If you live in the United States odds are you have been exposed to Disney at some point in your life. As for me, my very first memory is watching The Lion King when I was a little over one year old. As a toddler I was obsessed with Mary Poppins and watched it on repeat. Like any true ’90s kid I was raised on Disney animated movies like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Mulan. Even as I grew older I continued to see the latest Disney animated movies in theaters and enjoyed family vacations to Disney World and Disney Land. Now as a young adult I still watch Disney movies and I have just returned from my thirteenth Disney theme parks vacation. Over time the way I consume Disney theme parks and movies has evolved as I begin to notice details I had missed when I was a child. Among these details is the surprising amount of queerness for a film company built on a reputation for being good, wholesome, (straight) family fun.
It can take a few viewings to pick up on the subtle undertones of queerness in the flavor of various Disney animated films, but once noticed it cannot be ignored regardless if the filmmakers intended to code these characters as queer or not. An excellent example of this can be found in Ursula from The Little Mermaid. The powerful sea witch is based on the drag queen Divine (a fact that will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with drag queen performances). Many fans view The Lion King‘s fratricidal villain, Scar, as gay. Some have asserted Aladdin’s Jafar is arguably more interested in Aladdin than he is with Jasmine. Lyricist Howard Ashman saw himself as a gay man with AIDS in the beast. He publicly interpreted the curse in Beauty and the Beast as a metaphor for what its like to live with the AIDs. More recently many in gay and lesbian communities in particular have cited Elsa’s ice powers as a metaphor for queerness and think of the ice queen’s show stopping number “Let It Go” as a coming out anthem. So the next time you hear someone complain about the new Beauty and the Beast‘s “exclusively gay moment” just remind them Disney has been having queer “moments” for quite some time.
Now it must be acknowledged the majority of the characters mentioned are villains and femme or effeminate. In many ways these characters fit into a long tradition of vilifying queerness and femininity that is far larger and older than Disney. For this reason these films must be consumed with caution and a healthy amount of suspicion lest they contribute to the internalization of the idea queerness and femininity are evil. Yet in a world where queer representations are few and far between some queer viewers find mirrors in the drag-esque stylings of Ursula and the flamboyance of Scar and Jafar. Oftentimes the villains are more compelling than the oftentimes bland hero and heroines that populate Disney films. They drive the major external conflicts their respective hero(ines) must face and in doing so give the stories they inhabit life. After all, what would Ariel, Aladdin, and Simba have to do without Ursula, Jafar, and Scar plotting and scheming in their way? However, as fun as these characters may be, a list filled with villains who are not even explicitly queer and play into a long tradition of heterosexism and misogyny isn’t very satisfying media representation.
Fortunately, over the past few decades queer representations in Disney movies have evolved from the subtly coded queerness of the villainous sea witch Ursula. Now queer viewers can find a mirror for themselves in Elsa the misunderstood ice queen who lets her freak flag fly and whose primary relationship in life is with another woman, albeit her sister. Many fans are hoping for more explicit and intentional queer representation in Frozen 2 with Elsa at the heart of a lesbian love story.
Only time will tell if same gender love stories from Disney will ever brace the world’s multitude of screens. In the meantime we can be mindful of what we consume, take whatever pleasure we can in the media representation available, and encourage better representations with our views and our wallets.
Sources and Further Reading