Why Do We Want Disney to Say Gay, Anyway?

Disney has a problem with gays. And not just the gays, either. Lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, non-binaries, queers — the whole LGBTQ+ community. The problem is this: they don’t know what to do about any of us. 

They flirt with including meaningful representation, then cut it out of their films at the last minute. They don’t take a position on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill; then, after a cycle of bad press and staff walkouts, say, “Hold on, we’ve changed our mind!” You, me, and every smartass with a Twitter account noticed that every year, Disney announces their “first openly gay character” will appear in an upcoming release. LeFou; the twink from Cruella; easily-edited-out background lesbian couples in Finding Dory, Rise of Skywalker, Toy Story 4, and the just-released Lightyear; sad Joe Russo in Avengers: Endgame; some guy in Jungle Cruise (so I’m told); and — who could forget? — the one-eyed orc-centaur lesbian cop from Onward

Progressives agree that this doesn’t really cut it. Conservatives respond it’s already too much. For every San Francisco there is a Florida. And in the middle there’s Disney, rushing themselves back and forth trying desperately to please both ends of its fanbase without making anyone too mad, hustling to maintain their brand as a beacon of “family friendly” values. To quote Walt himself: “The important thing is the family. If you can keep the family together — and that’s the backbone of our whole business, catering to families — that’s what we hope to do.”

One imagines this mission might be easier to achieve if your audience could agree on what constitutes a family — and family-friendly values — and what does not. They used to: a majority of Americans once considered the LGBTQ+ community a danger to the nuclear family. It’s no coincidence that just about every animated Disney antagonist, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) all the way through the end of the Renaissance, dripped with queer coding. Want your villain to read as such? Give them the aesthetics and mannerisms of culture, people, and practice frowned upon by the social majority. This trend is so well-defined, in fact, that there is now an entire branch of academia studying queer Disney villains – or, as their scholars prefer to call them, “quillains.”

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The Little Mermaid‘s villain, Ursula. (Courtesy: Disney)

One might think that given our constant smearing by Disney, the LGBTQ+ community wouldn’t have much patience for these characters or films, let alone love. But the opposite is true. Quillains have been embraced by the LGBTQ+ community: they’ve been reclaimed as icons. Although Disney’s goal may have been to create mean-spirited caricatures as a storytelling shortcut, more often than not, their creations instead reflect the thoughts and feelings of members of the community. Scar’s exhaustion with Simba (and the general idea of reproduction) in The Lion King, Ursula’s contempt for and manipulation of “the straights” in The Little Mermaid, whatever it was Cruella de Vil had going on in 101 Dalmatians: these characters lived non-normative lifestyles, and it seemed like they were having fun doing it.

It’s debatable how intentional or unintentional this coding has been on a case-by-case basis. Early quillains use tropes and stereotypes about the queer community in a way that is outright malicious; it’s pretty hard to look back fondly on Peter Pan’s foppish and whiny Captain Hook, for instance. But, as Disney’s storytelling evolved, so did its quillains. Mean stereotypes became homages and love letters. Ursula, famously, is modeled on the drag queen Divine. And almost every other renaissance-era quillain was animated by Andreas Deja, an openly gay man who had a hand in shaping how unapologetic these characters could be and how much they could relish in their quillainy.

Deja is not the only queer creator to have a profound influence on the creative direction and success of Disney’s films. The most famous example is playwright Howard Ashman, who introduced Broadway musical structures to Disney’s animated films and in so doing injecting them with the sense of humanity and reliability they’d struggled to find beforehand. While Ashman founded many important Disney tropes, the most essential — and most queer— is the “I Want” song. Simply put, it’s a moment when the protagonist expresses dissatisfaction with their life and longs for something new.

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Howard Ashman. (Courtesy: Disney+)

The Little Mermaid was Ashman’s first collaboration with Disney and contains ‘Part of Your World,’ maybe still the greatest “I Want” song ever written. Yearning for the chance to escape the confines of her life, Ariel swims towards the surface of the sea, eyes wide, singing about her desire to walk about “where the people are.” Although there is a universality to Ashman’s lyrics — who among us has not yearned for a life, a place, a feeling that extends beyond the reach of our grasp — there’s also an undeniably LGBTQ+ element. A trans reading of “Part of Your World” might focus on Ariel’s desire for a different body; a gay and lesbian reading on her desire for a new, more accepting community.

And every “I Want” song in the Disney canon contains similar LGBTQ+ themes. Belle wants to escape the inevitability of marriage (“Belle”). Quasimodo wants the chance to experience life on his own terms (“Out There”). Mulan wants her reflection to show who she feels she is inside (“Reflection”). The queer readings write themselves. 

