The following research coincided with a previous research project in a collaboration with Lauren McKenna and Dr. David Gerstner. The previous research, as presented at the City University of New York’s Undergraduate research conference in May of 2017, further explored the themes of LGBTQ representation in film as a whole and also expanded on the topics of women’s representation as well. This analytical piece looks at the presentation of minority characters in the animated works of Disney from the Disney renaissance, beginning in 1989 with The Little Mermaid and ending in present day. I have examined how LGBTQ traits and characters are represented historically and analyzed the evolution of that representation in Disney films while correlating this research to the strife of black people in film history. I strongly suspected a pattern wherein LGBTQ individuals are represented in film, and a pattern in the traits and characteristics that these people possessed in accordance with the evolution of film and television.
In conjunction with previous research, I note that when production and cast members identify as LGBTQ, the themes and characters also under the LGBTQ umbrella can be recognized. This research in conjunction with past studies — helps to highlight what LGBTQ traits stereotypically are, as theorized by film historians Vito Russo and Sean Griffin. The research further explores how these stereotypes evolve and change for both producers and audiences over time and calls attention to patterns that arise in the representation of minorities.
There are clear changes with the perception of where LGBTQ characters and traits fit in narratives over time, and the response from the American populace is varied with conservative critics and progressive critics both offering stark, negative evaluations of the changes. This research also showcases why those critiques are brought up at all and why these character tropes exist at all for LGBTQ or minority people. Disney is often recognized for being gay friendly or supportive of progressive ideals and concepts, however after examining this more it is difficult to support that idea. Disney is not honestly the supportive mogul some suggest it is.
The reality is their promotion of progressive ideals is only prevalent when those promotions are economically beneficial and supportive of their capitalistic ventures. Our desire it to call attention to the impact of representation because of its importance in its ability to lead people to a greater awareness of the social and political issues of the LGBTQ community.
The First Representations of LGBTQ People in Film
A debate exists about the origins of LGBTQ in film, with some suggesting that The Dickson Sound Film (1894/95) should be considered the first LGBTQ themed short film as it portrays two male characters dancing together. For some this film presents the first gay/queer characters in film history with a clear physical comfort shown between male characters. Others see this representation as merely two men dancing together who are simply “fanciful” men from an elite culture class. Even when considering this, this suggestion brings up the first notes of where in society that queer mannerisms or traits could be permitted at all. The elite-class was shown as the only place that this “fanciful” nature was “normal.”
In Vito Russo’s book, The Celluloid Closet (1981), this film is included under the title The Gay Brothers, although there is no evidence that the film was ever formally titled as such by its producers. Film critic, Parker Tyler also expressed a similar view about the film in that it “shocked audiences with its subversion of conventional male behavior.” Many theorists argue this is not the case, since ‘gay’ was not used to describe homosexuality during this time, and it was not uncommon for men to attend same gender dances (Ricciotti 2011). The film opens discussion about how we identify “gay” images on the screen and what those images mean.
The clarity of what exactly defines queer characteristics in late 19th-century/early 20th-century film is indeed highly debated. Some have suggested that any personal contact (hugging, dancing, etc.) at all between two men was, in itself, taboo and considered queer. Russo’s argument is aligned with this stance. Justin DeFreitas, however, claims otherwise in his article Moving Pictures: Documentary Puts Modern Gay Cinema in Context (2006). DeFreitas argues “the film had nothing at all to do with homosexuality, and in fact was not even a commercial release; it was a simple in-house experiment.” There is no definitive evidence that they were looking to explore the political repercussions of this act.
In our research we found it hard to cement this film as the first representation of queer culture in film as the dance scene in question is not substantial enough to warrant the title, The Gay Brothers when the culture of the time and the nature of the film are taken into consideration. Moreover, our understanding of the articles surrounding this film does not show these characters to fall under the umbrella of having queer characteristics outside of its suggestion that elite culture could connote queer characteristics. Later in film, the stereotypes and trends of queer traits become much clearer and extend beyond a social class category.
Characters that began to represent more blatant queer traits as defined by the more contemporary definition of femininity and over-sexualization (MediaSmarts, 2009) may be noted in the 1914 film, A Florida Enchantment. Unconventional sexualities are explored in the film, and are thus shared with wider audiences given the time frame in which it was released. Hollywood began to solidify itself as a major film presence in the world, but gltbq.com claims that even during this time the studios often faced scrutiny for the “rampant debauchery” of drugs and sex in the industry.
