Sunday, May 28

Reel Representation: Diversity in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is less radical than Disney claims


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Diversity in film and television came into the spotlight in 2016 with #OscarsSoWhite. A USC study in 2016 found only about a quarter of speaking characters belonged to nonwhite racial groups. In “Reel Representation,” columnist Olivia Mazzucato discusses different issues of race and representation in media as they relate to new movies and TV shows.

Hollywood rushing to pat itself on the back for diversity is a tale as old as time.

Jimmy Kimmel captured the sentiment at the 2016 Emmys when he said, “Here in Hollywood, the only thing we value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves for valuing diversity.” Shortly after, he congratulated the Emmys on their increased diversity.

This is a self-satisfied pattern into which Friday’s “Beauty and the Beast” adaptation falls.

In multiple interviews, the film’s director Bill Condon has pointed out two “historic” aspects of the film, claiming that the film features Disney’s first interracial kisses and the studio’s first gay character, LeFou.

The kisses Condon refers to take place between Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) and Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), followed by another kiss between Lumière (Ewan McGregor) and Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

Condon is mistaken in his first claim – films like “Snow Dogs” and “Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement” feature interracial kisses.

What is more troubling is the emphasis in the film’s publicity campaigns on these seemingly progressive moments while ignoring the limited representation of people of color and the LGBTQ community.

Condon’s overstatements follow the dangerous trend of Hollywood’s self-congratulatory tone regarding diversity, which downplays how far the film industry still has to go.

The myth of the interracial kiss began in an interview with BBC, in which Condon said, “I didn’t give it a second thought, then at the preview, the (Disney) chairman told me that it was the first and second interracial kiss in a Disney movie. … That shocked me.”

Condon was right to be shocked, mainly because it wasn’t true. Buzzfeed and internet commenters quickly pointed out other interracial Disney kisses: Cuba Gooding Jr. and Joanna Bacalso in “Snow Dogs” and Julie Andrews and Hector Elizondo in “Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.” Condon has not yet responded to the corrections.

What isn’t mentioned in this interview is the minor role the characters play. Lumière may lead the sentient household items that inhabit the castle, but Madame de Garderobe and Plumette play minor roles and are far less recognizable to fans of the original classic.

I’m happy that people of color were included in “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s important to recognize that film’s setting in a magical version of olden France means it’s not beholden to the same casting rules as a period film. There’s no historical continuity to keep intact because the film deals in fantasy.

While the film recognizes the ability of people of color to exist within the narrative, it relegates them to small, supporting roles. Yet Condon claims the cast is pioneering diversity.

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Casting actors of color in supporting roles isn’t inherently unacceptable. However, it becomes problematic when minor moments are touted as championing diversity without looking at the way in which people of color function within the narrative.

Similarly, the film’s publicity focused on the introduction of Disney’s first gay character – LeFou. In an interview with Attitude, Condon said, “LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston. … It is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.”

Again, I’m all for Disney including a gay character in a movie. The inclusion of the LGBTQ community in Disney’s narratives should have happened sooner and should happen more often. What makes me uncomfortable is the fact that Disney has chosen LeFou to be that first character.

In the original film, LeFou is a bumbling fool, seemingly infatuated with Gaston even if he isn’t explicitly gay. It’s not the most positive portrayal of the LGBTQ community and enforces some gay character tropes, especially as a sidekick who feels unrequited love for a cooler, straight character. Calling such a cliched character groundbreaking feels odd.

Whether of his own volition or at the urging of the studio, Condon emphasizes the two additions of racial and LGBTQ representation, framing the film as revolutionary. Diversity of any kind is positive and I do believe the film marks some sort of progress, just not the type of progress that Condon and Disney seem to think it does.

Holding up the moments as landmarks lessens the significance of true milestones and superficially lets Hollywood off the hook, making it seem like diversity is rapidly increasing when in reality, change is slow in Hollywood.