All this is to say: if the quillains are queer icons, then the “I Want” songs are queer anthems. The LGBTQ+ community saw themselves represented as they were in the quillains and saw their yearning for what they wanted to be in the hero/ines. A one-sided relationship emerged: queers loved Disney, even if Disney didn’t love us.

Until, of course, they did.

Sort of.

Changing cultural values permitted (and arguably mandated) that Disney admit, yes, LGBTQ+ people do exist. In fact, they’re among the company’s most vocal and dedicated fans. Unfortunately, this admission arrived mostly in the form of truly garish rainbow patterned merchandise. But with changing values comes recognition that their queer-coding-equals-evil-storytelling-shortcut, while successful in accidentally earning the support of the community they more or less villified, remained a sustained campaign of vilification. 

This vilification reads particularly poorly as stories about Disney’s troubled history with LGBTQ+ employees become common knowledge. For decades, Disney profited from queer creatives like Ashman and Deja while publicly firing actors for being too gay. The looming threat stopped much of the staff discussing their personal lives. It stopped Ashman from being able to tell his friends he had been diagnosed with HIV for months. And it’s easy to think of these as “mistakes of the past.” But they simply aren’t. Last year’s sexual orientation discrimination lawsuit against the company proved it, and this year’s…how shall I say it… shitstorm with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill cements it. Disney has not succeeded at shifting internal politics on gender and sexuality. 

The company’s past is so littered with similar faux pas that it’s backed itself into a corner. Disney wants to maintain its standing as a one-stop-shop for “family friendly” values and morals. But this is impossible to do without Disney acknowledging that a great deal of its legacy is built on images and ideas that read poorly to a lot of people today. (It’s also worth adding that it’s not just LGBTQ+ issues where the company stumbles; they’ve historically scored pretty poorly on racism, sexism, and ableism, too.)

The solution Disney has decided upon is a campaign of refurbishment. The slow phasing out of old values to be replaced with updated ones. While we can spy this refurbishment everywhere — from the revamping of culturally “Yikes!” rides at Disney World to the relentless self-aware jokes about Disney princesses and antiquated values — the campaign is most visible in Disney’s live-action remakes. 

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Josh Gad as LeFou and Luke Evans as Gaston in Disney’s live action Beauty and The Beast. (Courtesy: Disney)

A cornerstone of their marketing highlights the “flaws” of the original, which the remake seeks to “fix.” And one of the most consistent, pernicious “flaws” is Disney’s deception of LGBTQ+ stereotypes. In the “fixed” stories, quillains are sanded down to husks of their former selves. Scar is no longer sarcastic and bitchy, he’s just kind of boring. Gaston’s campiness is largely gone – although he does, thankfully, still use antlers in all of his decorating. And I can’t even bring myself to discuss Jafar’s rebranding from queer legend to incel. The only quillain who escapes largely unscathed is Cinderella’s Lady Tremain, but I chalk that up to the combined power of Kenneth Branagh and Cate Blanchett hamming it up more than any to active choice on Disney’s part. And I dread the thought of what Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula will be like.

Assuming for a moment that these changes are coming from a well-intentioned place (they aren’t), and that Disney really is trying to rethink how they deploy LGBTQ+ stereotypes (they’re not), we have to look at the representation is being provided in its place. So far, the best Disney’s mustered is a gay man in a one-sided toxic relationship, a twink who says “Yass queen” when Cruella does fashion crime (I thought we’d stopped using gay characters as accessories for female protagonists?), and a smorgasbord of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them background lesbian couples. I would be less critical of these additions if they weren’t marketed as steps forward for representation, if they weren’t replacements for characters who’ve had a far more profound effect on queer identities and journeys.

It would be easy to label Disney as just another company participating in Rainbow Capitalism. But that’s not really it. They know they’re a cultural institution, a company who, for better or worse, a big chunk of he moviegoing public still considers an arbiter of morals. They also know they have a large group of LGBTQ+ fans who would see meaningful inclusion of a queer character as a kind of “We Did It” moment, a sign of recognition and a symbol of acceptance. And Disney knows they have a much larger fanbase who would boycott their films, their streaming service, their merchandise if such a moment of inclusion were to ever happen. 

So, they promise that the good representation is just around the corner, that soon they will say “Gay.” And then they never deliver on it. The LGBTQ+ community is Charlie Brown; Disney is Lucy; representation is the football. It’s exploitation, plain and simple.

It’s time, then, to admit that good LGBTQ+ representation from Disney just won’t happen, and to look for it elsewhere. Because what love and loyalty they won from the community they won by accident. What stands they have taken for our rights they have taken under duress. At every turn, Disney has treated fans poorly, and creators even worse. Once, we had the dignity of being quillains. Now, we are not even that. We are endless wells of cash. All it takes to keep the money flowing is an empty promise once a year. We can’t change their politics. But we can at least stop buying into them.

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