By Noah Diekemper
People have clashed in controversy since the news broke that Disney’s live-action update of Beauty and the Beast would use Gaston’s lackey LeFou to feature an “exclusively gay moment.” Some decried Disney’s gay parade (“think of the children!”), while others failed to see the change as newsworthy at all (“Wait, he wasn’t gay before?”). I think that the latter view is more correct than not. However, to explore why that’s the case, it is necessary to consider the elemental nature of desire.
We often understand desire — especially romantic desire — as being something inexplicable, spontaneous, even inviolable. The German Romantics embodied this understanding, emphasizing the individual and the mystic momentousness of feeling. Some scholars, however, have challenged this popular belief. A simple alternative (taught on Hillsdale’s campus, for example, by English professor Justin Jackson) posits that all desire is imitative. Human desire comes into existence not because of a straightforward, “pure” contact between lover and beloved, but because whatever party does the desiring is mimicking that same desire seen in some other person, some model.
This idea strikes some people as offensive; it implies, for example, that our most precious loves of friends, brothers, significant others, are rooted in our copying other people. Though it may sound strange articulated in so many words, we are actually familiar with this basic concept in our ordinary lives. Imagine two young children on a playground with several identical rubber balls to play with. If one child goes for one ball, we all know exactly which one ball the other child is now going for. We begin to see why this idea is not openly acknowledged; if a parent tells us that we only want something because our big brother or little sister wanted it first, we bristle and protest profusely.
This is only replicated on grander stages with greater stakes as children grow bigger. We’re all familiar with arguments and fights that sisters have with each other over cars or boys or sweaters; as that other Disney cartoon showed us, Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters only became absorbed in her remnant clothing when they saw her enjoy it. Nor, I must stress, was this them simply spiting her; those two stepsisters suddenly, truly wanted what Cinderella had simply because she now prized it. It is the principle behind every sudden and passing fad the earth has ever known. The time was once when people really believed that bell bottom jeans looked good.
The models that we imitate, though, aren’t haphazard; some people naturally make better models for us than others do. Those who are already like us, or with whom we have spent years, furnish us with a reference point for what we should want and spend our lives chasing. Often this is benign if not downright salutary — though if a model is sufficiently close and the desired object cannot be shared equally (be it the last piece of pizza, the lead role in a show, or Jessie’s girl), conflict arises.
A consequence, then, of this entire system is that in human desire, the model is more important than the object. This is one more reason why this idea has been so long resisted; we want our desires to be free and authentic. If we have entered a serious romantic relationship and someone dare suggest that we only did so because it felt like all of our friends were getting married, we resent the insinuation and argue that no, it’s because of how outstanding or special our beloved is, and how important to us. Nevertheless, imitative patterns among friends are not lightly discounted.
Perhaps you’re already guessing LeFou’s role in all of this. It’s not very hard to see that the dominating model in LeFou’s world is Gaston. The man he calls “perfect”, “a pure paragon” is the rule and example for what success looks like. LeFou, however, isn’t at odds with Gaston like the Beast is; LeFou is so far beneath Gaston in every capacity (strength, talent, popularity, height) that the idea of LeFou even being able to take something that Gaston desires for himself is unthinkable. The possibility of conflict, then, is foreclosed. Similarly, it is safe for someone at Hillsdale, to model the life of Alexander Hamilton or Don Quixote, pursuing what they pursued and dreaming their dreams; LeFou and Gaston have as much of a chance of conflicting over some contested beloved as the Hillsdalian ever would with Hamilton or Quixote. This gives their relationship a safe and well-defined dynamic. It is only when two agents are comparable but distinct, like Gaston and the Beast, that violent rivalry erupts.
What is present between Gaston and LeFou is the same old copycat pattern: Gaston has become more important, more primal to LeFou than any object that LeFou desires precisely because he’s imitating Gaston. Here the really crucial step may be made: if someone routinely fails to get what they want, they become more and more absorbed in whatever model they’re copying. LeFou, chronically overshadowed by Gaston, perhaps becomes obsessed with the very perfection that he’s been trying to emulate.
Note, by the way, that this desire is “necessarily homosexual, if the original desire is heterosexual; the erotic rival is an individual of the same sex as the subject,” as the French literary theorist Rene Girard comments on this theme (Theater of Envy 43; emphasis original). Girard, who traces the idea of mimetic theory in its multifoliate complexity throughout the works of William Shakespeare, reiterates that it is to be expected that constantly frustrated desire would bring about “a noticeably increased preponderance of the mediator and a gradual obliteration of the [desired] object,” generating precisely the homosexual tendency that some have identified since 1991 in LeFou (Ibid. 44).
