I was brought to tears when I saw Love, Simon two years ago. Sure, there was a lot about the titular character and his story that didn’t really resonate with my own experiences in high school or with coming out, but there were some huge moments that seemed to echo my own life and made me emotional to the point where the friend I saw it with took my hand to comfort me. The movie as a whole is a pretty basic, vanilla representation of a white, abled, cisgender, conventionally attractive upper middle-class gay kid, but I was overjoyed to see something queer in a mainstream teen rom-com. I was also shocked with Disney announced that it had a spin-off series in development for Disney Plus. Not Fox, not ABC, not Freeform, but Disney Plus. It seemed to be positioning the new platform as one that would showcase more than just the classic animated fairy tales and major franchises the company has acquired over the last two decades, something that wasn’t just for young kids and major Disney fans.
So naturally, they backed out and moved Love, Victor to Hulu. Frustrating, though par for the course for Disney. But if you didn’t know where their priorities lied regarding representation, the announcements that followed from the company made it infuriatingly transparent.
I usually want to give people the benefit of the doubt. But seeing as the Walt Disney “Family of Companies” is not a person, I feel more comfortable saying that they seem to think their queer audience is stupid. Or if we’re not, then they at least don’t need to listen to our criticism until it starts negatively impacting their revenue. I can’t fathom how they think “ alcohol use, parents’ marital issues and sexual exploration” is a good enough excuse to take something off a platform that includes the entire run of The Simpsons, including at least three episodes wherein Homer or Marge almost cheat on the other, and one about Homer struggling to overcome his internalized homophobia when the family befriends John Waters, of all people.
So, alright, the platform includes media with queer characters in it. How do we know they pulled Love, Victor specifically because it’s about a gay character?
Because the examples I just gave are four episodes of a nearly untouchable franchise that has spanned 684 episodes, two short films, and one feature film that grossed over half a billion worldwide. There are no explicitly queer characters in the main cast, only recurring and side characters, and if you ask someone with a cursory knowledge of the show to name them, there’s a good chance they can’t, since they were developments that came after its heyday. “Homer’s Phobia” aired while The Simpsons was still more or less in its prime, but it was more a very special episode with a very special guest star than an introduction to a new recurring character or plot line. What a casual viewer could tell you is that Homer is frequently seen drinking excessively, and who could forget that classic episode where Marge had an emotional and almost sexual affair with a French bowling instructor?
The Simpsons can hardly be called queer media, and outside of it Disney Plus has no substantial queer representation to speak of. The Disney Channel series Andi Mack includes a supporting character whose arc involves him coming to terms with being gay, but it’s not the main focus of the show, and it’s completely unrelated to the main premise of a preteen learning that she was born out of wedlock to the woman she thought was her older sister, which of course makes the show as a whole kosher for Disney Plus. A main character on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (yes, that’s the full title; no, I didn’t make a typo) has two moms, but they’re not seen as much as the main cast, and even the supporting flamboyant gay-coded characters take a backseat to the heterosexual love triangle at the center of the plot. It’s also worth mentioning that another main character has a subplot about dealing with his parents’ marital issues. Where have I heard that before?
Still, I could sort of understand why they would be anxious about putting a show about “sexual exploration” on the service, queer or not. But because Disney thinks we’re idiots, they announced that a filmed performance of Hamilton on Broadway is coming to Disney Plus this year. It was weird enough to find out they had acquired the rights to release it theatrically, but I initially assumed they’d be distributing it under another studio label a la Arachnophobia or The Sixth Sense, but when they moved up the release date and decided to put it directly on streaming, the double standard really started to show through. Alcohol use isn’t appropriate for their family brand, except for the two numbers about the characters drinking to celebrate a war or a wedding. Neither are marital issues, except for the sexual tension between Alexander Hamilton and his sister-in-law, not to mention his affair with Maria Reynolds. But sexual tension is nothing compared to explicit sexual exploration, which is absolutely out of the question for a family-oriented platform, unless it’s Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds singing an extremely sexually charged duet that includes the lyrics, “She led me to her bed, let her legs spread, and said, ‘Stay’” and, “You can keep seein’ my whore wife if the price is right”.
