In the wake of Disney coming under intense scrutiny for its support of political proponents of homophobic legislation surrounding discussion of same-sex orientation and gender identity in the State of Florida, Ciarán Howley examines the conglomerate’s historic stance on LGBTQ+ rights, and the potential fallout of the recent controversy.
At the time of publication, the state of Florida has passed the ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill.’ Aiming to crack down on discussion surrounding homosexuality and gender identity in the classroom, the Republican-backed legislation passed 69-47, and makes Florida the fifth U.S. state to do so. Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas currently have similar laws in place that reinforce heterosexuality as an accepted norm for all students, while everything outside that parameter is ‘extra-curricular.’
“As Judge Ketanji Jackson Browne faces public ridicule and underhanded questioning from Ted Cruz about critical race theory, Joseph McCarthy is somewhere, smiling.”
It's an undeniably massive blow to the LGBTQ+ rights movement in America, and for social justice movements across the U.S. As Judge Ketanji Jackson Browne faces public ridicule and underhanded questioning from Ted Cruz about critical race theory, Joseph McCarthy is somewhere, smiling. Alongside the bill, a fresh wave of book banning goes underway, crucially titles with themes of marginalised identity. Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust graphic novel Maus is among them, and anything bearing overtly “political” symbols.
It’s (another) worrying shift in the political ether of contemporary America, as the slim progress that has been made in the past twenty years to open mere conversations about marginalised groups gets slimmer. One step forward, five steps back, as it were.
However, there was another, more astounding story to emerge. The state-wide legislative targeting of a marginalised group came and went, another drop in an ocean of humanity’s backward trajectory. As efforts began to repeal the bill, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and fifty other companies signed a petition in opposition, and hundreds of businesses across the state hung Pride flags in solidarity. Slow to emerge to show its support for its LGBTQ+ fans, was the Walt Disney Company. Disney adults were rocked further by allegations that Disney were in fact financially supporting senior proponents behind the bill.
Central to our understanding of old Hollywood cinema, this continued philosophy plies little with the progression of LGBTQ rights and visibility in the 21st century, as the pressure piles on towards forward-thinking and transparent representation.
For many, it was an act of betrayal. Mass walkouts by company employees were staged, as chants of “Disney Say Gay, We Won’t Go Away” were heard outside the Burbank lot, amidst further allegations of censoring same-sex couples in films by its subsidiary animation studio Pixar. For some however, it was a confirmation of a truth uttered by one protester who chose to remain anonymous. “(Disney) are willing to take political stands when it generates money.” She referred to CEO Bob Chapek’s vocal opposition on mask mandates at Disney’s parks in Florida and California, but it recalls similar positions the company has taken with regards to its activism over the years, namely its hesitancy.
During the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, openly gay animator Andreas Deja worked on a number of films for the company, including Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. These films feature heavily queer-coded characters, particularly Gaston and Le Fou, Jafar and Scar, villains he created. Author Vito Russo’s seminal text The Celluloid Closet describes LGBTQ+ filmmakers’ creative sidesteps around cultural censorship; highlighting conventional gender roles in characters of the opposite sex so as to imply rather than overtly state. Central to our understanding of old Hollywood cinema, this philosophy plays little with the progression of LGBTQ+ rights and visibility in the 21st century, as the pressure piles on towards forward-thinking and transparent representation. At best, Disney’s efforts to disband ‘the Celluloid Closet’ have been conservative at best, and agonizing at worst.
LGBTQ+ representation in Disney feature films both animated and live action adds up to a scattering of mostly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Easter eggs, slipped into a shot somewhere and often the butt end of a joke. Finding Dory, the long-awaited sequel to Finding Nemo, made headlines around the world for a scene featuring a female same-sex couple, stood over a pram. Director Andrew Stanton declined to reveal if the pair were indeed a couple and expressed that the scene was open to interpretation. While this seems insignificant today, for the time, it was historic. Alongside appearances in Frozen and series Gravity Falls and Good Luck Charlie, these scenes felt like a watershed moment for wider representation in Disney’s output. In reality, it was the start of a pattern that would lead to the ongoing media car crash it cannot seem to veer away from.
“This pattern of promising representation to its huge LGBTQ+ fandom, and offering mere titbits fares poorly with the news that the company have been censoring their animators and filmmakers from within.”
As each movie release from the studio went by, Disney managed to generate more headlines for this style of snapshot representation, mostly positive. It was Le Fou in the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast that was the stumbling block. In the months leading up to its release, actor Josh Gad confirmed the character’s sexuality, marking Disney’s first live-action openly gay character. In the end, this amounted to little more than a brief dance scene with another man, that would be edited out for international markets. Considering that the character was conceived as gay in the 1990s, failing to expand on this in the 2010s opened up wounds in the studio’s so-called fresh, progressive new rebrand. This pattern of promising representation to its huge LGBTQ+ fandom, and offering mere titbits fares poorly with the news that the company has been censoring their animators and filmmakers from within. It seems the studio had called it a day for activism, certain that fans would accept snippets, Pride tote bags and rainbow tank tops.
As animosity built, Onward, Frozen 2 and Luca were met with similar backlash; not just for a lack of queer characters but for openly playing on queer themes and tropes while keeping sexual and gender identity ambiguous. Amidst the wave of allegations, it seems Disney will be forced to make a choice; probably the wrong one.
It's too early to say what, if any, impact the coverage and protests will have on the company. The division of American audiences and the politicisation of LGBTQ people remains a tough commitment for a studio eager to appease all wallets alike. The company pulled its funding from the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill and has made a commitment to opposing the bill to fighting for its LGBTQ+ staff and fans. Corporations make promises but lessons often go unlearned. With human rights at risk however, all eyes are on Disney.
And for all the Disney adults reading: don’t say you weren’t warned.