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The boycott against Beauty and the Beast is about much more than the movie

An Alabama movie theater won’t show Beauty and the Beast because of a gay character. But that’s just the start.

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Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s fairytale romance, is the story of a bison-human hybrid who falls in love with a human woman; of servants cursed and turned into flatware and other household items; of Stockholm syndrome; of an abusive misogynist who eats five dozen eggs a day. But the thing that has gotten people really upset about the new film — a live-action remake of the 1991 animated classic — is that one of its characters is gay.

Director Bill Condon revealed this month that one of the tweaks he’s made to the original tale of beauty-meets-beast, is that LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick played by Disney all-star shortstop Josh Gad, is a gay man.

It isn’t implied. It isn’t allegorical. LeFou is, in Condon’s words, “explicitly gay.”

Condon’s rejiggering of a classic has hit a nerve: A drive-in theater in Alabama has boycotted the film, the Russian government is considering doing the same, and the film censorship board in Malaysia asked Disney to cut the film’s gay scene (the studio refused). And the news that an Alabama movie theater, Mother Russia, and Malaysian censors are seeing eye-to-eye over banning a Disney film has a novelty to it. That Alabama theater is now part of the national news cycle — part of the larger discussion on LGBTQ tolerance.

But like so many of today’s cultural controversies, this fight over boycotting the movie is part of a bigger picture. It’s not just about Beauty and the Beast or gay rights. It’s about the outrage culture we’ve grown so accustomed to, the spectacle, and the opportunity to define ourselves online by publicly performing our morals.

The boycott in Alabama is the perfect outrage story for both sides

The Henagar Drive-In in Henagar, Alabama, is the movie theater at the center of this controversy. Earlier this month, a representative of the theater posted a now-deleted Facebook note declaring that they would not show the movie because LeFou is gay, and homosexuality goes against Christian beliefs.

"When companies continually force their views on us, we need to take a stand,” the March 2 Facebook post stated. “We all make choices and I am making mine. If I can't sit through a movie with God or Jesus sitting by me, then we have no business showing it. I know there will be some that do not agree with this decision. That's fine. We are first and foremost Christians. We will not compromise on what the Bible teaches."

It’s unclear who wrote the post, but it quickly went viral, and national news outlets like USA Today picked it up.

Perhaps the biggest sign of the boycott’s reach is a petition from the American Family Association (AFA), a fundamentalist “family values” group, in support of the boycott. The petition, which states that “Disney wants to normalize homosexuality in its productions,” has over 50,000 signatures — more than 20 times Henagar, Alabama’s population of 2,300 people (according to the 2010 census).

There have also been many articles denouncing the boycott, like a piece at The Christian Post which questions whether participants are being hypocritical by denouncing their fellow human beings. On social media platforms, there’s a backlash to the boycott.

Essentially, the Henagar Drive-In’s boycott is now much bigger than the town of Henagar. And it raises a question: Who’s really boycotting the film?

The Henagar Drive-In’s decision to not show Beauty and the Beast will affect, at most, approximately 2,500 local residents who will have to, according to MovieFone, drive to the Hollywood 10 Cinema in Scottsboro (around 16 miles away) if they want to see the movie. Current box office projections have the movie raking in over $200 million worldwide on opening weekend. Quite simply, the boycott and the 50,000-strong petition don’t amount to even a drop in the box office bucket.

But online, the theater’s boycott fits a classic model of online outrage. Boycotts like this, and the Starbucks Red Cup controversy or the uproar over the hunting death of Cecil the Lion, or the death of Harambe the gorilla aren’t really about the Henagar Drive-In, or the red cups, or lions, or gorillas. They’re about us, what we think is important, and what we want other people to know about what we think is important.

On social media, yelling about what we don't like defines us as much as the things we do like.

For the AFA, the boycott is an opportunity to drum up publicity for the organization, and an opportunity for its followers to visibly pledge and visibly show their beliefs. Conversely, it’s an opportunity for people who disagree with the boycott to voice their opinions. Christians who oppose it can make clear that the boycott isn’t something all Christians believe in. Regardless of their faith, many people will talk about it as part of the fight for gay rights. And for those who don’t believe in religion, the boycott and its backlash will give them fodder to say that religion can make people act like idiots.

