The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has released its annual Studio Responsibility Index, which reports on LGBT visibility in the movies during the previous year. While none of the major studios, including Lionsgate, Sony and Universal, did particularly well, Disney was among the few that received the lowest rating, Failing, on LGBT inclusion.
This is not surprising. For a production company that churns out one hit fairy tale after another, it makes sense not to rock the boat with alternative readings that go beyond the storybook magic most children (and parents) associate with the studio. But things came to a head for Disney. Apart from the GLAAD reprimand, Twitter was awash in the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend. Started by women’s rights activist Alexis Isabel, the hashtag asked Disney honchos to give the princess from the hit movie Frozen an explicitly queer identity in the sequel, which is in production.
For too long, the fairy tale genre has had a fixed template: a struggle between good and evil that can only be won when the protagonist undertakes an impossible task. In the stories of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the damsel in distress is rescued by a Prince Charming, and the couple proceeds to live happily ever after. The story is set in a suitably distant past, captured in that evocative, if clichéd, phrase “Once upon a time...”
Yet, for all the surface straightforwardness, Disney movies and characters have had a long history of queer interpretations envisioned by eager fans. Writing in the Guardian, Nico Lang draws attention to the standard over-the-top Disney villain who hews to a certain stylised, effeminate representation that, if not gay, is most definitely queer. Lang mentions such classic Disney villains as Ursula from The Little Mermaid and Scar from The Lion King to make his point.
But why blame only Disney? Hollywood’s representation of homosexuality has gone through many hoops to arrive at the current situation, where films like The Kids Are All Right showcase stable gay families whose queerness is often apolitical. The premise of The Kids Are All Right was the normality of homosexuality, a welcome departure from its close precedent, Brokeback Mountain, which meticulously tracks the tragedy of alternative sexuality.
With all the new LGBT-friendly narratives now seen on television and in the movies, Disney remains one of the last walls to be breached. The studio continues to extend copyright on its famed properties, because of which we only have the company to rely on to give us more egalitarian representations of its classic characters. Disney’s history of lobbying to get its way is demonstrated in the protracted extensions it has engineered in the copyright law to ensure that Mickey Mouse, its most valuable property, stays out of bounds of others.
Even so, the company must look to give its stories a makeover, if for no other reason than to beat the competition. Disney’s lineup of innocuous girls waiting to be rescued is in immense contrast to the aggressive women of, say, Star Wars and Game of Thrones. The studio seems to inhabit a quaint universe divorced from the larger churn within the narrative space. Even its television show, Once Upon A Time, which brings myriad Disney characters under one roof, plumbs for classic fairy tale tropes rather than subversion, a pity since television is perhaps the most exciting medium for LGBT storylines today.
The tricky question of enforcing queer narratives on beloved films is perhaps best broached via Elsa, as popular a princess from recent Disney history as any. To be sure, there are risks galore in drowning characters in alternative politics in later phases of production. For evidence, look no further than Merida from Disney’s Brave, whose stridently feminist tone seemed an afterthought strapped to the film’s narrative scope. Unless the character is organically imagined as queer or feminist, there is the danger that the studio will yield a product that fails creatively.
Elsa, at least, is better imagined than Merida. Critics have already dubbed the Frozen heroine as a feminist icon because of her ardent desire to reunite with her sister, which is a marked departure for fictive princesses whose trials and tribulations are usually driven by the need for romantic consummation.
That Elsa must learn to control her magical powers has been read as a distinctly queer subtext about the slipperiness of coming out as LGBT. The superhit track “Let It Go” has been appropriated as a queer anthem. Some critics have wondered if the character of Oaken, as suggested by the scene in the lodge, is gay, though opinion remains divided on whether his partner, caught for the briefest moment inside the sauna, is a man or a mannish woman.
Frozen can rightly be called a slyly gay film. But should the film’s producers make this connection explicit? Applying queer theory to classic fairy tales raises hackles because it gets tied up with conservative criticism of pushing a “gay agenda”. On the one hand, there is something to be said for introducing kids to queer identities and love stories at an earlier age. With gay marriage now a nationwide reality in America, and with LGBT kids coming out earlier, there is little reason why the real world should not find reflection in fantasy land.
On the other hand, there is the question of the market served by Disney. The success of Disney productions relies on their ability to recreate an intimate space that can be shared across generations. It is moot how conducive such a setting is to queer themes that deviate significantly from traditional fairy tale tropes.
There is also the question of what representation of queer themes should aim for. Queer identity, by its very nature, is so fluid and vast that perhaps it is better served by keeping things unsettled. Why must Elsa have a girlfriend? Why not take her feminism a notch further and have her revel in her single status? The debate over having Elsa come out in Frozen 2 omits to look at a heroine beyond the constraints of romantic love, whatever its hue. Are we keen to label Elsa as gay because she, like Merida, is not girly enough? Isn’t such thinking problematic too, since it is also beholden to labels, although of a different kind? If queer politics is about alternative romance, surely it should also be about alternative lifestyles?
Finally, there is the issue of how diversity in film must be pursued. There is, for instance, an entire galaxy of material in the Arabian Nights stories waiting to be reconsidered, but all we seem focused on are Grimm’s tales. This question goes beyond Disney and is mixed up with other diversity markers, such as race. One of the criticisms hurled by GLAAD in its study is the poor representation of non-white queer characters in Hollywood films. Most LGBT-themed films of the last year, such as Carol and The Danish Girl, had all-white casts. The outlier was Tangerine, a genre-bending film about two transgender black women that was eagerly lapped up on the indie circuit.
The debate about queer Disney is a microcosm of the greater churn convulsing Hollywood. Responding to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Chris Rock, the host of this year’s Academy Awards, explained why the lack of black nominations is such a major deal when black actors have been routinely overlooked for Oscar nominations in the past. “You know, when your grandmother is swinging from the tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short,” Rock joked.
The demand for a gay Elsa should be seen in this light. In an America of marriage equality and greater acceptance, demands for leading characters to be gay will only rise. There was a time when no leading man would want to play gay onscreen. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal tore down that wall in Brokeback Mountain. The wall looks set to be breached again, this time in animation.