Twenty years later a wide group of filmmakers and studio moguls that would come to be known as the Motion Pictures Association of America directed William H. Hays to draft guidelines for the industry in 1922. These guidelines were more strictly enforced from 1930 to 1968 (Doherty, 1999). Specifically they call to attention the need to restrict explicit representations of homosexuality. These regulations and exclusionary actions prevented the proliferation of queer characters in film shown to the American, and international public. These guidelines were based on, among others, three guiding principles;
“- No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
– Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
– Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.” – Excerpt from the “Hays Code”
Hollywood’s conservative agenda raises the question over how the American society’s attitudes towards LGBTQ people would have differed if these regulations were never implemented at all. Even further, considering the American cultural influence on the global scale it can raise the question of how much it altered the world-wide perception of LGBTQ people and their relation to film and media. Nonetheless, films such as A Florida Enchantment, Manslaughter (1922), and others offered greater freedom to represent queer characters because of the lack of regulations at the time. Moreover, many savvy directors bypassed the strictures of the code through creative and subtle use of cinematic form.
Though some may argue these representations were not inherently beneficial to the LGBTQ community one could conclude that the counter-action of having zero representation would be even more stifling to the progression and evolution of LGBT culture. Not adhering to the “Hays Code” could potentially upset the audiences themselves and lead to a degraded public-relations representation of the studios.
According Sean Griffin, the queer characteristics presented in films during this period of the 1920s include men who were “sissy,” effeminate, flamboyant, and humorous. The women were often represented as butch, manly, and often criminals, as is the case in A Florida Enchantment.
These representations quickly generated a pattern of LGBTQ characters who were placed into a particular performative box. These performative restrictions were different from those for heterosexual men and women who had their own designated terms for representation set by the Code along with more general cultural direction based on social feedback. The LGBTQ characters represented in early films, in other words, were required to have clear distinctive characteristics, relative to straight people in American society.
Their “queer” traits, however, could not overlap too severely with mainstream perspectives, lest they would alienate and estrange the purportedly straight viewers.
The unspoken goal was to acknowledge and present the existence of LGBTQ people, but to show them in a way as “the other” and something that mainstream audiences could critique and identify against.
Bruce Drake’s article, “How LGBT Adults See Society and How the Public Sees Them,” provides a study about the general societal view that considers “being gay” as controversial. As Drake argues, such controversial images may be linked directly to the rise of film and media industries and the mass consumption of these forms. Previous to the inclusion of LGBTQ representation in early mass media, religious repression of homosexuality and queer culture as pointed out by John Boswell’s piece “The Church and the Homosexual: An Historical Perspective” led to many critical and over-exaggerated stereotypes that early LGBTQ characters were assigned. The gay characters had to be gay-er to make their qualities more clear-cut and less likely to overlap into a character that could generate sympathy or connecting social links to the mainstream heterosexual audience.
Relating this point to Disney’s perspective in their film making, our analysis shows that Disney represents people in very defined categories. The characteristics and tropes that characters and families are allowed to express in their films is very regimented with Disney princesses, princes, and supporting characters fulfilling similar designated roles throughout each of their films. It is only recently that this trend began to evolve with independent women protagonists with no love interest starring in some the latest Disney animated films. Outside of a few stand-out examples, the isolation of certain types of people and the way they are allowed to be expressed is more controlled and reserved.
LGBTQ Politics of Representation
Understanding how the politics of representation can influence the perceived idea of who LGBTQ people is a key factor in identifying queer characters. Just who are gay men in film? Sean Griffin explains in “Queer images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America” that they are typically more effeminate, have flamboyant tendencies/mannerisms, and are usually shown as comedic tropes. This point of comedic tropes is a critical aspect of the definition of where LGBTQ people can be socially accepted.
When looking at the trend of African American representation in media we can notice clear similarities in the potrayal of this minority to the LGBTQ minorities. Early in film history black people were represented as only being able to serve as butlers, maids, or servants (i.e. lower class peoples) to help the protagonist. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that black men were shown to have some value through entertainment. Edith J. R. Isaachs explains in 1942 that “Even today the motion picture has not quite outgrown its immaturity. It still uses talented ‘Negro’ players to fit into the ~d stereotypes of the loving Mammy and comic servant…” It largely remained that way until the 1970s when the cool, suave black man became prevalent following the civil rights movement and reinvigorated image of the black American.