The Beauty and the Beast boycott fits the narrative you want it to

There’s also an element of stereotyping and confirmation bias here too.

The Christian representatives of the drive-in fit a stereotype of Red America and present a chance for some progressives on the internet to make fun of what they see as a group of closed-minded people who live in a pocket of prejudiced hell. On the flip side, their story can be seen as another anecdote of Christians being persecuted and another narrative how this country is letting down “real Americans,” a.k.a. evangelical Christians.

If you look at all the outrage and the backlash it has inspired, it’s not hard to see how taking a stand for one side or the other could be read more as performative back-patting than an effort to advance gay rights or Christian doctrine.

The songs in your favorite Disney movie were probably written by a gay man

If you like Disney movies and Disney songs, chances are a gay man named Howard Ashman co-composed or wrote the lyrics to many of your favorites.

“Part of Your World” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid — that’s Ashman. “Beauty and the Beast” — that’s Ashman too. “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin — yup, Ashman.

Ashman, along with Disney composer Alan Menken, co-wrote all the songs for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and wrote the lyrics for “Prince Ali,” “Arabian Nights,” and “Friend Like Me” for Aladdin.

It’s important to highlight Ashman’s personal life in the face of this boycott of the new Beauty and the Beast. It takes a special cultural ignorance to protest the adaptation because it features a gay character, even though the original movie wouldn’t be what it is without Ashman’s talent. Never mind the many other Disney characters who have been coded as or interpreted as gay characters over the years, or that “Gaston,” a number which appears in both Beauty and the Beast films, is essentially LeFou’s love letter to his muscle-daddy crush. (If you prefer The Lion King to Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, please keep in mind Elton John’s involvement in that soundtrack and film.)

New Beauty and Beast director Condon has spoken lovingly about Ashman, and pointed out that Ashman was integral in making Disney’s animated classic.

“It was his idea, not only to make [the original film] into a musical but also to make Beast one of the two central characters,” Condon told Vanity Fair. “Specifically for him, it was a metaphor for AIDS … He was cursed, and this curse had brought sorrow on all those people who loved him, and maybe there was a chance for a miracle — and a way for the curse to be lifted. It was a very concrete thing that he was doing.”

If you look at the standout songs in many of those animated musicals, they’re about living in new worlds (“Part of Your World”) and frustration with feeling odd and misunderstood (“Belle”) — an experience that many LGBTQ people share.

But Ashman didn’t get the miracle or magical ending.

Ashman died of AIDS complications shortly after the first screening of Beauty and the Beast in 1991. Before his death, he had written songs for 1992’s Aladdin. (Disney replaced some of those songs with ones from Tim Rice.)

And while Condon hasn’t directly confirmed that making LeFou gay is an homage to Ashman, it would be a small token of appreciation to a man who brought much joy to this world by sharing his talents with us.

Read ahead if you would like spoilers on how gay LeFou actually is.

So how gay is LeFou? (Spoilers follow.)

Here is a brief, spoilery rundown of what happens in LeFou’s gay scene.

Gaston and LeFou do not have sex in the new Beauty and the Beast, though LeFou does reminisce about their bonding time during an unspecified war. LeFou has what is basically an unrequited crush on Gaston throughout the movie, and at the end comes to the realization that he is gay and acknowledges the reality that Gaston won’t go for him. But that’s not even the gayest part of the movie, an honor which belongs to a moment in the “Gaston” number where Condon and company go with Ashman’s original lyrics (one of the lines was changed for the movie).

Imagine these lines with Gaston holding a big gun, and LeFou bent over on stage:

[GASTON] When I hunt, I sneak up with my quiver / And beasts of the field say a prayer / First, I carefully aim for the liver / Then I shoot from behind

[LEFOU] Is that fair?

[GASTON] I don't care

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