Disney + Gay = Conflicted

(photo courtesy of shopDisney)

Disney is hella gay. You’re laughing but think about it. The LGBTQ+ community and Disney fans have a large amount of overlap. That hypothetical Venn diagram would be close to just one giant circle. (That circle would, of course, be made out of glitter, glow-in-the-dark paint, and recycled Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again posters, because duh.) From personal experience, the world of Disney has been an accepting one. Its stories are ones that I can escape into, away from oppression or the woes of the world. Worried my rights will be taken away by new Supreme Court justices? Might as well take a trip under the sea with my favorite mermaid. Called a ‘faggot’ on social media by cyberbullies? Let me step away from it all and attend the coronation of Genovia’s new queen.

These films, these stories, these characters all let me enter new and fantastical worlds. On top of that, the Disney company has been a welcome one for members of the community for decades. In 2014, Glassdoor.com, a workplace insight website, compiled the Top 25 Companies to work for if a member of the LGBTQ+ community, where Disney ranked at Number 15. The company is welcoming, supportive, and embraces the members of the community.

Recently the Walt Disney World resort held remembrance events for the Pulse nightclub shooting, had panels featuring important LGBTQ+ figures within the company, and always have a large presence in California and Florida pride events. They are great allies to have, especially since theyare consistently vocal about their support of the community with words and their money. . They were the biggest donor to the OneOrlando fund set in place after the Pulse shooting and just donated $50,000 to GLSEN, an organization promoting inclusivity in schools relating to sexuality.

For me, Disney has always been the ultimate safe space. I may see a “Make America Great Again” hat, but I know they aren’t the norm at Happiest Place on Earth. They have their arms open wide and ready to welcome anyone and everyone into their kingdom.

Now, when you look at Disney’s television properties, they’ve done a decent enough job portraying individuals who identify as part of the community. ABC has been a great example of this, thanks to their progressive and openminded mindset for their programming. In 2007, Dirty Sexy Money featured the first transgender actress in recurring role on broadcast television, played by Candis Cayne. Shonda Rhimes’ trio of “Thank God It’s Thursday” shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder) have all had major LGBTQ+ characters from their inception. Grey’s Anatomy also holds the distinction of having the longest running LGBTQ+ character in television history, with Callie Torres (played by out bisexual actress, Sara Ramirez) starring in over 200 episodes.

Even more recently (and more problematically), Roseanne featured a genderqueer child as part of the Conner family. While the discussions about him on the show weren’t ideal, as they saw their genderqueer family member as “the only good one.” Their views that were mentioned numerous times on the show contradicted their progressive attitude toward their genderqueer family member. While the representation was there, I’m hopeful that with Roseanne’s removal, The Conners can tackle the child’s experience more as a genderqueer character on television, such as the bullying, the idea that other parents have to tell your kid how to act, the idea of toxic masculinity, etc.

Disney Channel also recently broke ground by having their first out LGBTQ+ character on Andi Mack. Played by Joshua Rush, Cyrus revealed that he was attracted to Asher on the show, breaking major ground for a children’s network. No other tween-centric show on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon has ever discussed sexuality in such a frank way, especially when considering a major tween character. The moment was such an emotional one for me (which I discussed here). Seeing someone discussing their confusion with their own sexuality was something I experienced firsthand, and seeing how big its impact could be moved me profoundly. As Cyrus sat next to his friend Buffy and silently nod his head that he was jealous of Andi, since she was with Asher and not him, I felt all those suppressed feelings I had in middle school, crushing on guys but knowing I couldn’t say anything. It was beautifully done and so important.

While all the good we’ve received from the parks and television branches of the company, the film branch has left something less than desired. To be completely frank, they screw up. A lot. It has started to become offensive their lack of awareness on their ignorance of the LGBTQ+ community. There are a few major instances of their ignorance, so let’s break them down individually:

The Beauty and the Beast Lefou Debacle of 2K17: This ordeal was making the definition of over exaggeration from all parties involved. In an interview with director Bill Condon, he stated that LeFou (Gaston’s humorous sidekick) would have an “exclusively gay moment.” Expectations immediately went through the roof from those excited for seeing representation, finally, from a Disney film. Would there be a kiss? A sentence saying that he was dating another man? What would it be?!