The similarities between black American representation and LGBTQ American representation are distinct in that they showcase the minority as a distinct choice to be included in film or television. The roles that these groups are permitted in film (whether it be explicit permissions form directors/producers or implicit permissions from the social climate) are often not represented as people that can simply exist. These characters need to be placed there for a specific purpose.
Gay characters today are often following similar tropes and rules of presentation — either being displayed as severely ostracized members of society in very early films, or being shown as purely comedic characters in more modern films. It is reasonable to extrapolate the idea that perhaps the cool, suave gay trope may be coming to the forefront soon with someone like Neil Patrick Harris often being scene as, as one Gawker author puts it: “the straight guy’s gay guy.” (Lawson, 2008) The presentation of gay characters in media will continually evolve and the next trope to popularize media will depend on social events that can extend beyond even film and television.
It’s difficult to predict the future with any absolute certainty, but for now we can look at the most popular LGBTQ-defined stereotypes that exist today in American society. The most common of which are sissy men, feminine gay men, masculine gay men, butch women, and lipstick lesbians among others. These stereotypes continue to evolve today in subtle ways, but the ways in which they are presented in media can determine what people find as more acceptable in identity. (Media Smarts 2009) And it is to these stereotypes that Disney turns to create LGBTQ characters.
Sexual Orientation in Disney Films
In our examination of queer characteristics we found that Disney’s animated films were a reasonable representation of the social values of American society and used their presentations of characters as a rubric in determining social acceptance as well as trends within film. In preparing for this we went forward with a quantitative research endeavor in determining the sexuality of performers and those involved with the production of Disney films. This is important because, the prevalence of “out” gay performers help to influence the effort for greater LGBTQ ideals to be exposed on a grand scale to American society. and in theory lead to greater acceptance.
For instance, a 2009 Gallup poll, “Knowing Someone Gay/Lesbian Affects Views of Gay Issues,” showcased how important exposure to LGBTQ individuals allows people to rethink their support for gay rights. Those who knew a gay person were over twice as likely to support gay marriage. A greater exposure to gay individuals in the general public consciousness can help continue the trend of greater gay support in American culture. As a crucial staple that holds together American culture, Disney has a powerful influence on the way their films enable American viewers to rethink their positions on queer culture. Disney’s appearance as a more family-friendly representative of society’s norms helps to set the base line for what is generally accepted. Seeing more LGBTQ friendly characters on our screens thus help normalize this reality.
The most noteworthy modern event in this regard was when Disney hired Ellen DeGeneres to play Dory in Finding Nemo in 2003. Ellen DeGeneres’ controversial coming out experience in the late 1990s had given her a distinct presence in American culture, and her ensuing presence in a major children’s film notes the concept of LGBTQ people in the mainstream being accepted — even if the character itself in Finding Nemo has no distinct LGBTQ identification. Though some openly gay actors had played characters in Disney films before Ellen’s lead role, the majority of these characters had not taken on a role as prominent.
It was also a landmark event as most purportedly gay characters in Disney films such as Jafar’s lead role in Aladdin, Scar’s in The Lion King, and Ursula’s role in The Little Mermaid had been presented as primary antagonists. The only notable role of a protagonist-aligned queer actor is Nathan Lane, the voice of Timon in The Lion King. Although the character of Dory is not an explicitly queer character, by having Ellen — an out lesbian — play this leading role it reinforced an image of queer individuals to be read by a mainstream audience. Later, openly-gay actor Jonathan Groff played a major role as Kristoff in Frozen (2013). He is known for his work on Broadway in Hamilton (2015), as well as his leading role in the HBO series Looking (2014). His presence in the film connotes the greater acceptance of openly LGBTQ people.
Finding Nemo’s sequel, Finding Dory (2016), supports this trend strongly with the inclusion of a lesbian couple in the background of a scene in the film (along with DeGeneres second performance as a star character in a Disney film). In this scene, the film’s character ‘Hank’ pretends to be a baby in a carriage, two women turn around to ogle him with the expectation that he is a baby. Audiences can infer that this suggests that the child is their baby, but it is not explicitly stated. Though this scene is prominent and features potential LGBTQ characters in a prominent role, the mere discussion and suggestion of a controversy surrounding this from the likes of Breitbart News and Fox News notes the social acceptance of LGBTQ characters and presence in film. Even up to this point, it is still less accepted for a prominent character in a children’s animation to be LGBTQ-identify.
