You need not walk into Marie’s Crisis to hear a charming West Village bachelor belt “Part of Your World,” or eavesdrop on a brunch conversation ranking the best cartoon villains over mimosas, to understand the profound connection the gay community has to the catalog of Disney animated films.
It seems silly to single out one particular demographic’s affinity, given the fierce nostalgic fondness most adults have for wisecracking candlesticks, singing crustaceans, and lion cubs growing up to be mighty kings.
But for a community whose childhoods are so often defined by being “a funny girl…different from the rest of us” and wondering “when will my reflection show who I am inside?”, the messaging, the whimsical escape, and, for the love of Minnie, the camp of it all made the House of Mouse a safe space.
Of course for all the erstwhile gayness of these animated musicals, they’re equally problematic. Gay panic, stereotypes, closeting, and equating homosexuality with perversion pervades these films just as much as any celebration of otherness or flamboyance.
Mulan may be rejecting societal expectations and exercising her freedom to marry whomever she loves, but try to watch the effeminate young Pinocchio’s fretting over not knowing how to act like “a real boy” through the prism of queer anxiety. Mickey Mouse isn’t quite marshalling any gay pride parades yet.
So it’s a heartwarming evolution that the youngest students of the magical world of Disney have come to both embrace its subversiveness without settling for its regressiveness.
This week a young teen activist launched a Twitter campaign to make Disney princess Elsa a lesbian in the upcoming Frozen sequel. “The entertainment industry has given us girls who have fallen in love with beasts, ogres who fall for humans, and even grown women who love bees,” Alexis Isabel Moncada wrote in an article for MTV. “But we’ve never been able to see the purity in a queer relationship.”
Her initial tweet—“I hope Disney makes Elsa a lesbian princess imagine how iconic that would be”—has since exploded into a Twitter campaign. The hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend quickly went viral, with fans encouraging Disney to include a LGBT-inclusive plotline to speak for a generation yearning to not just surmise subtle themes that speak to their community, but let those themes literally sing.
It fits that Frozen would be the film to make this groundbreaking move, with its messaging that “love is an open door” and incredibly progressive ending: when an act of true love is required to break a curse, it’s not a Prince Charming whose kiss saves Princess Anna; it’s the love of her sister, Elsa.
And then there’s Elsa herself, whose entire story arc has been interpreted by some as a metaphor for being in the closet.
She has special powers that make her unique and powerful but, fearing them, she stifles them and retreats to an isolated castle. It’s only after she lets down her guard and unleashes those powers—discovering she won’t just be accepted, but celebrated for them—that she comes into her own. “Let It Go” isn’t just an Oscar-winning hit. It’s a gay anthem.
Of course, it should be no surprise that there are those who want this Twitter campaign to be frozen in its tracks—proving that Frozen’s pro-gayness might be as complicated as Disney’s history with the idea, in general.
It’s an extension of the controversy that bubbled when Frozen originally was released in 2014, when conservative parents warned that the film was homosexual propaganda. According to the contingent, which was led by a mom who writes a blog titled “A Well-Behaved Mormon Woman,” Disney was brainwashing its impressionable young fans into supporting the “normalization of same-sex sexual behavior.”
Pastor and right-wing radio host Kevin Swanson echoed these concerns: “If I was the Devil, what would I do to really foul up an entire social system and do something really, really, really evil to five- and six- and seven-year-olds around America? I would buy Disney.”
Various interpretations of Disney’s history hint that the Devil’s been pulling the strings for a while.
While no film or character has been as explicitly imbued with LGBT themes as Frozen and Elsa, a certain gayness is sprinkled through many Disney movies like fairy dust—heh—having a profound effect on gay fans. Equally profound, however, is the silencing: Just as often as characters are encouraged to let their freak flags fly, they are scolded not to do it so flamboyantly.
Mulan, for example, could be seen as a genderfluid icon, with “Reflection” as much of an anthem for those who feel they’ve been born into the wrong bodies as “Let It Go” is one for embracing homosexuality.
Mulan also rejects societal norms as far as gender roles go, deciding to dress as a boy and go to war rather than stay at home and succumb to the female beauty norms that she felt uncomfortable with and wait for the Matchmaker to find her a match.
