From a Drag Queen Sea Witch to a Misunderstood Ice Queen: The Evolution of Queerness, Femininity, and Villainy in Disney Movies

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 

  1. https://mic.com/articles/170056/the-original-beauty-and-the-beast-cartoon-was-a-metaphor-for-aids#.fXEYfa0qO
  2. https://tjwest3.com/2013/11/13/the-queer-pleasures-of-disney-villains/

 

Documentary Review–Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric

This past February National Geographic broadcasted a documentary on transgender identities entitled Gender Revolution with Katie Couric acting as a kind of guide. Intended for a wider audience the documentary covers the basics of sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexuality. Nonbinary and intersex issues also receive some air time, but the main focus remains on binary transgender people, theories on why they exist, and how “this whole transgender thing” is having a moment. While any positive transgender representation on television is certainly welcome, the documentary does oversimplify and essentialize gender. As a result the documentary falls short in its representations of the intersex community.

First the documentary could do a better of making the distinction between intersex and transgender. While there is some overlap between the intersex and transgender communities (of which I am an example), the majority of intersex people do not identity as trans and the majority of trans people are not intersex. Also the two communities face different, albeit interconnected,  issues. For example, transgender people are seeking their rights to bodily autonomy by means of access to often necessary hormonal and surgical treatments while intersex people are seeking their rights to bodily autonomy by means of ending nonconsensual, medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex infants and children. It is important these differences be acknowledged when intersex and trans issues are covered together. Gender Revolution does not adequately present these distinctions. This is mainly due to the fact that their main focus is on transgender and not on intersex issues.

Second are the interviews covering intersex narratives. These include interviews with the parents of a toddler who was diagnosed with androgenic hyperplasia at birth and an interview with an intersex trans man on his traumatic experience with early surgeries. For the most part these stories are handled well. The accompanying statistics and discussion of the failed “John/Joan case” help to further enlighten the audience on the issues intersex people face on a wider scale. Yet the coverage takes a problematic turn with the inclusion of a doctor who justifies his recommendation for medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children, saying he would opt for surgery if the child was his and the number of people who have issues after such gender assignments are small anyway. Such statements go completely against the lived experiences of intersex people. Regardless of gender identity most intersex people who undergo nonconsensual, medically unnecessary surgeries in childhood suffer trauma as a result and have to deal with the life long physical consequences often in the forms of decreased sexual function, increased injections, and sterilization. In fact entire civil rights movements have been organized against the practice and are continuing to do so to this day. Seriously including a doctor who justifies nonconsensual surgeries on intersex infants and children in a documentary covering these issues is problematic at best even it can serve as an example of how many medical professionals have continued these contested practices into the present.

Now there are some things Gender Revolution does well. It manages to make the basics of trans issues from generation gaps within trans communities to transgender health care accessible for those who otherwise would never have learned about them. In this way the documentary does well as an educational tool, especially for the cis majority. Even with it’s problems I would still recommend it to those who are in the early stages of learning about what it means to be transgender means as it manages to impart the basics in a gentle and accessible manner through the familiar styles of Katie Couric. However it should be viewed critically and with caution, especially when it comes to the segments on intersexuality.