against that of someone of the same ostensible gender in the name of split-second romance, we have no evidence of what Trini’s relationships actually look like. Her queer sexuality, as barely sketched as it is, isn’t merely slapped on her character for the sake of display purposes—it underpins her alienation and explains why she was alone the day that the other eventual Power Rangers were by the rock formation that contained the gems that would transform them into superheroes. But it also isn’t something this movie is particularly interested in exploring.
It seems not at all coincidental that in a society which remains generally squeamish about the inner workings of queer relationships and queer sex, and one in which outsiders openly cope with queer people by hating the sin while professing to love the sinner, both the lives of LeFou and Trini are talked about but not seen. Still too often does it happen that to be treated as human, queer people need to reduce outward signs of their humanity (the strategy behind Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which overturned Prop 8, is a vivid example of this).
Part of this reduction being palpable in these movies is a widespread function of Hollywood which, in its PG- and PG-13-rated fare, tends to gloss over things that might be considered “difficult” to its young audience. Take violence, for example, which during one scene in Power Rangers literally occurs in shadows. Later in that movie in typical PG-13 sugarcoating, a crumbling city goes down incredibly easy and without much despair because there’s no regard for the actual lives that may be lost as two giant creatures (one the Voltron-like configuration of the five Power Rangers combined in one robot, and one a monster made out of liquid gold) pummel each other. These movies are, generally speaking, not too concerned with finer points or really dissecting the implications of that which they hit you over the head with.
That said, it’s no coincidence that both LeFou and Trini exist at the very periphery of their movies’ storylines, that far more attention is paid to the emotional states and romantic mechanisms of the straight-identified characters. So while you can very easily read these movies’ inclusiveness (the Power Rangers also includes an autistic character, and Belle is obviously hot for dog dick) as IMPORTANT PROGRESS that has been a long time coming, the more nuanced message to the queer members of the movies’ audience eager for representation is: you aren’t that important.
By incorporating queer characters, these movies create an explicit hierarchy that was once merely implicit, and guess who’s inevitably near the bottom of the totem pole? Thus, if you’re feeling any less than generous, the integration of secondary queer characters in a story that emphasizes straight lives and loves can be read as an upholding of heteronormativity. It’s very much like how racially diverse ensemble casts outside of ShondaLand tend to be headed by the white character, and therefore tacitly reflect white supremacy. Inclusivity is not necessarily utopian.
And we are entitled to feel less than generous, by the way. Over 20 years ago, in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, out filmmaker Jan Oxenberg described queer audiences as “pathetically starved for images of ourselves,” and despite advances in the past two decades (Moonlight’s Oscars triumph last month is a great example), it hasn’t changed enough. You could not fault a queer moviegoer for being positively hangry at this point. Movies, however, have been relieved of some of their burden as primary transmitters of culture—kids searching for images of themselves to feel less alone (as Harvey Fierstein told of the process in Celluloid) now have a range of (still mostly peripheral) LGBTQ characters on children’s television programming and, of course, the internet. If queer representation in movies is still dire, well, at least the audience has found other outlets in the meantime.
And nothing is so easy as waving a wand and making your favorite male superhero an outspoken lover of dick. These minor queer themes in two kid-targeted movies have been met with resistance: from Russia (that goes for Beauty and the Beast and Power Rangers), in Malaysia, and of course, in the more conservative pockets of the U.S. Entertaining a public whose varying politics are more amplified than ever, thanks to the democratization of communication, is a dance. Too staunch of a stance will alienate someone, and alienation is at odds with these movies’ primary objectives: making money. It follows then that the discussion about how these movies are treating queer issues is way more niche than the movies themselves. Those who care about the moments described above—seconds of screen time, really—are those who occupy the extremes of the LGBTQ-rights struggle, the emphatically for and against. All else in the middle will wonder what the big deal is. And, love it or hate it, assimilate or radicalize, that is precisely their point.