Disney’s failure to represent LGBTQ+ people

Photo by: Brian McGowan on Unsplash

From the moment that The Walt Disney Company entered the animation business, it has been synonymous with family-friendly entertainment. As acceptance for LGBTQ+ people has gone up, families have become more diverse, causing Disney to try and to appeal to them and remain the dominant brand in family entertainment. But their actions behind the scenes reveal that they are not trying as much as they could.

As with most of the entertainment industry, Disney has historically only represented the non-marginalized in their films. As more marginalized groups have started making themselves heard in society, they have started to become potential customers for Disney to appeal to. Naturally, this has led to Disney creating characters that these groups can identify with to draw these audiences in, and the LGBTQ+ is no exception.

Representation is important beyond a company’s bottom line, of course. Professor Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal—a psychology professor at the City University of New York—outlines the psychological benefits of seeing one’s identity features positively represented in the media one consumes, such as combating stereotypes, providing role models for people to look up to and encouraging marginalized people to foster communities.

Nadal goes on to state that, while representation is not the final goal, it is an important step to achieving equity. Therefore, poor representation can do more harm than good.

“Having a diverse cast on a television show is meaningless if those storylines promote harmful stereotypes or fail to address societal inequities,” he writes. “Being the ‘first’ at anything is pointless if there aren’t efforts to address the systemic obstacles that prevent people from certain groups from succeeding in the first place.”

While Disney has moved on from their less tasteful representations, there have been concerns about their recent LGBTQ+ representation too. Disney has included several queer characters in their recent movies, such as Spectre from Onward, LeFou from the live action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast and Alisha Hawthorne from Lightyear

Additionally, they have featured queer characters as background characters in several of their projects, such as America Chavez’s moms in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and two unnamed Resistance soldiers in Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker

However, all of these characters have one similarity undermining their representation: any mention or suggestion towards their sexuality is extremely brief. For example, Alisha Hawthorne from Lightyear kisses her girlfriend upon returning home from a mission, and that’s it. Beyond this moment, there is nothing to indicate that she is queer. 

This is by design; by making these moments incredibly brief and disconnected from the story at large, Disney can remove them for international releases. In countries such as Russia and China, where there exists both a large potential audience and regulations forbidding homosexuality from being depicted on-screen, Disney will remove these scenes or dub them over, or else not release it at all.

Effectively, this prevents Disney from creating queer characters with any sort of relevance. Queerness has to be so fleeting that it can be cut without impacting the rest of the story, or else Disney risks losing profits in some of its largest markets. This has limited creators’ abilities to include representation in the stories they have produced, according to staff such as Alex Hirsch, creator of Gravity Falls.

On June 16, the 10-year anniversary of Gravity Falls, Hirsch took to Twitter to share a selection of the notes he had received from Disney’s Broadcast Standards and Practices (S&P) department. Among these notes, at the 1:28 mark in the video, was a note from S&P telling Hirsch that he was not allowed to depict a male police officer putting his arm around another male officer, and that their relationship was not allowed to be seen as flirtatious. The gesture was only approved when Hirsch told them that they were “buddies.”

Hirsch has claimed that, in his time working with Disney, he was explicitly forbidden from including any form of LGBTQ+ representation:

“Back when I made GF Disney FORBADE me from any explicit LGBTQ+ rep,” he said on Twitter. “Apparently ‘happiest place on Earth’ meant ‘straightest.’”

He’s not alone in these accusations. On Mar. 9 of this year, Pixar employees drafted a letter to Disney CEO Bob Chapek titled, “A Statement to Leadership from the LGBTQ Employees of Pixar & Their Allies.” In it, they detailed how any time they would submit a story with queer elements in it, it would be submitted to the higher ups and have all queerness removed.

“We at Pixar have personally witnessed beautiful stories, full of diverse characters, come back from Disney corporate reviews shaved down to crumbs of what they once were,” the letter states. “Even if creating LGBTQIA+ content was the answer to fixing the discriminatory legislation in the world, we are being barred from creating it.”

The “discriminatory legislation” this letter refers to is the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, otherwise referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay Law” by its critics. This bill, passed on Mar. 28 and signed into law on July 1, prevents teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity to their students. The bill was signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whom Disney had donated $100,000 towards

When confronted about this, Chapek sent a company-wide memo stating that, “the biggest impact we can have in creating a more inclusive world is through the inspiring content we produce.” But as seen in the response from Pixar’s employees, even this impact is being minimized at Disney.

The one product that has seemingly slipped through the cracks at Disney is The Owl House, created by Dana Terrace. The Owl House follows Luz Noceda, a human girl who winds up in a realm full of demons and monsters, and her journey to becoming a witch. Along the way, she makes friends with the witches in this realm. One of these witches is Amity Blight, who later becomes Luz’s girlfriend.

Unlike the Disney products preceding it, The Owl House has been open about its queer characters. Even in the first season, Amity gets flustered thinking about Luz and tries to ask her out to a school dance. As the seasons have gone on, they’ve made it even more explicit, with the two sharing a dramatic kiss in season two and Luz coming out to her mom in season three. 

In addition to Luz and Amity representing bisexuals and lesbians respectively, The Owl House has represented non-binary people through their characters Masha and Raine Whispers. There are also smaller queer characters, such as Willow’s two dads, who aid in establishing the idea that queerness is normal in this world.

At time of writing, both the first and second season of The Owl House are sitting at a 100 per cent critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the audience score not too far behind. Critics have praised it specifically for its LGBTQ+ representation, but also for its merits beyond that, such as its characters, aesthetics and story. To many, The Owl House isn’t just good representation, it’s good full stop. So naturally, when Disney decided to cancel it, the show’s fans were confused.

Plenty of fans speculated that this was due to The Owl House’s LGBTQ+ representation. The show had already been facing troubles, as Terrace had to fight to allow queer characters in her show, and its overseas releases have had scenes cut and rewritten in an attempt to remove any and all gay content. However, Terrace chose not to put the blame on that, as she revealed in a Reddit post

“While we have had issues airing in a few countries (and are just straight up banned in a few more) I’m not gonna assume bad faith against the people I work with in LA,” she wrote.

While she was not informed that this discussion was happening until the executives had told her that her show was to be cancelled, the one piece of feedback she did receive was that The Owl House simply did not align with Disney’s brand.

“At the end of the day, there are a few business people who oversee what fits into the Disney brand and one day one of those guys decided TOH didn’t fit that ‘brand’,” she wrote. “The story is serialized, our audience skews older, and that just didn’t fit this one guy’s tastes. That’s it! Ain’t that wild? It sucks but it is what it is.”

Regardless of the reason behind the cancellation, the result is the same: Disney’s sole product with strong LGBTQ+ representation has been shut down. The Owl House does have a third season currently being released, but it consists of three double-length specials instead of the standard 20 episodes. 

Between Disney’s support for anti-LGBTQ+ politicians, limits placed on creators depicting queer people and callous cancellation of their one queer product, it is hard to believe that Disney truly believes that they should be inspiring LGBTQ+ people, like Chapek’s memo stated. 

Representation matters, and Disney has the creatives willing to include it in their works, if only they would put their stories before their business. 

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