Disney movies are often viewed as a stronghold of fairy tales and classical romance. But a closer view shows signs of queerness beneath heteronormativity.
by Anna Scheer
“Once upon a time, there was a poor but beautiful girl. One day she met an equally beautiful prince. They fell in love instantaneously, married, and had beautiful children. And they lived happily ever after” – We all know the seemingly classic fairy tale story, not least thanks to the work of the Walt Disney Company that has brought more than 50 animated feature films to the big screen or to our home screen. Quite a number of them is based on fairy tales written down by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. While, sometimes, the details of the fairy tales are given a twist, the basic storyline remains the same: boy meets girl, girl meets boy. There isn’t a story where boy meets boy, or girl meets girl – or is there?
Disney’s most successful animated fairy tale adaptation to date, Frozen, which is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, is the first not to have the main character, Elsa, meet and marry a man. This has led to widespread speculation throughout the internet whether Elsa might be a lesbian, quickly resulting in the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend on Twitter. The movement requesting a lesbian partner for Elsa in a potential sequel of the film has gained widespread popularity and is supported by many celebrities, most prominently by Idina Menzel herself, who has lent Elsa her voice in Frozen.
Would it be the first time Disney openly featured gay characters on screen? Not quite, if you follow the direction several scholars in the field have taken.
Whether or not the company will grant ‘Lesbian Elsa’-fans their wish, Disney’s unofficial gay history started as early as in the 1930s, even though not necessarily promoted by the company itself: historical evidence hints at the usage of “Mickey Mouse”, the name of Walt’s most famous cartoon character, as code to refer to gay clubs. And even though the Disney company during its founder’s reign was far from encouraging homosexuality, the tale of the ‘outsider’, often prominent in Disney movies, did its own to appeal to the homosexual community. So did the depictions of villains: precisely because tales like Snow White, Disney’s first animated fairy tale movie, and its successors like Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty can be read as a triumph of heterosexuality, their villains were celebrated by the gay community because of their disruptive role of said heterosexuality. However, here, the notion of queerness lies within the audience of the films and not necessarily within the films themselves.
A Gay Genie in Aladdin?
Interpretations regarding the queerness of Disney characters have been dared to make regarding the few actually male villains in Disney movies: Honest John and Gideon from Pinocchio have been interpreted as a gay couple, and so have Captain Hook and Smee in Peter Pan. “Smee and Hook and Aladdin and the Genie stand out as ’queer‘ because they have a somewhat deep relationship and spend a lot of time together, caring about each other in different ways. We don’t have many cultural categories to make sense of that,” comments H. Peter Steeves, professor of philosophy and phenomenology at DePaul University in Chicago. An expert concerning all Disney things, he has published several books and articles dealing with interpretation of Walt Disney’s movies and theme parks. A particular research interest of his has been Beauty and the Beast. Along with The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast is one of the films that has been produced with Howard Ashman as lyricist and Andreas Deja as supervising animator, respectively – both openly gay men. It seems that the presence of openly homosexual people working on the films opened the door for interpretations of the story to that end, a notion that is further supported by the creators themselves: Deja admitted his homosexuality influenced the drawings of his characters. When developing Aladdin’s counterpart Jafar, Deja admitted to thinking of him as gay, in order to be able to give him his elegance and melodrama. The Genie in Aladdin is another case in point; here, it is especially Ashman’s lyrics which lead to an interpretation of the figure as queer. It is widely accepted that Robin Williams contributed heavily to the final character depiction of the Genie, yet, Ashman had written the songs for the character even before Williams had been signed on. As Sean Griffin reflects in his book Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out, “the Genie promotes him [Aladdin] shamelessly by pointing out ‘That physique! How can I speak? Weak at the knee,’ and describing how he ‘got all dolled up and dropped by’”, to give but one example allowing an interpretation of Genie as a gay male, admittedly of caricaturist nature – and yet, Genie is the not-so-secret hero of the movie.
