Disney back-patting for queer-baiting content

Emy Moore examines whether Disney is lacking LGBTQ+ representation.

Emy Moore
15th January 2020
Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) IMBD

Does Disney deserve credit for the minimal LGBTQ+ content in their most recent movies? Should they be doing more?

Disney has always been the poster-boy for entertaining children and adults of all ages ever since their debut in 1923. In more recent years, Disney has slowly but surely been monopolising the entertainment industry, so much so that an unprecedented 80% of box office hits this year were produced by the company. With this vast audience that grows ever larger with every new movie churned out, it would seem inevitable that in the 21st Century LGBTQ+ characters must take place among the headlining stars we’ve all come to love. However, this isn’t necessarily the case.

Disney has a damning history for censoring or diluting LGBTQ+ content in order to appease conservative audiences across the world. This is a serious issue for multiple reasons. Disney has proven time and time again that they value their conservative, anti-LGBTQ+ audience over their queer viewers. Situations where Disney have only vaguely referenced a character’s sexuality or only addressed it off-screen yet still reap the rewards of their performative support only goes to prove that Disney are willing to include queer characters on the condition that their sexuality is subtle or disguised enough to be unnoticeable to those who disagree with it.

LeFou's controversial scene in Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Source: Youtube

Boasting pride for their minimal LGBTQ+ content gives Disney the opportunity to queerbait LGBTQ+ audiences into investing time, and more importantly, money, into their movies. It’s enough to attract queer people desperate for any form of representation, but not enough to prompt discourse or opposition from paying conservative customers. This manipulation tactic is toxic not just for the way in which it disappoints and takes advantage of LGBTQ+ audiences, but also in the way in which it allows the company to claim inclusivity and diversity despite doing the bare minimum to warrant any credit.

Disney has repeatedly made headlines when announcing the presence of LGBTQ+ characters in their movies, only for it to become clear later that these characters have been swept under the carpet or erased entirely. The Marvel Cinematic Universe boasted their first LGBTQ+ superhero in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) only for a scene confirming the character’s sexuality to be deleted from the final cut. Marvel were guilty of queerbaiting again a year later, proudly claiming to have included their first openly LGBTQ+ character in Avengers: Endgame (2018), but viewers were disappointed and frustrated again when discovering the character was merely an unnamed extra who offhandedly mentions a date with a man, ironically played by one of the film’s directors, Joe Russo.

Can such a brief moments of inclusivity really be considered representation?

Russo was as equally guilty of back-patting as the highest Disney executives when he claimed in an interview for Deadline that: “Representation is really important to us”, and “as filmmakers of a massive franchise, we’re saying, 'We support you.” Can such a brief moment of inclusivity from an unnamed and irrelevant character really be considered representation? Is this the furthest their ‘support’ is willing to go?

Disney are repeat offenders for this self-congratulation. 2017’s Beauty and the Beast remake left much to be desired when the sexuality of character of LeFou, who Disney claimed would be openly gay in the movie, was barely acknowledged. Even the suggestion of a gay character caused the movie to be banned in Malaysia, Kuwait, and even a theatre in Alabama, U.S.A, showing exactly what Disney is so afraid of. Losing money. As Vulture wrote, "Disney can pat itself on its back all it wants for turning a villainous buffoon that was coded as gay in the original film into a morally ambiguous buffoon who is more obviously gay, confides in a teapot, and tries out dancing with a man".

Even last month, Disney’s new Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker stirred controversy when a kiss between two female background characters prompted numerous debates on how such an insignificant moment could count as LGBT+ representation. Echoing the words of Joe Russo, director J.J.Abrams proudly claimed “It was important to me that people who go to see this movie feel that they’re being represented in the film”, yet the only interaction that could be considered an attempt to do this was more akin to pandering than real representation.

Above: Oscar Isaac addresses a potential romance between Finn and Poe in an interview with IGN

Abrams’ comments are particularly ironic considering a potential romance between lead male characters Poe Dameron and Finn was dashed by Disney despite a rallying cry from fans to make it happen. Actor Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina) who plays Poe in the franchise has repeatedly addressed the matter in an interview with IGN, explaining that: "I think there could’ve been a very interesting, forward-thinking - not even forward-thinking, just, like, current-thinking - love story there, [...] but the Disney overlords were not ready to do that."

The fact of the matter is that Disney’s blatant prioritising of financial income over the inclusion of queer characters is becoming increasingly obvious and problematic with every opportunity they deliberately sabotage. Including queer content only through the use of minor background characters or off-screen declarations that most audience members will never notice, simply isn’t good enough for a company supposedly committed to using their platform and story-telling capabilities to give ordinary people heroes to identify with.

Blink-and-you-miss-it interactions aren’t a sufficient replacement for explicit and normalised queer love

If the LGBT+ content of a film can be cut, and make no difference to the storyline or plot in any way, then it’s not representation worthy of credit. It’s pandering specifically designed so that it can be easily and non-consequentially erased for homophobic audiences. Blink-and-you-miss-it interactions aren’t a sufficient replacement for explicit and normalised queer love, but as long as the company’s dedication to appeasing conservative audiences and pushing ticket sales across the world continues, there’s no indication their back-patting will ever be deserved.

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