The backlash was fast and from large entities, and no one had even seen “the moment.” China, Russia, and Malaysia all upped their movie ratings to the equivalent of PG-13 so children weren’t exposed to this “exclusively gay moment.” A drive-in theater in Alabama banned the movie from being shown for fear of tainting the residents of the state, I guess? It was all much ado about nothing.

Well, it was next to nothing. In the final dance number, LeFou ends up in the arms of a male French village person. That’s it. That was the moment. This moment led to backlash from countries across the world, boycotts, and gay hysteria. It was underwhelming, boring, and insulting.

What made it worse was Bill’s declaration that it was in honor of Beauty and the Beast musical genius, Howard Ashman. He wrote the lyrics for the show back during the film’s inception but passed away from AIDS in the 1990s. As an out gay man, I can guarantee you that he would’ve been stunned at how stupid and small this “exclusively gay moment” ended up being.

So, not only was the moment not a moment at all, but it was in honor of a pioneer of the LGBTQ+ community. That’s a big ‘ole double whammy.

Mulan and its Anti-Shang Live-Action Remake: The Disney animated film about the titular character dressing as a man and going into war to save her father from possible death has become a favorite amongst the LGBTQ+ community for many reasons. The power that Mulan feels by cross-dressing/the power she had all along has become an allegory of sorts for the coming out process. (On a smaller note, the vaguely homoerotic song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” has been celebrated as such for years.)

However, the biggest takeaway and internet movement to come from the film is Shang as an accidental bisexual icon. His role in the movie as Mulan’s love interest is more prevalent once Mulan reveals she is actually a woman and not “Ping,” her male persona. However, he is seen as being confused and attracted to Ping throughout the film, before her reveal. He is attracted no matter the gender. The internet took this and ran with it and he has been called Disney’s first bi character, even though it is never said in the film.

Mulan is one of the next films on the docket for a live-action remake, and the controversy around the film has been prevalent since the jump. Many worried that Disney wouldn’t cast actual Chinese actors in key roles (which is a whole other can of worms to open at a different time). Some were concerned that female voices wouldn’t be represented behind the scenes, and even after a female director was hired to helm the film, many were disappointed it wasn’t a woman of Asian descent.

Yet, the biggest controversy was the exclusion of Shang as the love interest in the remake. That’s right, the character who fell into being a bisexual icon has been removed from the film’s newest incarnation.  Shang will be replaced with Chen Honghui, described as “a confident and ambitious recruit who joins Commander Tung’s unit. He becomes Mulan’s most important ally and eventual love interest.” The worry is these bisexual ideas and tendencies will be erased completely.

That is how badly the audience wants an LGBTQ+ in Disney films. That the one that only kind of fits that box being removed is a 5-alarm controversy. Here’s hoping Chen can fill the void of no Shang for the community.

#GiveElsaAGirlfriend: Like mentioned above, the LGBTQ+ community is so hungry for representation, that they will call something gay when it hasn’t been discussed at all. Frozen brought another wave of those discussions with Elsa’s 11 o’clock number, “Let It Go.” The song became, just like “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” a gay anthem. The song is an accidental allegory for the coming out experience. “Don’t let them in, don’t let them see…Let it go, can’t hold it back anymore.” The lyrics really held true to a lot of individuals coming to terms with their sexuality.

So, from that, came the Twitter campaign. People on the internet decided that Elsa should have a girlfriend in the sequel. It was that simple. #GiveElsaAGirlfriend began and the klout of the hashtag spread like wildfires.

The conversation grew from the LGBTQ+ community on Twitter, to the Twitter audience at large, to news organizations, and eventually, the people involved with the film. Jennifer Lee, the sequel’s writer and director responded to the hashtag movement when asked about it by The Huffington Post by saying “I love everything people are saying [and] people are thinking about with our film―that it’s creating dialogue, that Elsa is this wonderful character that speaks to so many people. It means the world to us that we’re part of these conversations. Where we’re going with it, we have tons of conversations about it, and we’re really conscientious about these things.”

That response showed that Jennifer was at least considering the idea of Elsa having a girlfriend, but it wasn’t a confirmation. In other words, no one should be holding their breath about the possibility of Elsa turning up in the sequel with a new girlfriend in Arendelle.

