Malaysia recently banned the screening of the movie Beauty and the Beast due to a scene depicting a gay character, to which Disney replied that it would indefinitely pull the movie altogether from Malaysia rather than simply cut the scene in question. The question is why does an innocuous scene stir so much controversy? After all, the scene pales in significance to the message of the movie, which is that inner beauty is more important than outer beauty (or in the Beast’s case, a lack of beauty). While there has been extensive research on the innuendos that cartoons and children’s shows purportedly depict, the censoring of a film for a scene that depicts a gay character is, I feel, a regression in our open-mindedness towards individuals who are deemed to be ‘deviant’. Secondly, it also reveals what kinds of orientations or behaviours we consider more morally repugnant.
The gay character in the movie is LeFou (played by Josh Gad) who is a sidekick to his master Gaston, played by Luke Evans. While Gaston is someone who uses his charm to exploit others, LeFou is confused about the feelings he may have for Gaston. LeFou is shown to be clingy towards Gaston, who, being a heterosexual, is clearly not romantically interested in him. According to Malaysian authorities, portraying a gay character in movies upsets the social fabric of the Muslim majority country that criminalizes homosexual activity. While Malaysia agreed to screen the movie in cinemas following the removal of the scene, Disney defied the censorship, stating that it will give Malaysia until the 30th of March to decide if it will show the movie without the cut scene.
This decision to cut the scene, and with that the ’30th March’ ultimatum, reflects how homosexuality is viewed in Malaysia, both from a legal and religious point of view. Under the State and Sharia courts, homosexual activity is illegal and punishments for participating in such activities are harsh. There is a similar ban in Singapore (Section 377A), although it is not strictly enforced. The Malaysian authorities stress that from a religious point of view, homosexuality is antithetical to Islam. The chairman of the Censorship Board, Datuk Abdul Halim Abdul Hamid, defended the decision to cut the scene, noting that the Board would have to answer to parents who might be concerned that their children are being exposed to this material. Parents would question the Board regarding its stand on homosexuals.
In fact, it was only last month that the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim in Malay) released a three-minute video explaining how the Islamic community can guide homosexuals into changing their sexual orientation through ‘proper training’. It also urged homosexuals to repent for their homosexuality by fulfilling their sexual desires through heterosexual marriage. While Jakim could be given credit for stressing on not being hateful towards the LGBT community, the video shows that homosexuality is an illness that can and must be cured.
What a religion such as Islam says about homosexuality is not the concern here. The concern here is that the decision to cut the scene, especially so that children won’t be able to see it, shows how homosexuality is seen to be harmful to Malaysia’s social fabric. The censorship is merely symptomatic of this view. More worryingly, it reflects a stigma on homosexuals who have seemingly committed the crime of homosexuality.
What is more inexplicable is the reason the movie caught the eye of the Malaysian authorities. I don’t think it is lost on anyone that the protagonists of the movie are a human and an animal who romantically love each other. If one were to indulge in far-fetched thinking, he/she could say that the movie encourages bestial relationships, or the idea that such relationships are normal. Yet, the Malaysian authorities did not adopt this view. They were not consistent in their criticisms of the movie. Rather, they were selectively critical. Somehow, homosexuality is offensive to the Muslim consciousness but not bestiality. I am not simply trying to dismiss the Malaysian authorities’ criticism of the movie with another criticism. My point is that we need leaders who do not have double standards when they give a moral opinion on a controversy and more importantly, leaders who know to deal with such controversy in the first place.