Is the World Ready for an LGBTQ Disney Princess (or Prince)?
Well, is the world ready for a gay Disney princess or prince? In short: no. As I outlined in my previous article on Disney marketing, the Walt Disney Company is very focused on the majority of its demographic, which is heterosexual. While changing social tides have been reflected in changing representations of relationships in Disney films, it may be at least a decade or two before an explicitly gay character or relationship makes its way into the focus of a mainstream Disney “flagship” film.
However, this article will point out that while it may be a while before two princes or princesses “tie the knot”, Disney has already created many characters and relationships which can be read as queer. After all, “gay” only represents one letter in the LGBTQ spectrum. This article would like to focus on the “Q” group which can represent “cultural common ground between lesbians and gays as well as other nonstraights.” 1
This article will provide the reader with several tools and strategies for queer readings of Disney characters and relationships including how to look for things that are “queer coded,” how to read into “camp,” cases of queer authorship, references to LGBTQ history, and finally how to find empowerment from “queer homosocial” relationships and solidarity with other “transgressive” romances. After explaining a brief queer history of the Walt Disney Company, this article will apply these criteria to films made from the Disney Renaissance to the present. In this way, members and advocates of the LGBTQ community can claim, acknowledge, and celebrate the acceptance of queer voices in Disney culture in the present while looking positively towards the future.
What Is a “Queer Reading?”
In an academic sense, the word “queer” adheres to the idea, based on the theories of Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, that gender and sexuality are fluid constructions which can be assembled and disassembled in unlimited variations. In Sedgewick’s words, “Some people, homo-, hetero-, and bisexual, experience their sexuality as deeply embedded in a matrix of gender meaning and gender differentials. Others of each sexuality do not.” 2 A “queer reading” is a way of looking at something; it does not always imply that the creators intended for the character to be read that way or that a character is gay. To be queer is to fall outside the spectrum of what is considered “normal,” or as this article will say, “heteronormative,” with regard to gender and sexuality. Therefore, characters that are in male/female relationships can also be read as queer and queer readings can be done by people who are heterosexual.
Code, Camp, and The Importance of “BODY LANGUAGE”
Many of the instances of queer readings during the Walt Era are defined by the closeted society in which Walt created his works from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. The Golden Age of Disney animation existed in the 1950’s when American culture was obsessed with maintaining “traditional” family values as a strong family was seen as the main line of defense against the “degenerate” culture of Communism. As Walt Disney, himself, created stories and characters which celebrated individualism and rebellion against authority Walt, was also a vehement anti-Communist, and much of his infamous social conservativism stems from these fears which much of his society shared. 3 Therefore, many of the films which define this era like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty shamelessly promote heteronormativity and traditionalism. However, just as queer people existed in this time period, so too, do queer Disney characters. Because this was a time defined by the Closet, queer readings of Disney works from this time require the use of things like camp and code.
“Camp” is not something to look for; rather it is “a way of looking at things,” as Susan Sontag would argue. Many refer to something as “campy” if it is over-the-top, and much of Disney culture, being a culture of fantasy, is over-the-top. 4 Camp, therefore, as found in animation, brings attention to the fact that certain aspects of life, including gender and sexuality, are learned and performed. 5 This idea subverts the notion that heterosexuality is the natural default of human programming and points to the superficiality and fluidity of traditional gender specifications.
To say that something is “queer coded” is to say that a character exhibits cultural signs of being a member of the LGBTQ community. Over the years, the queer community has used its own internal code and society has used its own code of gay and lesbian stereotypes to defame LGBTQ individuals. To study the “queer coding” in the Walt Era is to study the later because of the Company’s fears of LGBTQ culture as a Cold War liability. Queer coded characters of this era are often villains such as Captain Hook or Shere Khan. Meanwhile campy villains such as Maleficent disrupt the heterosexual narrative of their respective films. However, members of the LGBTQ community have historically and recently used code and camp readings to claim and “reclaim” these characters as symbols of queer empowerment just as they have reclaimed the word “queer” which was once used as an insult.
