Can Disney Ever Go Queer?
What will LGBTQIA+ representation look like under the ever-expanding, market-focused roof of the Mouse House?
With the massive cultural and financial successes of Black Panther (2018) and Captain Marvel (2019), it seems de rigeur and canny for Disney to continue exploring under-represented stories in mainstream movies to capitalize on audience interest. For people who identify as LGBTQIA+, the major studio has tended to put us in the background, or explain how groundbreaking they’ve been with Lesbian, Gay and Bi- additions after the release. In 2020 and beyond, however, the company is talking about ‘queering up’ their franchises. What will LGBTQIA+ representation look like in the mainstream and how can one company manage to do it justice?
Disney is now, more than ever, an entertainment juggernaut. In 2018, the company took up 26% of the US domestic box office (14.2% internationally) and accounted for around 60% of box office receipts, outperforming all other major studios. And now, with its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, Disney can expect to occupy over a third of ticket sales in the US alone (over 22% globally). Already in 2019, Disney has raked in over double the gross earnings of the next two competing studios, Warner Bros. and Universal, with fewer than half of the movies released by the two combined. Now owning some of the biggest brands in pop culture history — Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, Avatar, and, of course, its own animation studio and ‘live-action’ remakes — Disney faces pressure from fans to make the ‘right’ artistic decisions in representing a less white, less straight, less ableist world.
The common pessimistic take is that Hollywood will be increasingly more conservative because of particular foreign markets. However, foreign markets do and don’t dictate what US studios will invest in. Of the top 15 largest box office markets in the world, only three — China, India and Russia — have a notable history of distributors censoring ‘Western’ themes in otherwise mainstream American movies. Eight of Russia’s top ten highest earning films of 2018 were from the US and of the top 25, the majority were Disney/Fox releases; and while India and China generally prefer homegrown features, with 85% and 62% of the box office from local films, respectively, the popularity of Marvel films is noticeable in both countries: of India’s top 20 highest grossing films of all-time, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019) are the only two non-Bollywood films represented, and China accounts for around 12% of the global gross of all 22 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films as of June 2018. When the Chinese government only allows in 34 films a year which aren’t wholly or partially funded by Chinese investors, it could be prudent for Disney to keep producing Marvel films which won’t be blacklisted in one of its fastest-growing markets. On the other hand, Disney, in its almost monolithic state in 2019, has the revenue to continue pushing storytelling boundaries, in spite of the more fickle markets, while still catering to them. For every all-Chinese cast redemption of Mulan (2020) and Chinese superhero, Shang-Chi (2021), it could afford to experiment with films of other under-represented groups without losing sleep (dollars).
Disney is typically coy about its business game-plans outside “make money”. One generous reading of its expansive proclivities is that by dominating the market, it will gain the freedom to push its version of ‘progressive’ politics. Its recent output of remakes seem to be a response to the criticisms of its boomer-age sexism and 1990s foray into multiculturalism, as well as wanting to be the ‘wokest’ corporation in entertainment. As for LGBTQIA+ representation, Disney CEO, Robert Iger, has stated that
“[It] is really complicated for a couple of reasons. First of all, because our brand stands for fairness and justice and inclusion […] we have purposely […] told stories that touch upon some of the more […] controversial issues that exist in today’s world, although we’ve not […] been shy about it because we fundamentally believe it’s the right thing for us to do. […] I’m thinking specifically about same-sex couples and homosexuality […] for instance. […] [W]e do so […] with care because we’re reaching a world that doesn’t necessarily agree with us on all of these issues […]. So it’s a delicate balance between us wanting to foster a sense of fairness and equality and justice, and, in effect, have the product that we make best reflect the world that we’re doing business in.”
This is the usual corporate line in regards to LGBTQIA+ inclusion in branding. They’ll slap a rainbow on a product with one hand and support an anti-LGBTQIA+ market with the other. To be fair to Iger, he was the only studio head who threatened the governor of Georgia to withdraw business in the popular Atlanta studios if a ‘religious freedom’ bill was passed that would allow businesses to refuse service to queer people. But how ‘woke’ can Disney be while otherwise kowtowing to the markets that “don’t agree” with treating LGBTQIA+ people equally?
