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Disney fails again at queer representation

Fans of quality queer cinema, rejoice: Disney has just recently unveiled their first openly gay character! Or, wait—is it their first? And hang on, just what does “openly gay” mean, anyway? To attempt to answer these questions, we must seek to unravel Disney’s history of less-than-satisfying attempts at queer representation.

Let’s take a brief look at Disney’s recent adventures with gay characters. The most recent character to hit the news appears in the Pixar fantasy movie “Onward,” which was released on March 6, 2020. “Onward” features Specter, a cyclops and police officer played by lesbian actress and screenwriter Lena Waithe. Specter is a relatively minor character who, at one point in the film, delivers the line “My girlfriend’s daughter got me pulling my hair out.” These nine words were enough to get “Onward” banned from theaters in four countries and to require that this scene be censored in Russia, according to NBC.

Before Specter came the character of LeFou in the live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast,” released in 2017. In promotional materials, the film’s director Bill Condon repeatedly hyped up the fact that the minor villain LeFou would be given an “exclusively gay moment” in the film, sparking multiple boycotts of the film. Upon the movie’s release, this controversial moment was revealed to be a shot of less than a few seconds of LeFou’s actor dancing with another man.

This phenomenon extends beyond children’s movies. The 2019 film “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” also touted “LGBT representation” that turned out to be a brief kiss in the background of a scene between two female resistance fighters—one of whom was named supporting character (Commander D’Acy, played by Amanda Lawrence) and one of whom was not named or previously featured in the film. Another 2019 release, the film “Avengers: Endgame,” featured a cameo from director Joe Russo as a man at a support group meeting discussing the loss of his male partner. 

Before most of these films hit theaters, their directors were already delivering soundbites about the important and groundbreaking nature of the “gay moments” they included. When interviewed by Deadline, Joe Russo stated that the inclusion of a gay character had been in the works for a long time and added that the present moment was “a perfect time [to introduce a gay character], because one of the things that is compelling about the Marvel Universe moving forward is its focus on diversity.” But are these minor moments of inclusion—never centering on major characters or lasting for more than a few seconds, easily excised from the film if censorship should be called for—truly groundbreaking, or worthy of praise?

While Disney has been increasing the frequency of these minor nods to same-sex desire, they continue to ignore their audience’s desire for queer storylines involving major, heroic characters. J.J. Abrams, director of “The Rise of Skywalker,” told Variety that “in the case of the LGBTQ community, it was important to me that people who go to see this movie feel that they’re being represented in the film.” However, in the same interview, he confirmed that fan-favorite male characters, Finn and Poe, would not be entering into a romantic relationship, claiming “that relationship to me is a far deeper one than a romantic one.”

Finn’s and Poe’s relationship has long been interpreted as potentially romantic by many fans (including Finn’s and Poe’s respective actors, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac), who see significant parallels between their relationship and the relationships of leading opposite-sex couples in the Star Wars franchise, such as Leia and Han Solo. Despite this, Abrams still opted to argue that the friendship between the two was too deep to become a romance (something that I’ve never heard argued about a relationship involving a man and a woman), and attempted to pacify his audience with a brief moment of plot-irrelevant queerness as an alternative.

Disney has even been walking back the incidental queerness of some of their older films. Their 1998 animated film “Mulan,” which features a woman (Fa Mulan) disguising herself as a man in order to join the army and a male love interest (Li Shang) who appears to fall in love with Mulan while she is still disguised as a man, is renowned in queer circles for its portrayal of fluid gender and sexuality. However, the 2020 live-action version of the same film will be cutting Li Shang and replacing him with the character Chen Honghui, who—Disney’s casting call was careful to specify—will not feel any attraction towards Mulan until discovering that she is a woman.

The ultimate goal of any corporation is to make money, and Disney is no different. Their extremely limited inclusion of gay characters is a calculated decision intended not to represent, but to profit—to attempt to draw in LGBT+ viewership and increase positive publicity while still not offending corporate audiences. However, they can’t have their rainbow cake and eat it too. These micro-moments of queer representation, which have garnered far more derision than praise from LGBT viewers, have still prompted protests by conservative groups and bans on the films in some overseas countries. Even films that were not marketed as involving LGBT content—such as the Pixar films “Toy Story 4” and “Finding Dory,” both of which featured brief background shots of two women standing together with children, causing some people to wonder if they were a couple—were boycotted by the fundamentalist group One Million Moms for attempting to “indoctrinate children with the LGBT agenda.”

Since conservative backlash is an inevitable consequence of even meaningless queer representation, and since Disney is hardly in danger of going bankrupt from lack of viewership, I don’t see a good reason for Disney not to try its hand at some meaningful storyline, something that LGBT+ kids might actually be able to see themselves in. However, I won’t be holding my breath; instead, I’ll invest my time and money in smaller creators who are willing to devote themselves fully to telling queer stories, and I advise that you do the same.