Disney, Say Yes to Queer Characters

It’s time for Disney to stop tiptoeing around inclusion.

Over the weekend, Girl Meets World actress—and self-avowed intersectional feminist—Rowan Blanchard came out on Twitter.

The 14-year-old Disney Channel star responded to the #RileyMatthewsBisexual2K16 campaign, which called on the network to allow its protagonist to explore her sexuality this season. The show—a spinoff of the late-’90s TGIF favorite, Boy Meets World—follows Corey and Topanga’s daughter, Riley, as she navigates what it means to be a teenager in 2016. As Twitter users argued, tackling sexual orientation is a major part of that discussion.

Rowan Blanchard responded that she welcomes LGBT storylines on Girl Meets World, tweeting that “it’s vvv important to me, being queer, that there is representation on our show.” She explained that while she’s never had a same-sex relationship, she’s “open to liking any gender” in the future. “[B]eing queer to me just means not putting a label on sexuality—just existing,” Blanchard said.

Ms. Blanchard is right: Queer inclusion is incredibly crucial for shows like Girl Meets World and companies like Disney, in order to represent the lived experiences of the queerest generation in history. After all, Blanchard came out on Twitter just days after Hunger Games actress Amandla Sternberg disclosed her sexuality in a series of Snapchats for Teen Vogue.

“It’s a really, really hard thing to be silenced and it’s deeply bruising to fight against your identity and to mold yourself into shapes that you just shouldn’t be in,” she said. “As someone who identifies as a black, bisexual woman I’ve been through it.”

Historically, Disney isn’t known for being particularly forward-thinking when it comes to queer issues. As I wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian last year, Disney frequently codes its villains as queer. In creating the character of Ursula for The Little Mermaid, animators based the voluptuous sea-witch on Divine, the famed ’70s drag queen who was a frequent star in John Waters’s films.

In the case of The Lion King’s Scar, it’s not that the character actually sleeps with men but, as documentarian David Thrope argued, that his effete mannerisms signify that he’s an Other. “Films need villains,” Thorpe told Vice, “and for a very long time, the effete, aristocratic, effeminate man was the villain.”

However, the company has been tiptoeing toward inclusion in recent years, as the rest of the animation industry becomes more queer friendly. While the Disney Channel’s Good Luck Charlie introduced a storyline featuring two lesbian moms in 2014, the smash hit Frozen also winked at gay audiences. When Anna and Kristoff stop at “Wandering Oaken's Trading Post and Sauna,” the shopkeeper is seen briefly waving to his family—Oaken’s husband and two kids.

Last year, news broke that Disney was developing Princes—a royal romance that would feature its first same-sex couple. (The film was rumored be an adaptation of Jeffrey A. Miles’s children's book, The Princes and the Treasure.) That turned out to be a hoax, but as Sally Kohn wrote in the New Republic, there’s a reason the report went viral.

“It was shared on Facebook more than 60,000 times,” she said. “No doubt many of these shares came from villagers from Glenbeckistan, but many others were probably elated, eager for a Disney film to finally reflect modern America.” Six months after the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, a recent survey from Gallup showed that “acceptance of gays is at an all-time high.”

But certain populations particularly need this group of support. In addition to trans people, who face high risks of violence, young queer people are disproportionately likely to be homeless. Statistics from UCLA’s Williams Institute show that around 4 in 10 homeless youths identify as LGBT. Many of these young people are ejected from their homes after coming out. Most teenage girls are worried about juggling friends and schoolwork, but according to NBC, 19-year-old Diamond Marks—a trans woman of color—is most concerned about where she’ll sleep next, whether it’s at a friend’s apartment, a shelter, or a public park.

Disney’s first queer protagonist isn’t the only solution to these issues. LGBT youth need greater support networks across the country—whether that’s from schools, advocacy organizations, or local service providers—but media representation is absolutely a part of the movement for acceptance. Programs like Girl Meets World can open up a space for conversations in American households between parents and their children, normalizing queer sexuality for those who continue to lack crucial understanding.

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Given that Blanchard is just 14 and the show’s target audience is comprised of very young adults, many parents might be uncomfortable with having teen programming broach these subjects. After airing the lesbian-themed episode, the conservative backlash against Good Luck Charlie was so vitriolic that the show’s star, then five-year-old Mia Talerico, received death deaths from angry fans.

In a statement, One Million Moms urged the network to “avoid controversial topics that children are far too young to comprehend.” The group continued, “Mature issues of this nature are being introduced too early and too soon, and it is extremely unnecessary.”

That might dissuade Disney from further wading into those waters, but it shouldn’t: Queer youth are coming out at increasingly early ages—even as young as middle and elementary school. “While studies in the 1970s documented LGBT people coming out, on average, in their early twenties, the latest research demonstrates that the average age has dropped to anywhere between 14 and 16,” BuzzFeed’s Shannon Keating writes.

Other estimates suggest that the average age is even lower than that—as young as 13. Parents might think kids “aren’t old enough” to get it, but if Riley Matthews were to come out, they would be more likely than ever to know a student like her. They might even be a kid like her.

Shows like ABC Family’s boundary-pushing drama The Fosters are already recognizing that reality. While previous storylines featuring queer teens—like Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life and Jack McPhee on Dawson’s Creek—centered on high school students, the show’s Jude and Connor were just 13 when they shared their first onscreen kiss. That might make the pair the youngest same-sex couple in television history, but for the teens watching, it wasn’t just groundbreaking. It was a chance for television to finally catch up to reality.

It’s incredibly exciting that Rowan Blanchard came out—and that the inspiring young actress will be putting pressure on Disney to have her character follow suit. But what’s most inspiring is that gay teens are doing the same every day, coming out on their Twitter and Facebook accounts to their friends and family.

Those courageous youth deserve to see a girl like them on every TV in America.