Though the 1980’s large strides were made in accepting and incorporating members of the LGBTQ community into the Disney Company and culture. This policy was showcased in the fact that openly gay people like Producer and Lyricist Howard Ashman and animator Adreas Deja were hired and allowed to be open about their sexuality. In 1991, the Company instituted a non-discrimination policy and was one of the first Hollywood companies to offer same-sex partner benefits. 6 This queer authorship within the company brought about more camp and coded characters; only this time, the characters were being created from the inside of the community, out. This time, it was not about stereotypes but more about exploring the performance of gender and sexuality in American culture.
The biggest invitation for queer readings through camp is in the way Disney Villains perform and over-perform their gender “to the point where the ‘naturalness’ of their gender can be called into question.” 7 The design for Ursula, for example, was based on the famous drag queen Divine. Ursula, with her over-the-top performance of femininity, and connection to drag draws attention to the performative nature of gender and sexuality, especially in her famous line “Don’t underestimate the importance of body language!” In her drag-cabaret-like style song “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” she teaches Ariel how to perform her gender and sexuality through what Judith Butler would call a “stylized repetition of acts.” 8 Ursula, in the meantime, has become a drag queen favorite and a symbol of lesbian empowerment.
One might naturally, however, show concern over the fact that queer coded characters such as Ursula, Jafar, Scar, and Governor Radcliffe are portrayed as villains. In response to these concerns, I would like to point out two things. First, that Disney culture is one of the few cultures in this country which celebrates and even reveres its villains. Disney opened a Villain’s Store in MGM studios in the early 1990’s which shows that campy villains are not just embraced by the LGBTQ community but by much of mainstream America as well. Recently, movies such as Maleficent have reclaimed villains from their one-dimensional beginnings as a larger sign of the times which insist on more nuanced representations of LGBTQ individuals. Also, there are other queer coded Disney characters from the Walt Era to the Present which are not Villains. They include the Reluctant Dragon, the Mad Hatter, and many others as the next part will reveal.
Queer Readings of Disney Films (1989-2015)
The next part of this article will apply the criteria for queer readings to Disney texts. These readings include other strategies such as queer homosocial relationships and a look into queer authorship and reception. These are not all of the films Disney has made: for the sake of length I am limiting this analysis to the films from The Little Mermaid to Frozen which have the strongest cases for queer readings. I encourage the reader to take these methods and apply them further (feel free to leave them in the comments section); not just to Disney texts but other works in pop culture as well which have been traditionally seen as exclusively heterosexual.
Part of Your World: The Little Mermaid
Code/Camp Characters: Ursula
Queer Authorship: Howard Ashman (lyricist) and Andreas Deja (lead animator on King Triton who is one of the first Disney male characters to be drawn with any kind of sex appeal). Also Hans Christian Anderson, who is believed to have been gay, wrote the original source material. 9
Transgressive Sexuality: Ariel is in love with a human being. This kind of relationship can be read as queer, because of the unnaturalness of an inter-species relationship but also because it is looked down upon in Ariel’s society. The scene between Ariel and Triton, in particular, where he shouts “He’s a human, you’re a mermaid!” and Ariel responds, “Daddy, I love him!” can be read as her “coming out” to her father.
Queer Themes: Aside from the controversial nature of Ariel and Eric’s relationship and an emphasis on the performance of gender and sexuality, another queer theme is one of straight privilege. Often one might criticize the film for the way Ariel begins as princess of the entire ocean and still, somehow, seems dissatisfied. One might also criticize the way that Ariel gives up everything for her man. These actions, however, potentially speak to the gay community (especially the white, middle class gay community) who must sacrifice a part of their privilege to follow their love and often sacrifice much more, including one’s “voice.” The song “Part of Your World” also speaks to Ariel’s status as “outsider” within her world.
LGBTQ History: As mentioned earlier, Ursula is based on the drag queen Divine but also sings her song in the style of cabaret: a European performance style heavily associated with the Weimar Era before and during the rise of Hitler. Cabaret, as a performance style, is associated heavily with Jewish culture and queer culture and was heavily suppressed by the Nazis as many performers were killed for their “degenerate” art style. The musicality of the song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is derived from this style with similarities to the songs “Wilkomen” (Cabaret) and “Mack the Knife” (The Threepenny Opera). 10 Ursula’s use of a music style which is connected to Jewish and queer resistance in the face of oppressive conformity not only speaks to Ursula’s status as “outsider,” but her status as “rebel.” Both Ariel and Ursula are connected in their rebellion against Triton, though they take different approaches for different reasons.