Idina Menzel was asked about it by Entertainment Tonight, to which she responded with “I think it’s great. Disney’s just gotta contend with that. I’ll let them figure that out.” So, Idina’s on board. Jennifer is on board. Let’s see if Disney follows through with the idea and actually makes it a reality.

Marvel Comics vs. Films: Marvel, now owned by Disney, has had a fraught reputation with LGBTQ+ representation since at least the 1980s. It all stems back to the comics division, aka the root of Marvel’s success. A 1980 issue of Rampaging Hulk featured the first two out-gay characters in a Marvel comic. Yet, they were rapists, luring in Bruce Banner with highly inappropriate and offensive language. Jim Shooter wrote the issue and then became the editor-in-chief of Marvel comics for a large majority of the decade and he was rumored to have instituted a “no gays” policy in all Marvel comics.

The next character to finally make an appearance as gay was Northstar, who was apparently intended to be gay since his premiere in 1979. Shooter had a major role in rejecting an AIDS storyline for Northstar in 1986, further diluting any representation for the LGBTQ+ community. The new editor-in-chief, Joe Quesada, the representation count has been numerous. X-Men have had same sex marriages, Iceman and America have placed identifying members at the forefront of their own stories, etc. It has been great in the comics branch of the company.

And yet, now that the comics have a plentiful array of characters to choose from and highlight in their films, they continue to pass them over. Even more worrisome, they have brought to the screen many characters who are out and proud in the comics, but completely skip over their sexualities when it comes time to feature them on screen.

Black Panther, released this February to great acclaim and box office receipts, cut a scene with two members of the Dora Milaje flirting with each other. One of them, Ayo, has had a queer storyline for her in two various Black Panther based comics, the titular series and World of Wakanda. Writer for the latter, Roxanne Gay, found the cut scene very disappointing, saying “Even when great progress is made, some marginalized groups are told to wait, are told, not yet, are told, let’s do this first and then we will get to you. And we are also told we’re asking too much, that we should be grateful for what progress is being made. But I don’t buy into that. It would have been incredible and so gratifying to see a queer black woman in what will likely be the biggest movie of the year. Alas, not yet.”

Valkryie in Thor: Ragnarok, released last November, has been queer in the comics for years, becoming a key part of her constant storylines in the comics. However, in the blockbuster film, there was no mention or insinuation of her sexuality. In fact, Tessa Thompson, the actress who portrays her, has recently come out as bisexual herself, but her character remains silent.

Jeff Feige was asked, point blank, if future Marvel films would feature an out queer character. He responded by saying multiple ones would be featured, “both ones you’ve seen and ones you haven’t seen.” Many believe that Valkryie is one of the characters that will get an out queer storyline in the future, but we have yet to see or hear and traction.

Feige’s response is the perfect example of the LGBTQ+ representation in films. They say it’s coming. They hint at it being present in upcoming films. Sometimes, they skirt around the question, so people can create these elaborate answers in their head, even though they confirmed absolutely nothing in reality. Disney has been doing this for years and even more so in recent memory. Looking forward into the upcoming slate of films, I’m personally not sure if it will even come to fruition.

Just like mentioned Roxanne Gay’s quote above, the LGBTQ+ community has been told to wait, be patient, and look towards the future for decades now. The community isn’t asking for a lot from Disney, either. They just want an out and proud character to be on screen after that iconic Disney title card plays at the beginning of the film.

My worry is that we’ll be waiting for a while. With the current administration in office and the “political aura” surrounding this country, representation has become a weapon. Will saying someone’s gay, or highlighting a narrative from a person of color, or having a woman lead a major storyline cause half of our Trump voting public to boycott the film?

These worries should not be present. Disney should know their own strengths and pursue highlighting these marginalized voices of the LGBTQ+ community in films, especially considering that they are one of the largest media conglomerates on earth and, simultaneously, one of the strongest LGBTQ+ allies in the world. Disney is “hella gay,” yes, but embracing that feeling of compassion, representation, and lifting up one another through LGBTQ+ storylines in their films would make Disney even gayer and would make me, as a queer Disney fan, even prouder. Here’s to the future of multiple sexualities in Disney films and multiple individuals around the world feeling safer knowing that Disney supports their truth.

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