Unlike other Asian countries, China says it has absolutely no problem with a plotline involving a possibly gay character in Disney’s re-boot of Beauty and the Beast.
The film, which opens today (March 17) in mainland China, depicts the character LeFou as a gay manservant who attempts to kiss his master Gaston. The homosexual reference has invited outrage from conservative groups elsewhere in Asia.
China’s openness is surprising, considering storylines about homosexuality are often censored. Last year, China’s top media watchdog, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), specifically barred television shows from depicting homosexuality. But it looks like movies are starting to have a little more leeway.
A viral internet comedy about time travel and bisexuality, Go Princess Go, was abruptly taken down in China in early 2016. However, in a milestone, the first LGBT-themed commercial movie in China, Seek McCartney, was released later that year. The movie was about two gay men who developed a secret romance, but the trailer downplayed the homosexual plotline and portrayed the film instead as a story about a road-trip in Tibet.
In the Disney film, which had its premiere in China at the recently-opened Shanghai Disneyland, LeFou, who “is confused about his sexuality” according to director Bill Condon, is a new character. The 1991 original focused solely on the female protagonist Belle falling in love with the Beast, and Gaston is a villain who wants to have Belle for himself.
That change has proved to hard to stomach for some conservative groups in the region. A Hong Kong Christian primary school issued a notice urging parents not to take their children to the movie due to ”God’s disapproval of homosexuality (link in Chinese).” In Malaysia, people may never see the film in theaters after Disney refused to cut the relevant scenes to satisfy censors. Singapore’s National Council of Churches issued a letter to pastors criticizing the film. Homosexual acts between two men is a crime in Malaysia and Singapore.
Hiro Hua, chief editor of the Voice of LGBT (link in Chinese), an online publication based in China, thinks that the film passed the censors’ test in China because ”LeFou was just a sidekick, not part of the major plot,” and that if the movie is also ”promoting social virtues like love and harmony, it will be safe.”
In other words, the overarching straight love story makes up for the movie’s “exclusively gay moment,” as Condon has described a scene, although some have taken issue with that description.
Disney and Beauty and the Beast‘s mainland distributor China Film Group did not respond to requests for comments.
“The decision is largely subject to local authorities’ whims,” Hua added. “They never give any reasons.”