Beauty and the Beast: Out of the closet?

by Paul Mero

There is a controversy over the new Beauty and the Beast movie. Evidently, Disney wrote a gay character into the script. No, not “gay” as in happy, as in every Disney movie prior to the 1980s. “Gay” as in sexual orientation. Evangelical leader Franklin Graham has called for people of faith to boycott the movie as a show of force for traditional values. But is that a good idea?

If were you born well before 1988, you might remember another movie controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ, a more progressive retelling of the life and death of Jesus Christ. The movie depicted Jesus, played by the creepy Willem Defoe, as more mortal than God. In the movie, Jesus was a sinner, had sex with a prostitute and struggled with his inner demons. It was an awful movie and it would have received very little attention outside of Sundance and other progressive movie festivals if it were not for the effort of the American Family Association to tell people how scandalous it was.

The family group made a huge deal out of it and, in essence, provided most of the advertising for the movie. They created a national boycott of the movie. But the moviemakers didn’t care about the controversy because the film was meant to be controversial. The more the family group screamed about the movie, the more money its producers made.

A couple of years later, while I worked on Capitol Hill, a videotape, anonymously sent, showed up on my desk. The note with it read, “You have to do something about this horrible movie. The public needs to know about it and needs to be told not to spend money or time seeing it.” Always curious, I popped the VHS tape (yes, I’m that old) in the player not knowing what to expect. What I watched was a pre-release copy of the movie The Handmaiden’s Tale, another progressive movie about fictional life under right-wing rule.

The producers of The Handmaiden’s Tale were baiting us, not-so-subtly begging us to make a big deal about it. But we didn’t take the bait. I called down to my friends at the family group and asked them to not make a big deal of it either. The result of our inaction was that The Handmaiden’s Tale was a box-office bomb, just as The Last Temptation of Christ should have been.

So here we are today facing a similar moment. Perhaps Franklin Graham figures he has nothing to lose by calling for a boycott of Beauty and the Beast given that so many kids and their parents are sure to see it. The other two movies were heavily R-rated. There was little chance that kids would see those movies. Not so with Beauty and the Beast.

But is this movie really a problem? If there is a gay character in it, does he present a moral dilemma for parents and their children?

Sally and I raised six children. We know what it’s like to face these entertainment decisions. These issues are not new. In fact, there always has been some sort of Disney controversy since the release of The Little Mermaid. Ariel didn’t wear a lot of clothes and disobeyed her father. Pocahontas told the white man’s story, not the true story. Jasmine and Esmeralda were a bit too seductive, and so on. A common complaint from Disney critics was that these movies were filled with subliminal sexual elements. I can remember as a parent not being thrilled about The Little Mermaid but I never thought too hard about it. I just figured the choice to watch it or not belonged to Sally and me. Never did I think of starting a campaign against it because I might have had issues with the movie.

What I know is that boycotts don’t work. All they do is make more money for movie producers and, increasingly so, make concerned parents and their religious leaders look prudish and out of date. News alert – traditional culture is gone! It’s been gone for quite a while. Certain religious leaders might not think so in their little bubbles but American culture is fully secularized and sexualized. If you send your child to public school, you are corrupting her way more than a Disney movie.

I’m not suggesting parents shouldn’t worry about the culture their kids are exposed to. They should worry. But just understand that you are the only thing between your child and things that go bump in the night. No need to lighten up, just don’t overreact. Doing so makes everything good look stupid.

Oh, by the way, spoiler alert, if there is a gay character in Beauty and the Beast, he’s still in the closet. Much ado about nothing.

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