Despite minor strides towards LGBTQ representation in big budget studio movies (a recent study from GLAAD’s annual Studio Responsibility Index noted that there was an increase in the percentage of films with LBGTQ characters in 2020), recent events prove just how empty those gestures are on a day-to-day basis. Over the last few weeks, one of Hollywood’s biggest money-makers — The Walt Disney Company and its many related entities — has had to face backlash from angry shareholders, employees, and fans over its inaction in regards to Florida’s planned “Don’t Say Gay” bill; walkouts by LGBTQ employees and allies in protest of said draconian bill; and the publication of a letter from Pixar employees that revealed that the studio already has its own “Don’t Say Gay” policy behind closed doors.
A number of major stars, including big-time Disney talents like Oscar Isaac and Gabrielle Union, have slammed the studio’s response in recent days. (Union did it on an actual Disney red carpet, for her “Cheaper by the Dozen” Disney+ feature, while Isaac spoke out during a “Moon Knight” junket.)
Passed by the Florida senate this week, the bill bans educators from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms in public schools. Detractors are calling on Disney CEO Bob Chapek to publicly condemn the bill and cease all contributions to politicians linked to the legislation. Though Chapek pledged a $5 million dollar donation to the Human Rights Campaign, the organization said it will not accept the gift until more “meaningful action” has been taken.
For employees from the creative side, Disney’s tepid response does not come as a surprise. According to an open letter from Pixar’s LGBTQ employees and allies, Disney executives have demanded cuts of “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection” in Pixar movies.
While Chapek and company have attempted to remind employees, allies, and fans of their deep wells of “inspiring content” meant to somehow counteract the studio’s involvement in funding political bills and campaigns that seek to harm at-risk communities, even the studio’s most recent track record belies a major lack of understanding about what content is actually inspiring.
In 2017, the Bill Condon-directed live-action “Beauty and the Beast” promised an “exclusively gay moment,” which essentially boiled down to Josh Gad’s character, LeFou, dancing in a crowd with Gaston (Luke Evans), which presumably implied LeFou was in love with his boss. Just last month, Gad expressed his regret over the entire incident, telling The Independent, “My regret in what happened is that it became ‘Disney’s first explicitly gay moment’ and it was never intended to be that. It was never intended to be a moment that we should laud ourselves for, because frankly, I don’t think we did justice to what a real gay character in a Disney film should be.”
Most recently, look to Pixar’s 2021 release “Luca,” which was essentially marketed as “Call Me by Your Name” for kids, all sunny Italian climes and charming meet-cutes, but included nothing that could be classified as “overtly gay.” Set in Italy, the film tells the story of two boys who share the same secret — they can turn into sea creatures — and the bond they develop in opposition to the discrimination they face. While most critics picked up on the movie’s obvious gay allegory, director Enrico Casarosa was tough to pin down, though he did admit to considering making the film more overtly queer.
“We were really focusing on friendship and so pre-romance,” Casarosa told The Wrap. “Some people seem to get mad that I’m not saying yes or no, but I feel like, well, this is a movie about being open to any difference.”
According to a new report by Variety, however, Pixar employees revealed that the “Luca” creative team considered making the character of Giulia queer, but did not know how to do so without creating a love interest for her. Instead, viewers are left reading the tea leaves once again, searching for clues and begging for table scraps.
Disney may be weathering the most scrutiny right now, but other studios have plenty of examples of “queer-baiting” in their blockbusters. Warner Bros’ recent hit “The Batman” similarly played on viewers’ emotions with the character of Catwoman, who has been depicted as bisexual in the comic books. Star Zoë Kravitz said she “interpreted” Catwoman as bisexual, but director Matt Reeves said he didn’t intended the character to be read as such. Many viewers latched onto the fact that Catwoman calls another woman “baby” twice in the film, but never share a kiss. Later, Kravitz’s character refers to her as simply a friend.
While it’s nice to know Kravitz played her that way, nothing in the film confirms the actor’s choice. In fact, it’s often left to queer actors to do the work of injecting their queerness into the films.
Much like Kravitz, Tessa Thompson has also stated that her character in the “Thor” movies Valkyrie is bisexual, though the movies have yet to back it up. All eyes are on this summer’s (Disney!) release of “Thor: Love and Thunder” to see whether or not Valkyrie will finally see a female love interest, something Thompson and Marvel head Kevin Feige have long spoken about. (Last year’s “Eternals,” which included a gay superhero, at least hinted at real forward momentum, even if it remained relatively chaste in the context of Chloe Zhao’s film.)
If reports from behind the scenes at Disney headquarters are to be believed, however, we’re in for another disappointment.
“We at Pixar have personally witnessed beautiful stories, full of diverse characters, come back from Disney corporate reviews shaved down to crumbs of what they once were,” the Pixar letter states. “Even if creating LGBTQIA+ content was the answer to fixing the discriminatory legislation in the world, we are being barred from creating it.”
As the adage goes, if you can see it, you can be it, but Disney struggles to even let you say it.
Additional reporting by Kate Erbland.