For much of the history of Disney films characters with any queer influences would be confined to side roles or antagonist roles. Finding Dory, Frozen (2014), and Brave (2012) are among the leading animated films that assert a stronger influence from and for LGBTQ people. Despite these influences from LGBTQ people their desire is not one of altruism. They are taking advantage of the public relations boost they would receive from politically progressive-aligned viewers. During the 2010s, Disney films continued a strong pseudo-alliance in the desire for a queer-accepting perception. The fight to gain greater LGBTQ acceptance and exposure, and in-turn, LGBTQ rights continued with Disney’s support however the motivations for their alliance were not truly related to the welfare of LGBTQ people. It is rather prompted by a desire for the appearance of being inclusive and welcoming.
As an aside, it is important to note that there are many actors in Disney films who do not identify as LGBTQ, but are vocal allies for the movement. Actress Idina Menzel, in her leading role in Frozen, is a champion for the LGBTQ cause as she has a strong gay following. Many of her previous roles have either been lesbian characters or roles in shows with strong queer themes. (Maureen in Rent , Shelby Corcoran in Glee , and Elphaba in Wicked ). Kristin Bell is another gay ally that has a lead role in Frozen. In a 2015 Time article, “Meet the Straight Couples Who Were Waiting to Marry Until All Gay Couples Could,” it was reported that Bell refused to get married until gay marriage was made legal in the United States. Even the latest Disney film, Moana (2016), includes a female protagonist without a traditional love interest. Composer, lyricist, and free-style rapper, Lin Manuel Miranda, is involved with the film as well and is well known for his support for gay rights. The inclusion of gay people in filmmaking, in addition to the inclusion of gay characters in the films themselves, help to advocate for including LGBTQ individuals in the picture of society. By hiring individuals that are vocally supportive of the LGBTQ community, Disney is able to gain the public relations image of being an ally without taking the actions necessary to be one.
LGBTQ Culture’s Connection to Disney
Disney’s popularity in LGBTQ culture has brought forth expected criticism from more conservative Americans and American news outlets. Ronald Ostman’s research paper, “Disney And Its Conservative Critics,” highlights that Disney is expected to uphold traditional family values, and there is a weak tendency to stray from the “wholesome and family friendly material” that they are known for representing. Progressive critics offer the polar-opposite criticism with some suggesting that Disney is often too conservative in their representations of characters — regulating certain character tropes to certain people. For example, some conservative critics referenced in the BBC article, “The Controversy Behind Disney’s Groundbreaking New Princess,” suggest that Disney is now promoting unhealthy “overweight” body images because of their deviation from the traditional princess model. This traditional model aids in promoting a traditional family, along with unrealistic body standards. The princesses have tiny waists and ‘child bearing’ hips, exaggerated eyes and ample breasts. Which presentations Disney chooses to represent are directly related to the acceptance of certain Americans’ social values. Though Disney opposes the far-right conservatives with their inclusion of some non-traditional characters (Ostman 1996) some far-left critics argue that those characters are not always aligned to a truly progressive ideology at all anyway (Harris 2016).
The progressive and political left will look at films such as The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Frozen as representing false images of progressive ideals. Sandra No explains “if what is being produced is a misrepresentation of race and culture based on stereotypes and privilege, then this way of thinking about the world is absorbed by children and influences their beliefs” (2014). These same ideas can be taken to parallel with the representation of LGBTQ traits that are shown in Disney films.
For example, the trend of villains having queer characteristics such as wearing makeup, a higher-pitched voice, and having flamboyant physicality can lead to a false representation of LGBTQ people’s status in American society. (Do I Sound Gay 2014). That being said, when discussing this issue it would be wrong not to touch on equal representation. There certainly are gay criminals in the world, but having a large percentage of Disney villains presented repeatedly to express queer characteristics ostensibly leads to stereotyping. They’re not attempting to create a deliberate message by including these stereotypes but these stereotypes are there to secure the widest audience possible. (Scheuren pg. 8-12)
Over time the criticisms that many conservative figureheads target toward children’s movies are reasonably related to the most pressing social issues of the day. The social issues related to race, sexuality, or gender roles that conservative critics condemn adapt to what is the most contemporary issue at the time. As gay has become more accepted in the general culture, the target for socially conservative people has now shifted to transgender people. The general societal criticism of transgenders in today’s culture makes it much less likely for Disney to include a character like this in any of their recently released films because it would hurt their image.
