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A scene from the new Pixar movie Onward is currently being hailed as Disney’s first “exclusively gay moment,” but to me this feels a little bit like déjà vu. In fact, Disney has claimed many firsts for gay representation in recent years: in 2017, Disney announced that their “first ever gay character” would be Josh Gad’s LeFou in the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast; Avengers: Endgame, made by Disney-owned Marvel Studios, featured a brief cameo by co-director Joe Russo as “Marvel Studios’ first openly gay character”; and Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker featured a same-sex kiss, also a first for the Disney-owned Star Wars franchise, between two minor female characters.
There’s a common thread in all of these “exclusively gay” moments; they’re barely-there, blink-and-you-miss moments involving minor or secondary characters that have little to no bearing on the plot. These scenes can also be easily removed in international markets that are less friendly towards the LGBTQ+ community. Onward’s Officer Specter, voiced by openly gay actress and writer Lena Waithe, hints at her sexuality in a brief line of dialogue that has already been censored in Russia; the word “girlfriend” was changed to “partner.” A similar tactic was used for the scene in Avengers: Endgame where Joe Russo’s character talks about dating a man.
Disney’s pattern of sidelining LGBTQ+ characters and placing them in scenes that are easy to censor demonstrates a minimal effort at representation. It seems as if they are trying to score “woke points” without ruffling the feathers of more conservative crowds. If Disney is truly committed to telling more diverse and inclusive stories, they need to push the boundaries of representation instead of merely skirting around them. While LGBTQ+ characters don’t necessarily need to be defined by their sexuality or gender identity, Disney should be more willing to put them at the forefront of their films.
Disney’s television subsidiary seems to be making slightly more progress than their film division in this aspect. The Disney Channel original series Andi Mack made history last year by including an openly gay character in its main cast. There is also a gay character in the Disney Plus series High School Musical: The Musical: The Show. A spinoff series of the movie Love, Simon, about a gay teenager coming out to his friends and family, was planned for Disney Plus but moved to Disney-owned Hulu for themes deemed too mature for kids and audiences, namely “alcohol use and sexual exploration”. While the choice to move this particular show is questionable, especially since Disney Plus is home to many shows and movies that contain these “mature” themes (The Simpsons, recently acquired in the Fox merger, not to mention crude humor and violence in Marvel movies), the fact that it was considered for the streaming platform at least shows an attempt on Disney’s part to include more LGBTQ+ stories.
Additionally, one of the stars of the upcoming Marvel superhero movie The Eternals, Brian Tyree Henry, confirmed that his character Phastos would be openly gay and share a kiss with his onscreen husband. However, Disney still has a long way to go in terms of LGBTQ+ representation. While gay characters and same-sex couples have already gotten a little bit of the spotlight, Disney has yet to include trans or nonbinary characters in any of their media. Hopefully they’ll start making bigger strides and, someday soon, LGBTQ+ characters and storylines won’t make headlines but will instead be widely accepted without a second thought.
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