And eschewing conventional forms of matchmaking and traditional marriage in general pervades many other Disney films. Jasmine refuses to marry the suitors that are chosen and paraded in front of her by her father, Belle gives the middle finger to Gaston’s proposal, and Ariel defies her father’s wishes to marry an entirely different species.
It’s not exactly Elsa having a girlfriend, but, as Akash Nikolas wrote in The Atlantic, “Disney films usually offer a traditional happy ending with a heterosexual marriage, the journey always involves rejecting parental and societal expectations, and exercising a ‘freedom to marry whomever you love’ spirit that is endemic to gay rights.” And, hey, that’s something!
Then there are the characters who become queer icons. It’s common knowledge now that the character of Ursula in The Little Mermaid was modeled after legendary drag performer Divine.
But Ursula’s embrace of her sexuality is branded perverse, shamed as evil. She’s used alternately for comedic effect and to have young audience members cowering in fear. Ursula is a beacon of queerness, and because of her unabashed reveling in those traits, branded as immoral—perhaps making it no surprise that the LGBT community feels a certain fondness and kinship for her.
And while there’s no denying the power in closeted young Disney fans questioning or recognizing or simply being exposed to characters who present as gay, that these characters are typically lonely and almost always evil might counteract that value.
The Lion King’s Scar, Hercules’s Hades, Pocahontas’s Ratcliffe, Aladdin’s Jafar: these are all characters who are “coded gay,” meaning that they exhibit traits that are clues to their homosexuality, but not explicitly acknowledged as so because they exist in communities and cultures that consider gayness to be depraved.
These characters, as my colleague Samantha Allen points out in this excellent piece on Disney and gayness, are feminized as a tool to clue us into their evilness, no doubt an extension of the once prevalent idea that children should stay away from effeminate gay men, who are either perverts or out to enlist you in their moral depravity.
Scar, with his limp-hand gesturing and sardonic wryness, makes a self-aware joke about how he’s going to “practice his curtsy,” eliciting an eye-roll from Zazu: “There’s one in every family—two in mine, actually.” Hades, were he not getting in the way of Meg and Hercules’s true love, would be Meg’s sassy gay best friend: swilling Cosmos and telling his girlfriend that men are pigs not worth getting all worked up over. And hellooooooo Ratcliffe’s wardrobe.
Sure, we all enjoy these characters—the villains are always the best ones—but there’s a naughtiness you indulge in when celebrating them. Should indulging in your gay instincts really be naughty?
Perhaps that’s why, for years and years before Elsa ever “Let It Go” and Frozen cast off these subtle messages of embracing gayness, Disney actually subtly encouraged staying in the closet.
As Allen again points out, Disney history is ripe with intimate male-male relationships that could be analyzed as slyly homosexual, but each condemned with homophobic humor any time that relationship might overtly present itself.
Take life partners Timon and Pumbaa, for example, who recoil in disgust at an accidental gay kiss. Or when the Genie in Aladdin finally acknowledges, as Nikolas calls it, the “queer undercurrent” of his relationship with Aladdin, saying, “I’m getting kinda fond of you kid…” it’s immediately dismissed in a fit of gay panic: “Not that I want to pick out curtains or anything.”
When you grow up gay, or wondering if you might be gay, you search for yourself in any way you can in these tenets of pop culture that become integral parts of your childhood, which are highly influential in the person you become and the attitudes you have about certain morals. It’s not just gay people who do this. We all do; it’s just harder for some of us to see ourselves.
We see ourselves in the outcasts, those who are different. Dumbo, with his big ears, or Pinocchio, who doesn’t share the same human makeup as the rest of the kids, physically manifest the otherness we feel inside. We empathize with Peter Pan’s desire to stay in Neverland and Mowgli’s hesitance to leave the jungle. It’s where they feel safe and accepted. Who knows how their uniqueness would be treated in the real world?
And wouldn’t it be nice to see ourselves without undercurrents of shame? That’s why #GiveElsaAGirlfriend has exploded.
It’s unlikely that Disney will rewrite its script to cater to a hashtag campaign, with Frozen 2 already in production, but how nice for there to be a movement for LGBT inclusiveness in contrast to the typical situation: the boycott.
Holy cow, what an insanely huge thing it would be for a Disney Princess to be a lesbian—an outward, open one, not just an assumed one. Disney’s questionable history with gayness could be its positive future.
And besides, it’s high time for Timon and Pumbaa to make honest men out of each other already.