Conservative news outlet breitbart.com published a misleading article in July 2016 claiming that a transgender character “Mr. Ray” is apparent in Disney’s film Finding Dory. The article derives from a USA Today interview where Degeneres jokes about the controversy over the lesbian moms and gay influences in the film comedically stating these claims were unsubstantiated. This outlet is a prime example of a news outlet being very quick to jump on any idea that a controversial LGBTQ character is in a children’s movie. After examining the source of this article — an earlier video interview Degeneres had given with USA Today — it is clear that Degeneres was facetious and not definitively claiming anything about a character’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Looking at the criticisms that Disney faces hints at a predictable trend of where and when LGBTQ characters could arise in Disney films. Considering Finding Dory, for instance, and their inclusion of a “lesbian couple” with a child suggests signs of a growing acceptance of gay and lesbian people in the greater American society. But within limits. The very fact that the “lesbian couple” is nothing more than two women strolling a baby carriage together is enough for the alarms to sound in both conservative and progressive analysts’ heads that there is a gay couple in Disney. The nature of the subject that this is “ground breaking” and a progressive step is a false narrative.
One argument may suggest that the inclusion of any instance of non-heteronormative conformity is a progressive step by Disney, but these representations are included with the ideas of a false tolerance — Disney is simply regurgitating a slightly more conservative world view that lags behind the acceptance levels of a more progressive society while balancing that with seemingly progressive portrayal to maintain a healthy image for their audience. (Tkaczyk) This ties into the debate on exactly what progressivism is and what is the best approach for the representation of a minority group.
These same struggles that LGBTQ people face today parallel the struggles of black Americans for much of the 20th century. As black Americans were marginalized in their representation in media throughout the 20th century, gay Americans have also faced similar levels of unfair representation. Black Americans have been expected to play specific tropes that lead to a skewed perspective for the audience on who these minorities are. The politics of representation are in full effect here.
Minorities are looked to represent other minorities and those representation perpetuate the stereotypes and tropes that the general society looks to them as.
Roxanne Lynn Doty writes in “Imperial Encounters: The Politics of Representation in North-South Relations” that the arbitrary, constructed representational practices can lead to the justification of certain practices and policies that can unfairly discriminate against the minority.
Disney’s inclusion of a black princess in The Princess and the Frog (2009) is not a progressive step to halt the discrimination of the minority like they intend to present it as, but rather it is a positive public relations move and a capitalistic chess venture on an open market.
The idea that Disney acts only to further their financially-motivated public relations image is prevalent in both the LGBTQ world and beyond.
Auteur Theory in Disney Production
Understanding the auteurs that dictate the style of Disney can aid in identifying the connection between LGBTQ people and Disney itself, and help our understanding of the origin of where these gay manifestations in Disney arise. These connections can be inferences for further research. What is specifically important to consider here is the aforementioned sexuality of the production members within these films as well. The cultural climate made it difficult for openly LGBTQ people to attach their name both to their sexuality and their public life. This makes it difficult to find early gay production members in Disney films; however, in the late 1980s Disney shifted their approach to work.
Sean Griffin states in Tinker Belles and Evil Queens that in the late 1980s Disney’s mantra became “…no one care what you do in your private life as long as you can help bring revenue to the company.” This change is superseded by more openly gay men working with Disney. These gay production members offered crucial guidance in the new style of Disney. At the same time, as we will demonstrate, a “Disney auteur” is more aptly considered as a public-relations initiative in which the corporation strategically assigns “auteurship” to a member of the creative process who, bearing in mind niche marketing, highlights a particular cultural position.