Queer Response: As mentioned above, Ursula has been claimed as an LGBTQ icon and the phrase “Part of Your World” has been used as a slogan in favor of gay acceptance. 11
A Beauty But A Funny Girl: Beauty and the Beast
Code/Camp Characters: Cogsworth, while male is coded as feminine or queer. This is present in several lines such as “I know it’s a girl” (which implies that he is less familiar with women than men) and “flowers, chocolates,… promises you don’t intend to keep” (which implies that he has experience with men breaking his heart). He is also single. Lumiere on the other hand is arguably bisexual or pansexual based on how much he enjoys kissing Cogsworth.
Queer Authorship: Howard Ashman (producer and lyricist) and Adreas Deja (lead animator for Gaston who Deja has said he based on hyper-masculine gay men in the urban gym culture of the 1980s). 12 David Ogden Stiers (the voice of Cogsworth), while closeted at the time of Beauty and the Beast, came out as gay years later.
Transgressive Sexuality: Again, Belle and the Beast’s relationship is unnatural because of the human/non-human dichotomy. This taboo relationship causes an uprising within the village.
Queer Themes: Again, there are themes of Otherness as both Belle and the Beast seem to fall in love because of their respective attractions to their shared experiences as “outsider.” Also, Belle is labeled as a “funny girl,” because she does not share the same attraction to Gaston as the other women do. “Funny” is often another word for “queer” as it seems the town questions her sexuality based on the fact that she does not respond to the binary differences between her and Gaston. There is also no “love at first sight” between Belle and the Beast which subverts their heteronormativity.
Homosocial Relationships: The relationship between Cogsworth and Lumiere is complicated but is one of the most compelling relationships in the film. It is clear that these two men gather empowerment from each other. In Lumiere’s case, his relationship to Cogsworth seems more meaningful than his relationship to Babette.
Same-sex Pairings: Another strategy for a queer reading is to look at same sex doubles (or in the case of the Bimbette’s a trio). This emphasis on “sameness” can be read as queer even if there is not sexual relationship between these women. Also the comparing of the Beast and Gaston places the two men in same-sex juxtaposition.
LGBTQ History: In 1966, a violent police raid on the gay bar Stonewall resulted in the gay people fighting back. This is seen as the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement in America. During the “Mob Song” a violent attack of the “enchanted castle” results in the objects fighting back. This act of self defense among “freaks” against the “normal” population invites links to Stonewall.
Queer Response: Metaphors have been drawn between the Beast’s curse and Howard Ashman’s battle with the AIDS virus which claimed his life before the picture was completed. The most prominent of this kind of reading came from heterosexual reporter Dan Rather in 1991 proving that queer readings are possible from non-queer individuals. 13
Shopping For Curtains: Aladdin
Code/Camp Characters: Jafar and the Genie. The Genie’s many personas speaks to the fluidity of gender and sexuality as he is often “in drag” or playing a queer coded fashion consultant.
Homosocial Relationships: While Jafar and Iago’s relationship is homosocial, the most compelling relationship in the film (arguably more interesting than the one between Aladdin and Jasmine) is the relationship between Aladdin and the Genie. There is even a reference to “picking out curtains” which opens the door to a gay reading of their relationship. Aladdin has several compelling homosocial relationships in the film including the monkey Abu and the Carpet.
Queer Authorship: Howard Ashman (producer and lyricist) worked on this film before he died and animator Andreas Deja was the lead animator on Jafar.
Queer Themes: In this case, Aladdin wants to break out of the essentialism which defines him as just a street rat singing “There’s so much more to me.” Also the Genie wants to be “set free” which can be an allusion to “the closet.” Ultimately it is the love between Aladdin and Genie which sets him free: an “act of true love” which can be likened, in true Disney fashion, to the power of “true love’s kiss.”