The possibility of homosexuality is hinted at far more subtly for the antagonist Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. Both Ashman and Deja worked together on the 1991 film. Reading Gaston as gay, the story gains another layer of meaning: why was Gaston so set on pursuing the beautiful main character Belle as his love interest, when obviously he could have had any other girl in town? Disney expert Steeves pursues the theory that it is precisely because he couldn’t get to her that he focused on her: Belle provided the perfect excuse for not wooing any other women without having Gaston’s sexual orientation questioned; and he does this publicly so that he can display his “heterosexuality” to the crowds, knowing he would never have to make good on it. All further action falls into place and can be equally interpreted in the light of Gaston’s homosexuality, according to DePaul University’s Steeves.
In this respect, perceiving Gaston as gay is a valid interpretation. His solo-song in Beauty and the Beast, written by the already mentioned openly gay Ashman, adds to this perception by filling Gaston’s song with lines along the way of “In a wrestling match nobody bites like Gaston” and “ev’ry last inch of me’s covered with hair” addressing close physical contact between the men. This all happens in a “hysterical male impersonation” number, as Sean Griffin refers to it, so incredibly exaggerated that it becomes almost impossible to take this much open flaunting of testosterone seriously.
So, the characters’ homosexuality is a sure thing, then? Not necessarily. “Trying to find out what a work of art really means might involve looking at what the artist says, but really, his or her take on the art should not be given any more weight than another commentators’,” says Steeves when confronted with the question whether the creators’ sexual orientation determines the character interpretation. “The artists are just people, too, with a history and perspective and a set of assumptions about the world and the art, but they have no privileged perspective.” According to Steeves, the real question is, whether a queer reading of a film or a character might give it more meaning and elucidate it in ways that were inconceivable before.
Interpreting Beauty and the Beast as an allegory for the evils of homophobia does exactly this: only because Gaston is afraid of his fellow townspeople’s judgment does he pursue Belle and meets his tragic end. Rather than aiming at destroying Belle’s and the Beast’s relationship, the story of gay Gaston paints him as a pained character who acts the way he does out of fear: his homosexuality is despised by the supporting characters in the film. In contrast to this, “heterosexuality achieves a taken-for-granted status […] not because it is ordinary, but because hetero-romance is depicted as powerful,“ explains Karin Martin, professor at the University of Michigan, mainly concerned with the sociology of gender and sexuality, in a recent article. The article “Hetero-Romantic Love and Heterosexiness in Children’s G-Rated Films” published together with Emily Kazyak in Gender and Society finds that in Disney movies, the idea of heteronormativity – that heterosexuality is the only acceptable form of sexuality – is a prevalent one. True, heterosexual love can break spells or change laws. However, taking Gaston as a gay character and see what he endures to hide his homosexuality for fear of retribution, the positive picture usually painted of heterosexual love in Disney’s animated movies is called to the stand.
Different times, different views
The real issue of interpretation lies deeper than simply the question for homo- or heterosexuality. “All art has a complicated relationship with culture in that it is bi-directional. As an artefact of culture, art cannot help but display and contain the values of that culture. So art is a reflection,” explains phenomenologist Steeves. “But it also is constitutive of culture. It helps create values as well as reflect them. We see that the answer to a question is shaped by the question – and that question has, in turn, been shaped by past answers to other questions. Art and society thus have this feedback loop. We can expect that there will be changes in each, and it won’t be easy to pin down where it starts,” muses Steeves in unison with many art and literary critics of our and past times.
Thus the question, whether certain movie characters may be gay (and how we interpret their homosexuality) is ultimately depending on the current state of our culture: A reading of Beauty and the Beast right after its publication in the early 90s might have been different from today’s reading – or from a reading twenty years from now. Equally, it will possibly differ depending on the sex, age, sexual orientation, and economic situation of the viewer.
Will we get to see Elsa in a lesbian relationship in Frozen 2? Maybe. Will Elsa’s sexual orientation be left for interpretation, as so many characters’ before her? This seems more probable. After all, the Disney corporation is in business for selling dreams and fairy tales. And as we all know, dreams are subject to interpretation.
An updated version of this article with thoughts on the live action Beauty and the Beast movie was published in issue 72 of hastuzeit (see the online version HERE).
Anna Scheer (28) ist bekennende Disney- und Literaturfanatikerin. Derzeit promoviert sie an der FSU Jena in Betriebswirtschaft und versucht sich nebenbei an einem Master in Anglistik.