For Truffaut, the new film would resemble the person who made it, not so much through autobiographical content, but rather through the style, which impregnates the film with the personality of its director. – Stan pg. 84 Film-theory and Introduction
Auteur theory is a complex method for addressing who it is that is ultimately responsible for the film we see. Although, the theory often highlights the role of the director, other theorists argue that the role of the producer or the film’s star is equal to or greater than that of the film’s director. For us, we posit that the style and aesthetic of the characters are critical influences on what we refer to as the “personality” of the film. That is, a film’s identity is composed as a collaborative effort, and Disney’s “cinematic personality” comprises multiple auteurs that, depending on to whom they market the film, are highlighted by the company as the driving creative force. Here, by placing Degeneres (and other “out” stars) at the forefront of a publicity campaign for a film, Disney effectively asserts Ellen as the film’s auteur. For the gay viewer, therefore, Ellen assumes the principle role as the creative force behind the film’s making.
How the identities and influences of each of the collaborators come together to create the final product shows us how Disney films gain their unique personality as a public-relations campaign with specific targeted audiences in mind. At the beginning of the Disney “renaissance” there were two stand-out, openly gay production members that likely were major factors in the ideas that influence even today’s films. Andreas Deja worked as an animator for Disney from the late 1980s onwards, and is responsible for the character animations of Gaston/LeFour (Beauty and the Beast), Jafar (Aladdin), Scar (The Lion King), and more. Andreas Deja explains there are subtle hints of a queer personality within his illustrations. “…when Jeremy first saw some of my pencil animation, he touched his face and said: My goodness…he looks like me! I told him that this was intentional,” Deja said in 2014 interview with a Disney Insider. These characters are known for their queer aesthetic and mannerisms. It is important to note that these characters aren’t explicitly gay themselves. However, it is crucial to pinpoint where queer mannerisms and traits arise and seeing them arise in antagonistic characters can make the traits themselves and the expression of those traits a representation of immorality. (Greenhill, 2015)
Queer Coding within Disney Films
“Queer coding” calls to attention the ways in which queer traits are subtlety included by authors whether it be consciously or unconsciously. The promotion of certain traits as positive or something to desire contrasted to the representation of queer traits that are often found within morally wrong or villainous locations within a film can lead to greater social repercussions. The sissy villain for example has been a trope in films for decades. The idea that feminine qualities within men are something to either be frightened by or something to take action against has been a long-lasting trope within Disney films particularly. (Li-Vollmer & LaPointe, 2003) The stigmatization of certain traits as villainous despite those traits being harmless or not objectively bad is prominent in animated films. Male flamboyance and femininity is one clear example of this with characters like Scar, Hades, Jafar, General Ratcliffe taking on more feminine and vain qualities. Seeing feminity in men associated with egotisticalness and lack of conscientious virtues can lead to the ostracization of real men with feminine qualities.
Vito Russo states in The Celluloid Closet that, “The popular definition of gayness is rooted in sexism.” In other words, …. This idea is extremely prevalent looking at the queer coding within animated Disney works where villains are so often gender-bending and non-heteronormative while the protagonists (up until some select recent films) were very clearly fit into traditional gender roles. The popular culture insult where someone may be accused of being gay for being more feminine and breaking social norms is tied into this concept. The insult is often not used as a direct attack on the LGBTQ community as a whole but can still lead to substantial social repercussions. (Jocelyn-Blackman, 2017)
Jafar from Disney’s 1992 release Aladdin showcases a villain with extreme comfort in make-up, feminine clothing, and a “gay lisp.” His presence as a villain with feminine qualities can lead audiences to associate male’s with feminine qualities as an unfavorable social construct when the idea of what is negative or moral is not objectively contingent on a male character expressing feminine qualities.
Scar from Disney’s 1994 release The Lion King is presented with a distinct “gay lisp” and very flamboyant mannerism’s in his movement. His extreme egotisticalness and sardonic personality paired with his feminism can lead to people associating “morally questionable” traits with gay males as well.
Hades from Disney’s 1997 release Hercules is an example of an unclear-gendered person with an indistinct sexuality with his non-gendered attire and blue eye shadow. He has multiple instances in which he is often uncomfortably close with other male characters while expressing platonic appreciation for women’s fashion and style in other instances.