It’s not hard to tell why Disney would want the rights to the show, despite it going against their family-friendly reputation. It’s one of the most financially successful Broadway shows of all time, and it’s a safe bet that a lot of viewers will buy Disney Plus subscriptions just to watch it. All of its f-bombs and innuendo are forgivable due to its unprecedented popularity and heterosexual relationships (though Hamilton himself may have been bisexual in life, and the possibility is hinted at within the show). It’s the same reason they felt comfortable enough to put gay background characters in Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The movies aren’t about queer people, but they can publicize the inclusion of a gay kiss or an undoubtedly gay line or two from an unnamed extra. That has never been enough.
In response to questions about when Walt Disney Animation Studios would release a film with a queer main character, perhaps a coming-out subplot for Elsa in Frozen II, or an original lesbian princess in a future release, animators and filmmakers have frequently said that they’re waiting for “ the right kind of story”. The article linked is an interview from 2011 with an openly gay Disney animator, and I’d be more inclined to trust his judgment if the straight directors of Moana hadn’t given the same excuse in 2017. They’ve been saying this for at least nine years, and it’s appearing more and more likely that it’s a cover to protect the studio from criticism over their lack of inclusion. They want the right kind of story, and somehow a movie about a woman learning to embrace a part of her identity that she’s hidden in shame for years didn’t fit the bill, and neither did its sequel, which wanted to focus on “ the core relationship “ between her and her sister who, oddly enough, gets a straight romantic subplot in both movies.
Family-oriented animation hasn’t traditionally been a great source for queer representation, but that has been steadily changing over the last decade or so. Disney Television Animation has had some coded queer characters in Gravity Falls and Star vs. the Forces of Evil, as well as characters with two fathers in the DuckTales reboot, but none of those series have been allowed to show any explicit same-gender attraction. Still, their animated television lineup is leagues ahead of their theatrical releases, so it counts for something.
At least, it did.
[Spoiler alert for the final episodes of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.]
It’s certainly not the 90s or early 00s anymore, because DreamWorks Animation has steered away from Pixar ripoffs and blown Disney out of the water in a major way. Technically speaking, their first queer character was confirmed in 2014 with the release of How to Train Your Dragon 2, though it was another side character who only had one line hinting at his sexuality.
Similar to Disney, the studio’s animated television series were given more leeway to introduce queer characters, with at least three of their Netflix productions including explicitly gay protagonists. Their Voltron reboothad a gay hero, but that subplot didn’t amount to much more than his ex-boyfriend dying and him getting married to an unknown male character in the epilogue. Despite a disappointing turn of events for Voltron, the studio soon followed with a She-Ra reboot brimming with queer themes, which culminated in the titular character sharing a dramatic love confession and kiss with another woman before killing a vengeful, judgmental godlike figure in an allegory for overcoming religious trauma. The show is rated TV-Y7, so the half-baked argument that queerness is inherently an adult subject is looking even flimsier.
Unless you’re Disney. God forbid One Million Moms come after you again like they did in response to two lesbian moms in the background of a shot in Toy Story 4. Except that movie broke a billion worldwide and outgrossed its record-breaking predecessor, so it’s safe to say they weren’t hurt too badly. And at this point, would a box office bomb due to boycotts from homophobic parents even be a significant blow to such an entertainment powerhouse?
At the end of the day, Disney simply wants to have its cake and eat it, too. They want to be seen as a family brand, but they’ll buy a studio that’s not traditionally known for that if it will give them more power over the types of media being released into the mainstream. Why else would they have been so nervous about Jojo Rabbit’s subject matter until awards season rolled around? They’ll sell pride merchandise at their theme parks to seem inclusive, but provide the absolute bare minimum of representation in their narrative media. They’ll take the credit for Oscar contenders like Ford v Ferrari and slap their logo onto Miracle on 34th Street decades after the fact, but if it’s not a blockbuster or an awards darling, it scares them. So they’ll add some tertiary gay characters to their meta High School Musical spinoff and hide some lesbian moms in Toy Story 4, but although Love, Simon was fairly successful at the box office and well received by critics, it’s not enough for Disney to feel secure putting it on a platform bearing their name.
Disney has been playing it safe to appease people who, on some level, see anything that’s not straight and cis as sexually deviant and perverted. But the company is so untouchable and the landscape of non-Disney family entertainment so ahead of them in this regard that that’s no longer a good reason.
Disney has found the right story. They just won’t tell it.
Originally published at http://miseensense.wordpress.com on May 20, 2020.