Earlier this year, LGBTQIA+ audiences were thrown a bone when Marvel’s production chief, Victoria Alonso, was quoted saying that “the world is ready” for a gay superhero. Speculation has already surrounded Carol Danver’s sexuality in Captain Marvel (2019), and Tessa Thompson declared she played Vakyrie in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) as bisexual, though nothing was expressly shown in the final cut. As of Comic-Con 2019, Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige confirmed that Valkyrie is definitely bisexual and her story of finding a queen will be revealed in Thor: Love and Thunder (2021), so we might finally get a female queer character “who fucks”. (In the same film, a character who is canonically gay in the comics, Korg, similarly shows no sexuality.) Marvel are also yet to confirm that one of the Eternals in the slated film will be a gay male, but it’s likely that he’ll be POC if and when they do (a lot of the cast has already been announced, but no gay-and-out actor-of-color is among them). In the R-rated Deadpool 2 (2018), which Disney now owns through its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, there is a lesbian character, Negasonic Teenage Warhead, played by an out queer actress, but Deadpool’s own pansexuality is yet to be explicitly explored on screen. There are also doubts how far Disney will go with an R-rated version of queerness, willing only to continue the R-rated MCU films (including 2017’s Logan) because they made a lot more money than the usual R-rated fare. Does Disney see queerness as playing with ratings fire? When the time comes, how will filmmakers get queer characters right at any rating?
Of course, Disney films have teased queerness in subtext for decades. For LGBTQIA+ audiences, villains and sidekicks are ripe for a queer reading. This is called ‘Queercoding’: From Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid (1989) based on drag queen, Divine, to Timon and Pumbaa, the close male friends who rejected the norm to live a decadent, responsibility-free lifestyle in The Lion King (1994), LGBTQIA+ folk have taken the hints and run with them. In 2013’s Frozen, the lead character of Elsa is seen as Disney’s first lesbian princess, as the analogy of hiding her ‘powers’ until she glows herself up during ‘Let It Go’ is too good a coming-out narrative to ignore. Whether Disney do something with this ‘headcanon’ will be revealed come Frozen 2 (2019). In Mulan (1998), the company gave us a confused, bi-curious army captain and love interest, Li Shang. Discerning audience members left cinemas pondering how this vague statement of gender fluidity ended up in a kid’s film. For fans of the animated film, the live-action Mulan (2020) trailer has thwarted their hopes that Disney will explore these issues further, instead the company has presented a serious-toned, song-less action film where Shang no longer exists and has been replaced by Chen Honghui — a rival of Mulan’s, who only falls for her charms after the reveal that she’s a woman. Indeed, this is the most overt change that, among other positive ones made to atone for culturally irreverent choices made in 1998, seems to be for a Chinese box office that has the potential to lavish the film with love (money) if strategically pandered to.
With the acquisition of 20th Century Fox, Simon, of Love, Simon (2018) — the first mainstream gay romance and coming-of-age film — is now, technically, a “Disney prince”. The film fits the Disney brand well. While praised for being trailblazing and presenting a digestible coming-out tale for a teen audience, it also went out of its way to explain that it wasn’t “that gay” (literally, in a song-and-dance number). “Not that gay” means “not queer”. Not That Gay people perform their acceptable cisgender, marry, have children, and praise monogamy. In other words, they don’t “fuck”. “Queer” is more political, it challenges hetero-normative social rules and roles. Love, Simon (2018), while admirably gay, is not queer. A typical mainstream romance in which the lead character eventually gets the guy/gal just before the end credits by definition eschews riskier topics related to queer experiences. This limited and sanitized idea of homosexuality is what the mainstream can tolerate so far. Same-sex attracted protagonists are humanized by their innocence (in the case of teenage Simon), magically partnered (that is, social isolation is a non-issue), or family-fied with children, mirroring the respected social stages in the straight world. Basically, the sequel where Simon enters college, downloads Scruff and explores promiscuity won’t reach cinemas any time soon. This does not fit with the Disney brand. Even heterosexual romances are becoming less of a concern for the storytelling giant. Disney and Pixar animated films have not centered on a traditional love story for the better part of a decade since 2010’s Tangled. In Marvel movies, characters seem to be distracted too often by end-of-the-world threats for any serious romantic considerations and anything that does develop usually happens off-screen. Perhaps the reason Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is the most popular character is that he had agency “to fuck” before things [spoiler] tied up nicely with Pepper Potts. For all the diversity since Stark’s 2008 playboy days, no subsequent main character has been given a conspicuous sexuality beyond shy crushes or marriage. And meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, the only palpable sexual tension in the new Star Wars films is contained entirely in Oscar Isaac’s eyes. This aversion to sexuality doesn’t bode well for the introduction of an LGBTQIA+ character.