Disney’s 1995 film Pohahontas stars General Ratcliffe as the main villain. This tyrannical and self-absorbed character dresses in extravagant and fanciful clothing and surrounds himself with over-dramatic aesthetics to his home. Adding to the relationship between the flamboyance of Ratcliffe as a character, he is also voiced by gay actor David Ogden Stiers. (Marikar 2009)
Ursula is the prime example of a villainous women character and her more masculine traits associated with her persona creates more connections between villainy and gender non-comformity. Ursula’s deeper voice, short hair, masculine mannerisms, and over-exaggerated makeup usage draws distinct parallels to D.C. area drag queen “Divine” as detailed in the extended commentary of The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition’s DVD release. Howard Ashman’s experience growing up in D.C./Maryland gave him particular familiarity with Divine as a performer and it heavily influenced the final designs of Ursula. (Dart 2016)
Alvermann and Hagood’s article “Popular Culture in the Classroom” highlights what young students would construct the ideal superhero. Absolutely none of the students included any feminine or non-heteronormative traits like make-up, dresses, or jewelry. However the students were comfortable including make-up or more feminine attire in the construction of male supervillains. This study shows the significance of the representation of non-heteronormative things in which the entire concept of a feminine man could lead to a generally villainous characterization.
There are some minor anomalies in Disney film history in which there are instances of non-villainous potentially queer relationships arising with The Lion King’s Timon and Pumba who share one of the closest male-to-male relationships of side characters in Disney films. Their relationship consists of them being isolated from most the rest of society and living alone together in peace.
Current Disney Image
Disney’s ability to balance being progressive as well as a traditional and family-friendly helps them maintain their current status today having a supported overall image. The idea that the trend that Disney is supportive of LGBTQ people is promoted by both their content, their actors, and their producers, but the catalyst that sparks Disney’s inclusion of more diversity is not one of philanthropy. The desire is for Disney to maintain an image that all people in western culture can support. Disney’s latest “controversy” aids this public perception where they are seen as being progressive for the inclusion of gay characters in the recently released live action Beauty and The Beast (2017). The publicity campaign surrounding the film heavily promoted the inclusion of a gay character in the film. The publicity caused many queer individuals to flock to the opening weekend to finally witness a Disney film openly including a queer character. According to USAToday, fans of the film claimed that they did not believe the oversaturation of this controversy in media was warranted. (Lawler 2017) On the other hand, movie theaters in Alabama banned the film after hearing of this news. (Barnes, Deb 2017)
The gay scene that amassed this attention was not something of groundbreaking territory. The character LeFou, played by Josh Gad, was not presented as an out gay man, but rather was shown to be in the closet based on his friend’s assumption to his heterosexuality. The idea of being gay is not shown as being something to be proud of or something that the fictional society would promote. In an article with People Magazine in 2017 Gad discusses his comfort with playing a gay character and defends those criticizing Disney for their progressive stance. Additionally, another gay background character has an instance in which a queer identity is presented. Disney utilizes gay tropes that have been used throughout history with the inclusion of two men dancing together, cross-dressing, flamboyant mannerisms, the classic sissy character, among others. Disney does not showcase any true evolution in the representation of LGBTQ people in film. Their representation is simply a more intentional and explicit use of these tropes in subtly queer characters.
This questions will arise again when Disney releases the live action Mulan film. Mulan is a character that is clearly not comfortable at her most feminine and not comfortable at her most masculine. She fits somewhere in the middle of the gender spectrum, not binary with either gender. There are three main themes that could be included in Disney’s live action film, and critics are sure to be watching to see if they are addressed. The first being discussing non-binary gender, this would likely be considered a daring move by conservative critics and be widely supported by liberal ones. Bisexuality is another theme that could be included, in the Disney animation, Mulan’s love interest, Li Shang, falls for her before he knows that he is female. This is made into a joke in the film, but could be a serious LGBTQ topic included in the live action film. The last major theme would be the possibility of making Mulan a lesbian. In the ABC television program Once Upon A Time (2011) Mulan is a lesbian, due to the popularity of this program Disney may introduce Mulan as a Lesbian in the live action remake.
Disney’s association with these controversies and their appearance as progressive is one of public relations benefit and capitalistic gain. According to The Harris Poll, LGBT customers are among the most loyal to brands. This may help explain why Disney is willing to subtly explore LGBT themes in order to capture a loyal target demographic, and their ability to toe the line between progressive and conservative helps them secure their place as one of the top brands in America and around the world. (Adamson 2017) They strategically avoid entrapping themselves by making too many direct claims, but when they do it is when the market and social climate permits them to do so whether it be with a black princess, or the inclusion of an openly gay character.