LGBTQ History: The Middle East in Western imagination has been historically seen as an exotic wonderland for alternative sexuality. These ideas go back to the Crusade Era when European propaganda stated that the Muslims of the East engaged in all sorts of “barbaric” sexual acts including homosexuality. These ideas motivated LGBTQ individuals in Europe to travel to more exotic locations during the Imperialist days of the British Empire (think Lawrence of Arabia) and these sentiments are also present in modern movies like 300 and Alexander which show the East as being much more sexually indulgent. Thus, the world of Aladdin invites the queer reader to indulge in a world where gender and sexuality are as vast and mysterious as the Arabian nights.
Queer Response: This was the first Disney animated film to specifically market to gay audiences in a commercial featuring the Genie as the queer coded fashion consultant. 14 Special screenings of Aladdin were used to benefit the fight against AIDS. 15
There’s One In Every Family: The Lion King
Code/Camp Characters: Scar, Zazu, and Timon are all men with feminine mannerisms.
Queer Authorship: Openly gay Elton John did the music for this film while Nathan Lane provided the voice of Timon.
Homosocial Relationships: Timon and Pumba are the obvious answer to this one, especially in the way that they are threatened by Nala’s entering Simba’s life. The relationship between Simba and Mufasa is at the heart of the film. While they are father and son, the empowerment that Simba draws from his father outweighs his relationship to Nala.
He Came So Highly Recommended: Pocahontas
Code/Camp Characters: Radcliffe, Percy, and Wiggins (who’s first instinct to deal with the Native Americans is to give them gift baskets).
Queer Authorship: David Ogden Stiers provided the voice of Radcliffe and Wiggins. The fact that this gay actor provided the voice for the two queer coded characters lends attributes of same sex “doubles” as well because their voice comes from the same man.
Homosocial Relationships: The relationship between Radcliffe and Wiggins is interesting as there are several implications that they are involved with one another. First the film establishes that Radcliffe is possibly gay by mentioning the “gossip” in the royal court about him. Then there is Radcliffe’s mention that Wiggins was “highly recommended” which can be read several ways along with Wiggins line “I like you!” The more compelling homosocial relationships in the movie, however, are between Pocahontas and Grandmother Willow and Pocahontas and her best friend Nakoma who, while she admits she thinks Kocoum is soooo handsome, shows an awful lot of jealousy over Pocahontas and John Smith’s relationship.
LGBTQ History: King James I of England, referenced several times in this film, was notoriously gay. Radcliffe’s comment about his “dear friend King Jimmy” implies through its casualness that Radcliffe and King James play for the same team. A possible analysis of Radcliffe’s evil is the fact that as a queer individual he cannot participate in the catharsis of Pocahontas and John Smith’s union as the rest of the cast can. This is apparent after Pocahontas saves John Smith and the two societies collectively put down their weapons. King James’ appearance in Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World makes him an official gay character in a Disney film.
Out There: The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Homosocial Relationships: The relationship between Hugo and the goat, Djali, is considered to be Disney’s first openly gay couple.
Transgressive Sexuality: In this scenario, Esmeralda’s explicit sexuality is seen as sinful and she is persecuted for this. Meanwhile judge Frollo wrestles with his sexual attraction to Esmeralda in the same way that many queer people might wrestle with theirs.
Queer Themes: Quasimoto’s situation can be likened to being “in the closet” as personified by his song “Out There.” There is also a theme of social justice in Esmeralda’s “God Help the Outcasts” which can be read to include the queer community.
LGBTQ History: This film was released around the same time that fundamentalist Christian groups were boycotting the Walt Disney Company because of their endorsement of homosexuality.
A Girl Worth Fighting For: Mulan
Code/Camp Characters: The Matchmaker, while a woman, acts more like a man in drag. The three soldiers Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po can be considered queer coded because of their over-exaggerated masculine performance or feminine tendencies.
Queer Authorship: Openly gay Harvey Fierstein voiced the role of Yao who asks if a dress makes him look fat.
Queer Themes: Mulan sings in the song “Reflection” about how if she were to be herself, she would break her family’s heart. Then there is the obvious fact that she cross dresses as a true expression of herself and proclaims that she never wants to see a naked man again. Also there is the fact that Captain Shang starts to have feelings for Mulan, under the impression that she is a man.