Criticisms of Disney’s — and any mainstream studio’s — LGBTQIA+ output centers on how peripheral the characters are, and how even more peripheral their sexuality is to the story. Ideally, an LGBTQIA+ character shouldn’t have to be handled with kid gloves. There are ways of telling queer stories at any film rating and the best way to do this is by hiring queer filmmakers and actors. Kudos, then, for Marvel reportedly pursuing an out actor to play its first explicitly gay character in The Eternals (2020). It’s not surprising, however, that the otherworldly comic will be the first playground for a gay superhero on film. In space, you can sidestep homophobia themes and strip the character of any other Earthly queer culture. The Eternals is an ensemble film, so its likely allusions to the character’s sexuality will be easily left out for certain overseas audiences. He’s probably not the lead, either, and his sexuality probably doesn’t drive the narrative. This is why Black Panther (2018) created such a cultural impact. With a black director, the film focused on what it means to be black not just in a fantastical African country, but in any place touched by colonialism and slavery. The antagonist, Killmonger, had justifiable motivations in interrogating the isolationist high road of Wakanda. The story wove together black history and afrofuturism to ground it in nuance, as opposed to lip service. (Though, it is not without criticism for advocating a cool, feudal state, while making an activist a villain.) Hopefully, a queer audience will get a story as steeped in its own culture without pandering to the mainstream as Black Panther was for black audiences — but what would that look like, specifically?
Marvel Comics already houses peripheral queer characters, but perhaps one of the most exciting ones was only created in 2019: Darkveil — a mutant drag queen who can teleport through the (depression allegory) ‘darkforce dimension’ using a thworp fan. Besides the often cited correlation between Marvel’s X-Men mutants and marginalized groups in society, a black drag queen, like Darkveil, could also symbolize the specific struggles of the queer community. Out of drag, the character could explore any of the gender non-conforming identities, and in drag, as drag does, critique social expectations of gender performance. Darkveil would be enmeshed in the queer community with LGBTQIA+ friends and co-workers — ergo, more queer side characters — and, as co-creator Sina Grace says, often it’s the most marginalized within a subculture who do the real hero werk (sic). The queer aesthetic lends itself well to comic books in that serious themes can be explored with bright colors and flights of fancy. For the MCU, which will inevitably explore all genres of film — Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (2021) will be Marvel’s first all-out ‘scary film’ — the palette for Darkveil’s universe already exists: it’s camp, irreverent, full of innuendo, but with a dark edge dealing with trauma and mental health issues. There are now lauded trans actors who could easily step up to play them. Darkveil may depend on Marvel’s plan for rebooting X-Men now that Disney owns the parent company of those films, 20th Century Fox. If they are introduced in the new X-men world, which could include the outed Iceman and gay couple Wiccan and Hulkling, it is not likely to happen for at least three years. Marvel already has the next two years planned, and it would be unusual to lead the new X-men movies with an obscure character.
Under CEO, Robert Iger, The Walt Disney Company has collected a pantheon of pop culture’s most recognizable — and therefore profitable — characters. As Lindsay Ellis mentions, Iger’s ethos tends to echo his predecessor’s Michael Eisner that: “The pursuit of money is the only reason to make movies” and ”[…] to make money, it is often important to make history, to make art, or to make some significant statement” and certainly, the marketing ploy for Disney films these days is about making a statement, whether it’s the clunky feminist retconning of Beauty and the Beast (2017), the technical achievement of photo-realism in The Lion King (2019), or the ethnic casting of Aladdin (2019). Only three years ago, smaller budgeted films were seen as a testing ground to experiment with diversity in both filmmakers and stories, such as 2016’s Queen of Katwe, but after the surprise doubling of expected box office takings for Black Panther (2018) and the vengeful success of Captain Marvel (2019), the risk going forward is more likely to be not telling under-represented stories.
However, relying on the Disney brand to tell queer stories correctly is riskier than Disney telling them at all. Recent attempts at seeming more ‘woke’ has seen the company undermine the pertinent points it made in its original films. For example, in Beauty and the Beast (1992) the ignorant townspeople’s prejudices are exacerbated by alpha male, Gaston, which results in pitchforks and torches. As Renegade Cut points out, in its 2017 version, the real-to-life violence of the mob mentality gets downplayed and the film explains that the townspeople were just under a spell and misunderstood, totally vanishing the agency of haters. How will Disney portray homophobia when a large portion of a mainstream audience is culpable of it? Are threats to LGBTQIA+ people really just well-meaning and misunderstood? Avoiding culpability to keep mainstream audiences comfortable is not progressive. How will Disney ever portray queerness as a critique of the status quo when its best interest is to not rock the boat? In 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, they offered us the “first gay moment” which was two men dancing together. This was not an uncommon sight in films in the late 19th century and is not taboo in a lot of otherwise homophobic cultures, either. In short, the company enjoys more kudos for its “statements” than it deserves.
So when will proper LGBTQIA+ stories be seen as economically viable, then? Is it when there’s no chance the market will snub your entire portfolio because of the decision to tell them? That could take a lot longer than expected. The optimistic, liberally-minded fan will regard the future moves of the company as instrumental in influencing other studios’ output as well as the trickle down effect on the culture at large. The cynic will regard the singular pursuit of money as counteractive to lifting an entire marginalized community into the mainstream. Either way, it would be wise to manage expectations. Right now Disney might dabble in gay, but it would have to risk a lot more to be queer.