“I cried,” was one of the first things my mother said when she called after watching the live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast.” “She reminded me so much of you!”
Duh, Mum: I’m the bookish daughter of the modern-day equivalent of an inventor, and while my hometown wasn’t as poor or provincial as an 18th-century French village, it was small enough that I longed for my adventure in the great wide somewhere. Even in the good old days when I still consented to wearing dresses, I never wanted to be a princess. I wanted to be Belle.
As befits the movie’s message, my connection to the original animated “Beauty and the Beast” is more internal than external. It has to be: I’m Malaysian Chinese born and bred and will never look like the hazel-eyed, fair-skinned Belle, not to mention the slight cultural barrier that results from growing up on the other side of the globe. Still,“Beauty and the Beast” was the only representation I felt that I had in media for a long time. (“Mulan” does not count because its portrayal of Chinese culture is frankly just off-putting to me—but that’s a rant for another time). Belle struggled for acceptance without compromising her unique character. She rescued others more than she needed rescuing. She had the courage to rebuff Gaston and confront the Beast about his anger management issues. Most importantly, she clearly prized the Beast’s library over the signature gown that she wears in that one glorious ballroom scene that never fails to delight my little nerdy self. Belle embodied all of the personality traits I possessed or wanted to possess, traits my society (like her village’s residents) looked askance upon. Watching her hold her head high and persevere inspired me to take a page out of her book. I resisted a future with the resident boorish brute because she paved the way before me.
If you’ve read Kyle’s article on tattoo culture at Swat, you’ll know that I got a tattoo of the stained glass rose from the movie almost as soon as I turned 18. It was the one thing I truly cared about enough to know that I wouldn’t regret having it inked on my person many years (and many wrinkles) down the line. Case in point, to say that I’m invested in the tale as old as time may be an understatement.
That makes my country’s initial ban on the 2017 live-action remake feel all the more like a sucker punch to the heart. Their justification? “Malaysia does not recognise the LGBT ideology.”
The scandal surrounding this decision arose over director Bill Condon’s statement that the new “Beauty and the Beast” would include an “exclusively gay moment” featuring Le Fou, Gaston’s loyal sidekick. As far as LGBTQ+ representation goes, it’s far from spectacular: the very name “Le Fou” is a phonetic pun on “fool” and means “the madman” in French. He’s portrayed as a bumbling fanboy in the original animation and is obviously an antagonist, which makes it hard to like him, let alone want to identify with him. The remake plays into Hollywood’s “flaming queen” stereotype of gay men but otherwise does far better by way of Le Fou’s characterization than the original. Still, this new Le Fou is someone I feel vaguely sorry for, not someone I’d aspire to emulate. And the “exclusively gay moment” is really more like several poorly veiled implications of gayness and a glimpse of two men looking at each other that went by so quickly, I totally missed it the first time round and only caught it the second time because I was looking very hard.*
I suppose the inclusion of Le Fou’s gayness been hailed as a significant step forward solely because Disney is a super-corporation that owns a disturbingly large portion of people’s childhoods, and their acknowledgement of a fraction of the LGBTQ+ community’s existence is cool. This inclusion doesn’t change the fact that watching the movie won’t “turn children gay.” I’d hate to break it to the paranoid Malaysian population, but that’s really not how it works. And what’s all this about “ideology?” What about LGBTQ+ acceptance is “ideal” as opposed to “humane?”
Being queer myself never factored into my appreciation of the original animation except, perhaps, in a slight increase in my empathy towards the whole misfit-longing-to-be-accepted paradigm. It’s just not a big deal in the narrative arc of my life. I’m the clever, independent, witty (or so I think) protagonist, regardless of the gender of my Beast. I couldn’t be happier that Disney decided to include their first canonically gay character in this particular movie; I also wouldn’t have given a hoot if they’d never even considered it. But that’s precisely why my country’s reaction hit so close to home. Banning the remake was an effective statement that “it doesn’t matter if your story is about kindness and humility and personal growth. It doesn’t matter if there’s a trailblazing female lead who is confident in her self-worth. As long as there’s even a hint of same-gender romantic attraction, we don’t want you here because there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.”
Emma Watson’s Belle is even gutsier and smarter and more independent than her 2D predecessor, plus she’s an inventor and feminist in her own right. Malaysia’s rejection of her, along with all the many aspects of the remake that I thought were significant improvements from the original, felt like a rejection of me. No, worse. All that I had accomplished, all I’d managed to become thanks to the affirmation I had as a little girl watching Belle slam the door in her suitor’s face for the first time, was reduced to a single incriminating label and then tossed out the window. I was struck with the chilling realization that I would never amount to anything in my country’s eyes, as long as I refused to hide or shed the LGBTQ+ brand.
But perhaps I’m giving homophobia too much credit here. The thing is, Belle is fundamentally a female character marketed towards a young female audience. Member of Parliament Datuk Shabudin Yahaya (who I am disgusted and ashamed to admit hails from my hometown) was recently quoted advocating for female rape victims to marry their rapists. This was said in objection to a proposed amendment to our national Child Sexual Offences Bill that would invalidate child marriages. The public backlash against this statement has been appropriately severe, but Yahaya remains in office and the amendment was voted down. If that doesn’t speak volumes on just how little Malaysia values its girls, or cares about them having a non-submissive role model in the media to look up to, I don’t know what will.
On a much more cheerful note, “Beauty and the Beast” ultimately got its real-life happy ending when it opened to great commercial success in theaters nationwide, two weeks after the intended release date. After a messy process of public hissy fits and administrative head-scratching, the Malaysian Film Appeal Committee, which is slightly higher up in the pecking order than the Film Censorship Board, conceded that the movie’s good qualities outweighed the “negative aspects” and overturned the ban.** But that did little to mollify my anger and hurt at the continued perpetuation of the “anti-gay” sentiment and the initial blasé dismissal of a story that was crucial to my formative years, that could be crucial to another little girl now in her formative years. These feelings lingered in the back of my mind, leaving a slightly bitter aftertaste to my 2017 “Beauty and the Beast” cinematic experience.
However, watching the live-action remake in the midst of all this turmoil also reminded me of why I chose to get a tattoo specifically of the stained glass rose. You see, stained glass is delicate but beautiful, far stronger than the illusion of cracks that the lines suggest. Delicate but beautiful and far stronger than it looks, like the hope and perseverance the rose in the jar symbolized to the inhabitants of the Beast’s castle; like the hope and perseverance I still have for a more equal future for myself and my country. Until I can make that future my present, I wear my tattoo like an open invitation and a taunt, saying “Here is the brand I have impressed upon myself. Try if you like to break the glass. You’ll soon find that you cannot.”
(And, if nothing else, wanting to get rid of the aforementioned bitter aftertaste served as the perfect excuse to go see the movie again when I was in a better mood.)
*As of the writing of this article, I’ve watched the live-action remake three times in theaters. It is extremely likely that this statistic has increased by the time you are reading this.
**For added context, here’s a slightly less oversimplified summary of what happened: the censorship board asked Disney to cut about 5 minutes (the “gay parts”) out of the film, Disney refused, the film was indefinitely banned, the public hissy fits and administrative head-scratching happened, and then the Film Appeal Committee rolled their eyes at the whole debacle, slapped a PG-13 label on the film and waved it through.