All this is to say that, if LeFou doesn’t actively desire Gaston, he behaves just as they behave who actually do pine after members of the same sex. Since this is, as I hope I have shown, a corollary of natural human desire at work, I would briefly address the moral dimension of all of this. If we take Scripture as our moral arbiter and revelation, then I think that this understanding presents nothing inconsistent or difficult.
Some might take issue with this whole mimetic scheme simply from the fact that it could it entail that, under the “right” conditions, all of us are gay. This is only an issue, though, if we accept a couple of premises, all of which are problematic.
First of all, this may trouble some people who consider such desires themselves to be sinful. Now, I am unaware of any passage in either Testament forbidding “being gay” or “having gay desires”; as far as I am aware, what is forbidden are specific acts, or else lustful desires that apply just as cogently regarding the opposite sex (e.g., Matt. 5:27-28, where Christ says that looking at a woman with lustful intent means committing adultery in your heart).
Second, this is only an intelligible concern if we conceive of being “gay” as a mysterious, ineffable, unchangeable quality charged with moral weight and yet beyond our control — the very sort of romanticism which this theory opposes. If, rather, we think of desire as essentially mutable (and it is one of the most protean things about us) and on a continuous spectrum, this spectre disappears. Being gay or not is no longer some fixed-from-birth mystery about ourselves like our blood type that we discover when we’re older (although, technically, even blood type is determined early in the womb). It could meaningfully describe someone who entertains, encourages, or even gratifies such impulses, especially as a habit, but to suggest that any species of our desire is fixed at all is to ignore the vast catalogue of fickle human love.
Finally, it may strike some people as troubling that such desires, supposedly wrong to act on, are potentially so prevalent. In response, we should remember that while it is a common mistake to equate what is “normal” or “common” with what is “acceptable,” it is nothing more than a mistake: the inference between conventional and right is, logically, unwarrantable. Moreover, believers of Scripture understand that man’s very nature is sinful and that, consequently, one would expect a great many customary human behaviors to be steeped in error.
None of this, let me point out, actually addresses the question of whether or in what way it is right to depict this in art. A straightforward presentation showing human psychology need not be wrong in any way; returning to M. Girard’s subject matter, I think that Shakespeare’s incomparable art owes much of its greatness to the thorough exploration of these very ideas. Take one such passage from his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Helena is fighting with her dear childhood friend Hermia over a boy (Demetrius). Helena says,
“O, were favour so,
Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go!
My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,
My tongue should catch your tongue’s sweet melody.
Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I’d give to be to you translated.”
Girard points out how she “wants the whole body of Hermia,” and that some (mistakenly) read this as evidence of some “latent homosexuality” in her character (Theater of Envy 33). This passage, a direct address of this issue, succeeds as an element of a play about conflicting desire and romantic rivals because it frankly shows one more facet of desire. It neither condemns nor glorifies this tendency in and of itself; it demonstrates it as typical human behavior, as does most of Shakespeare’s work.
Shakespeare succeeds on the whole because, in a way, he studies the human psyche as a chemist studies elements; analyzing properties, noting patterns, recreating reactions. Desire, like feelings and Nitrogen, is neither wrong nor right; it simply is. It is not a proper source of shame in and of itself — though neither does it sanction the sort of idolatrous demands that Eros so often asks of a person. (“Come, bid me do anything for thee!” the newly infatuated Benedick asks Beatrice in another Shakespeare comedy, Much Ado About Nothing.)
While the subject matter of psychology might be closer to moral categories than chemicals are, one’s reading of a literary text is suboptimal if the first, last, and only question ever asked is, “but was this thing right for the character to do/say/think?”
Even the question of normality needs to be considered; a work of art may absolutely show something as “normal” without approving it (unless it also pushes the notion that what is common becomes or must be acceptable). While a work of art may portray something actually wrong and thereby attempt to make it more acceptable to their audience, and thereby abuse the art form, this needn’t be the case with every instance.
I think it sensible that in 1991 no controversy was generated by the cartoon film’s sketching the contours of LeFou’s frustrated psyche in a way that didn’t openly present to children controversial messages. Similarly, I think it only natural that a controversy would be generated today when a filmmaker would force precisely that content in his audience’s face, even just for a moment, in an otherwise innocent film.
Noah is a senior studying mathematics and Latin.