There's a lot of talk on Facebook today about Disney's upcoming Beauty and the Beast adaptation; some far-right Christians have expressed outrage and called for boycotts because the film will reportedly show LeFou (Gaston's sidekick) as a clearly homosexual character. I've read a few of the arguments against the film's choice, and it all seems to boil down to this sentiment: "we don't want this normalized."
So let's talk about "normalization."
That phrase--"we don't want this normalized"--feels eerily familiar, doesn't it? Isn't that what most Americans said about Donald Trump during his campaign--indeed what many Americans have continued to say throughout the first couple months of his presidency? I know the word came to my mind when the man who had been recorded bragging about sexual assault ended up winning.
I don't mean to imply that that concern has been one-sided, of course: many Americans (both conservative and liberal) had issues with Hillary Clinton, too--and they seemed to fear that electing her as President might "normalize" political corruption, dishonesty, and so forth.
While I believe the two sides of that giant debate were asymmetrical, that doesn't mean that the two sides weren't both justified in using words like "normalization" to express genuine and heartfelt fears about problematic value systems that their opponent represented (or could at least potentially represent, once in power). That's all I'm getting at here: that an exploratory discussion of what can or should be accepted as "normal" is a pretty important one.
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I should pause and note that my focus here is on normalization rather than exposure, because the "my kid isn't ready to be exposed to this thing" argument doesn't work. If your kid isn't ready to be exposed to homosexuality, than they're not ready to be exposed to heterosexuality, either; any kind of sexuality is intimate, and any kids' movie that includes anything about a romantic relationship is going to deal with intimacy. Plenty of Disney films include men pining after women, or women pining after men. That romantic tension--often consummated by a kiss--is sexuality (even if the expression thereof in the film isn't sexually explicit or graphic). And if your opposition to homosexual characters centers on the "exposure to sexuality," then you shouldn't let your kids watch Aladdin flirt with Jasmine, or Meg with Hercules, or Simba with Nala, either.
Furthermore, if your kid isn't ready to be exposed to something as simple as a male character being attracted to another male character, then maybe they're not ready to be exposed to violence and death, either--themes that are also rampant in kids' movies. Why is LeFou's homosexual attraction/identity inherently more complicated, difficult, or shocking than Scar murdering his own brother in cold blood?
Finally, for those who have said "any kind of sex is inappropriate for my kid to see": I agree, but I think it's obvious that Disney isn't going to include an all-out sex scene here, so stop fearmongering and let's focus on the real issue, which really isn't exposure--it's normalization.
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The question then becomes: is it okay to "normalize" homosexuality? And what exactly is "normalization" anyway?
Does "normalization" just mean to "make normal"? And how does one "make normal" a thing that already is normal? By that I mean, when it comes to homosexuality, we must admit that biologically speaking it's a natural occurrence (various forms of sexual activity, courtship, affection, pair bonding, and coupling has been shown to exist among same-sex pairs throughout nearly all of the animal kingdom). And when it comes to other examples, like the aforementioned fear of what kind of normalization comes from Trump's bigoted, xenophobic, and aggressive rhetoric, we must again admit that those ugly things are natural occurrences, too (Hua Hsu of the New Yorker, quoting British filmmaker Adam Curtis, suggests that maybe what we're really afraid of ought to be called "hyper-normalization").
If, when we talk about "normalization," we're really talking about "acceptance," then the question of whether we should accept things (or endorse media that accepts things) becomes much more clear: it depends on whether our acceptance of those things will cause harm or not.
If we, collectively as a society, accept that homosexual representation in Disney films is just a thing--that it's going to happen and that it's going to be fine--what do we lose?
Do we lose anything?
If you think homosexuality is wrong, and you're bothered by its representation in Beauty and the Beast, maybe you feel like the film's depiction of LeFou's orientation as "normal" or "natural" will somehow teach your kid that being gay is "okay" or "good," which you're uncomfortable with (i.e. normalization = acceptance). Or maybe you feel like the "liberal media" and the "gay agenda" have contaminated too much pop culture, in the name of some "war on Christianity," to the point where you fear your children will be led to believe things that are false, or that they will be gradually brainwashed into eventually betraying their traditional ideals and customs.
Defending this discomfort would require a few things of you: you'd need to show that depiction and endorsement are absolutely linked in this particular case (a position that's impossible to defend without first watching the film); you would also have to show that homosexuality is demonstrably immoral, harmful, or unnatural (something which is hard to show even with the context of a strictly conservative religion, not to mention actual psychological research, which indicates that the dangers associated with homosexuality are almost certainly more closely tied to the stigmas and laws prohibiting it than they are to the orientation in itself).
Furthermore: despite what white nationalists say, inclusion (like, say, in Rogue One) isn't oppressive. And despite what so-called "Men's Rights Activists" say, strong female characters (like, say, in Mad Max: Fury Road) aren't anti-male. In other words, representation isn't hurting you. It's not a conspiracy. It's just filmmakers trying to tell stories that represent real people and real experiences.
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Anyway. Maybe you're still uncomfortable with Disney's decision because, bottom line, you think homosexuality is "sinful," and you worry that sin is being normalized in modern society. But even if that were true, consider this: other "wrong" things are a fact of life, too (including indisputably worse things, like murder and thievery, both of which are shown often--and sometimes flippantly--in Disney pictures). Maybe art that reflects life--the good and bad parts of it, the parts you agree with and the parts you disagree with--is the best kind of art. Maybe introducing kids to difficult and nuanced discussions isn't so bad of a thing. Maybe trying to contextualize and discuss the behavior of the film's characters (even--especially!--when you disagree with those characters) will be a good exercise for you and your children throughout the years.
When all is said and done, it's up to you what films to see. Everyone has their own lines in the sand, and of course you're morally permitted to pick and choose your own media (as long as you're not selfishly objectifying it via censorship). But not every issue is symmetrical. Boycotting Beauty and the Beast because of your own discomfort with a character's alleged homosexuality is a philosophically unjustifiable position which reveals some pretty contradictory, incoherent, and/or hypocritical assumptions. And if it is a position that you hold, then it is a position that you should examine very carefully within yourself.
Gay people are normal. They exist. They don't hurt anyone any more than anyone else does. They're just people. And their representation in media won't ruin your kids.
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[Footnote 1: maybe you're bothered by Disney's decision because it doesn't normalize enough; perhaps you think it's great that Disney will have an openly gay character, but you'd hope that he/she would be a more noble, smart, admirable, or relatable character--i.e. not a villainous fool like LeFou. And that's fine. Coming from a place of heterosexual privilege myself, it's not my place to tell you that you ought not to worry about that--representation matters, and good representation is powerful. I guess the only consolation prize I can offer is: it's a start?
Footnote 2: I keep seeing people using the example of Sodom and Gomorrah to defend their icky feelings about gay people. Stop using that story. According to the Bible itself, those cities were not destroyed because of homosexuality; they were destroyed because their citizens were "arrogant, overfed and unconcerned," and because "they did not help the poor and needy" (Ezekiel 16:49). Also, there's a great article over at Patheos that further explains this topic.]