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  • Álvaro de Campos

    I knew someone would still complain. People won’t be satisfied until pretty much all parts are replaced with an entire spectrum of marginalized people. You want an overweight, Asian Belle and a wheelchair-bound Muslim Beast and a black Gaston.

    It’s just not going to happen. It was meant to be a live action replication of the animated film, not some re-worked adaptation with a political message. I think that people expect too much, when they have the ability to create their own films, their own characters and write them however they please.

    It’s not like Ilene Chaiken did a solid for gay women, or the writers of Will and Grace broke any stereotypes.

    • t34r

      A fairy tale, that should express the time in which it was written, following the life of history, the way it was and when it was written. Who can tell me of a dark persons story where the ancestors would be happy if the role was played by a pale person. After all the movie tells a story that love can be shared by anyone, regardless of appearance.

    • Fareed Dudhia

      ” not some re-worked adaptation with a political message”
      what do you think is the “political message” behind casting a few black people in the film.

      I like this, from the Independent. It’s written about LGBT characters but based on your comment it equally applies to the black characters in this:

      “Whenever LGBT characters are represented in mainstream stories, the producers are accused of shoehorning them in where they are not “necessary”. The addition of LGBT characters seems to always be perceived as a forced political statement. The implication is that LGBT characters don’t exist in real life, and could never arise in a fairytale organically.”

      • Álvaro de Campos

        Not at all. I actually hate when people suggest that PoC, female, or LGBT characters were added simply for PC fodder. But the thing is, I have no issue at all with that in B&TB. My issue is, why are people still complaining about it? It’s never going to be good enough. So then, just write your own stories with whoever you want represented as the leads. It’s that simple. Stop getting angry because people won’t re-write stories to tell it the way you want them to.

  • marvin

    The inclusion of people of colour in Beauty and the Beast looked too forced. It was obvious that Disney only did it for commercial purposes as the characters were very superficial. Luminiere would have been better as the gay character and Mrs Potts could have been cast as a black women as the character would have fit well with a mama figure ! Plus there are some amazing soul singers that would have made the role and the songs amazing !

    • http://www.poetickass.blogspot.com Classy Kassie

      Luminere liked women though, he and the feather duster were always playing footsy in the animated version.

    • t34r

      In a time where cultural diversification is obvious, Disney went over the top with anti-racism in this one. If the world wants racism abolished, would not the word racism be stricken from the dictionary be a good place to start.

  • Bobby

    Why on Earth would Disney include people of color in a film set in 14th century France???

    Oh right. Social Justice. The thing everybody hates but Hollywood forces on us every chance it gets.

    • http://www.poetickass.blogspot.com Classy Kassie

      Im sorry 14th century what??!

      Beauty and the Beast is a traditional fairy tale written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740.

      • xenotypos .

        Does this change anything about how ridiculous it is to have black people everywhere in a film with such a setting?

        It’s like whitewashing, but the other way around (so it’s much more acceptable! ahah, people are so amazingly stupid when they want to). Let’s call it blackwashing?
        In Cinderella too (though I still found it was a very good movie, while Beauty and the Beast was horrible for various reasons).

        • Fareed Dudhia

          “Does this change anything about how ridiculous it is to have black people everywhere in a film with such a setting?”

          Didn’t a film come out recently with a black muslim protagonist, playing a prince and war commander in 17th century venice? how ridiculous is that? typical SJW- oh wait, that wasn’t a film. it was a play called “Othello” and it was written in the early 1600s.

          Also, it’s cool to see someone so interested in racial historical inaccuracies in modern films! I can’t wait to see how outraged you get when you find out that it isn’t a middle-eastern guy playing Jesus Christ in, well, every film about Jesus. Something tells me it won’t bother you though.

    • http://www.poetickass.blogspot.com Classy Kassie

      “In his tour Cogsworth refers to both the baroque period (1585-1700ish) and rococo period (1700-1770ish), and based on the costumes and hairstyles it could be as early as 1730 or as late as 1870 (excluding about 1780-1830). Factoring in the technology, 1840-1860 is the most likely answer. “