Disney’s Queer History: Ursula, Elsa and Onward

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In February 2020, Disney announced that Pixar’s new animated movie Onward would feature their first openly gay character. On the surface, this seemed like a cause for celebration. More LGBTQ representation in media, especially family-oriented media, is an important move in normalising queer relationships. However, Disney’s history with queer representation has left me sceptical. We have been here before, and the result was most certainly not a groundbreaking move for queer media. This announcement itself came in the same week that Disney+ faced online backlash for removing the spin-off show based on Love, Simonwhich became the one of the first mainstream teen rom-coms to have a gay lead back in 2018. The reason given as to why the spin-off would be moving to Hulu was that it was not deemed “family-friendly.” This is a perfect example of a frequent, ongoing issue where queer media is deemed ‘inappropriate’ merely because it is queer. Queer relationships continue to be over-sexualised by society in comparison to their heterosexual counterparts, leading to the restricting of queer content – as seen here on Disney+. 

Now, Onward is certainly not the first Disney movie to include queerness. You can find queer-coded characters dating back decades; we were just taught not to root for them. Queer-coded villains are not unique to Disney – it has been a trope for years before Disney hopped on the bandwagon – yet Disney is the most mainstream example. It serves to teach people from a young age that certain characteristics associated with queer people are morally wrong, even evil. Pertinent examples of this are predominantly found in the 80s/90s era, with characters such as: Ursula in The Little MermaidJafar in AladdinScar in The Lion KingRatcliffe in Pocahontas; and Hades in Hercules. There are also more recent examples, such as Mother Gothel in Tangled and King Candy in Wreck-It Ralph. These villains are replete with stereotypically queer characteristics. The male characters are often depicted as camp, flamboyant, effeminate, prim and vain – a trope sometimes called the ‘Sissy Villain’. This does not mean that these characters are necessarily queer, but serve as a portrayal of what society views as negative queer traits to signal to the viewer that the character they are watching is the antagonist, that they should be disliked and/or laughed at. 

There is one exception to the rule of 90s Disney queer coding, which comes in the form of Li Shang in MulanLi Shang is not a villain, nor is he queer-coded in the traditional sense. His queerness comes from his actions, not his characteristics. Li Shang is shown to fall for Mulan when she is in disguise as a man. At the end of the movie, when she is revealed to be female, his feelings are shown to stay the same. This has led the queer community to adopt him as somewhat of a bisexual icon. This, it seems, is not what Disney intended. In fact, they appear to be backtracking on this completely with the upcoming live-action remake cutting out Li Shang entirely. He is supposedly being replaced by another male character who ‘does not begin to have feelings for Mulan until it is revealed she is a woman.’ Li Shang’s perceived bisexuality, it appears, was a happy accident for the queer community, and one which Disney is keen to undo.

Whilst these characters are coded or perceived as queer, they have not been ‘outed’ by Disney. This brings us up to the past few years, with Finding Dory, Frozen and the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast all falling into the category of blink-and-you-miss-it representation. Dory and Frozen teased the community, not totally confirming or denying LGBT presence. To these questions Disney effectively answered with a ‘if that’s what you see, wink wink’ attitude, to claim credit for ‘representation’. In 2016’s Finding Dorytwo women are seen on screen together with a child for a split second – the women, we are supposed to assume, are a couple. A few years earlier, in 2013, Frozen’s minor character Oaken, the owner of the store where Anna meets Kristoff, waves to his family in the sauna room. Here, we are given a two-second shot of four children and a man. In Frozen II, Oaken can be seen wandering around in the background, yet there is no sign of his children or assumed husband. Not exactly groundbreaking representation. 

But then, in 2017, Disney announced that at long last they were introducing an “explicitly gay” character in Beauty and the Beast. There were stories of boycotting and censoring the movie around the world, from Russia, Malaysia, and even Alabama. So, what was all the fuss about? It turned out, not a whole lot. LeFou, villain Gaston’s loyal sidekick, is apparently implied to have an unrequited crush on Gaston. Of course, this is not exactly the positive representation that the LGBTQ community was looking for. Much of this implication is based on stereotyped behaviour, and the very fact that a villain’s sidekick is hopelessly in love with a villain arguably moves us not that far away from the archaic ‘Sissy Villain’ trope. The plot was altered slightly to give LeFou a redemption arc, clumsily so, and it is after this that we finally get our “exclusively gay moment,” as director Bill Condon put it. A moment where, in a wide shot of a vast ballroom, LeFou can be seen to dance with a man for less than a second. I missed this initially when I saw the film in the cinema, but it’s not exactly obvious when you pause the scene on Netflix. Again, certainly nothing to shout home about. For Disney to have built up such a fuss over their ‘first gay character’, only to fall back on tired clichés and fleeting shots, it comes as no wonder that the studio received much criticism over the move. 

Beyond the realm of cinema, Disney did make headlines in 2017 by having a supporting character on their show Andi Mack come out as gay. The programme went on to depict Disney’s first-ever gay kiss and couple in 2019 – just in time for the show to be cancelled. It was undoubtedly an important step in the right direction. Nonetheless, for such a large company, with thousands of TV shows and movies under their belt, this is still not good enough. 

This brings us to Onward, where Disney is once again praising themselves for their inclusivity. Is it any different from the last time? Well, it is certainly an improvement. The character, Officer Specter, is voiced by Lena Waithe, an openly gay actor, writer and producer who made headlines with her rainbow flag cape at the 2018 Met Gala. The ‘exclusively gay moment’ comes when Specter mentions her “girlfriend’s kid” in a passing comment. Whilst this certainly can be considered a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, it feels less trivialised and is hopefully a step towards normalising queer families rather than relying on stereotypes for representation. That being said, Disney should still think carefully before patting themselves on the back, as they are rather late to the party on this. Casual representation of this kind has existed in other family movies for a while now, with a notable example being Gobber in DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon series.

It seems that Disney’s television shows may be moving slightly faster than their movies. At the end of the day, their queer representation is still found lacking. Queer-coded villains still make up the majority of what could be called Disney’s depictions of queerness. When we are given representation, what is proclaimed by the company as revolutionary is hardly the bare minimum. That being said, there is undoubtedly a positive shift in the media’s approach to LGBTQ characters on screen. Hopefully this paves the way for more diversity in family movies in the future. Since its release in 2013, there have been many calls for the lead of the record-breaking blockbuster Frozen to be revealed as queer with the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend campaign. Despite the sequel’s failure to address Elsa’s sexuality, there are already rumours circulating that a possible third part will, at last, give us the queer Disney protagonist that we have been waiting for. Until then, all we can do is wait and hope, keeping our eyes out for the slightest hint of rainbows…

Watch the trailer for Onward below:

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Second Year Archaeology and History Student. If it's queer, I'm probably here.

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