Change Your Fate: Brave
Homosocial Relationships: One of the most impactful aspects of the film is that the end features two women riding off into the sunset. Yes they are mother and daughter but it is a relationship between two women none-the-less. Perhaps Disney is preparing audiences for seeing this.
Transgressive Sexuality: Merida’s refusal to marry any of her suitors causes many to question her sexuality. While she never mentions attraction to the same sex, her rejection of heteronormativity queers her character to the point where she accused of lesbianism.
Let It Go: Frozen
Homosocial Relationships: The relationship between Elsa and Anna is central to the film. Ultimately this is a film about two women and the empowerment they receive from each other. While they are sisters, the liberating “act of true love” is one between two women. The relationship between Kristoff and Sven and Sven and Olaf is also important. Sven and Olaf, like Hugo and the goat are considered to be another Disney gay couple.
Queer Authorship: Openly gay actor Jonathan Groff voiced Kristoff while actors like Idina Menzel and Josh Gad (while both straight) have been associated with queer-themed musicals such as Rent, Wicked and Book of Mormon. Like The Little Mermaid, the allegedly gay Hans Christian Anderson wrote the original source material. Like the film Maleficent this version reads deeper into the character Elsa who was originally supposed to be the villain.
Queer Themes: Again the themes of being an “outsider” or “in the closet” are prevalent. Elsa is “cursed” with an ailment from birth (she was born that way). She is told to “conceal, don’t feel, don’t let it show.” She ultimately locks herself in her room (a closet) for fear of hurting her loved ones. After revealing her power she is persecuted and sings “Let It Go” as her coming out anthem. However, she soon realizes that “coming out” isn’t as glamorous as she’d hoped. Meanwhile it is only through the love and patience of her family that she is able to abandon fear and embrace her power. There is also Oaken and his “family” which implies that he is gay.
Queer Response: “Let It Go” has become an LGBTQ anthem. There has also been a huge response to the queer themes in this movie.
Give The Mermaid Her Voice
In conclusion, the reader may notice some threads in this long list. First, that as the years go on, the criteria for queer readings of Disney films gets shorter and shorter. One may also notice that the films with the most queer criteria are also the most popular. While many of these themes and attributes may lie beneath the surface for mainstream audiences, one could argue that a Disney film is more popular when it has more queer characters and themes. The more people address these themes, the more mainstream they will be Disney is likely to pick up on the popularity of LGBTQ characters. The sooner this happens, the sooner the world can expect a more openly LGBTQ relationship on the Disney screen.
- Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993., pg. 2-3 ↩
- Sedgewick, Eve Kosofsky. The Epistemology of the Closet. Berkley: University of California Press, 1990., pg. 26. ↩
- See: the book From Walt to Woodstock for more a more detailed analysis of Walt’s politics. While his father was a staunch Marxist, and Walt was raised in a Marxist household, much of Walt’s political identity centers around anti-authoritarianism which is a theme present in much of his work. Walt was a staunch anti-Fascist as well and valued individualism. Despite his conservative stance on certain things, his focus on individualism opens the door for queer readings because of the individualized nuances of queer theory. ↩
- Griffin, Sean. Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out. New York, London: New York University Press. 2000. pg 68 ↩
- Griffin, 69 ↩
- Griffin, 107 ↩
- Griffin, 73 ↩
- Butler, 402 ↩
- Griffin, 144 ↩
- For more information on the queer roots in cabaret, see the BBC documentary “The Real Cabaret.” For more information on the Jewish music roots of musical theatre see the PBS documentary “Broadway: A Jewish Legacy” keeping in mind that the composers of The Little Mermaid (Alan Menken and Howard Ashman) were both Jewish. ↩
- Nichols, James Michael. “Chris Villain Releases ‘Part of Your World’ (VIDEO).” Huffington Post. April 8th, 2014. Web. Nov. 23, 2015. ↩
- Griffin, 142 ↩
- Rather, Dan. “The AIDS Metaphor in Beauty and the Beast.” Los Angeles Times, Mar. 22, 1992. Web. Nov. 2014. ↩
- Griffin, 190 ↩
- Griffin, 103 ↩
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