Are we ready for a gay Disney princess? We may be closer than you think

Homosexual characters are extremely rare in children’s films, but many believe including them would better reflect society’s changing norms

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 9:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 9:00am

The antelopes next door were gay – maybe.

For viewers of the animated Disney hit Zootopia , it’s been a bit of a guessing game. In an early scene, rookie rabbit police officer Judy moves into her new apartment and meets her new neighbours. Bucky and Pronk are both antelopes and both men, who live together and bicker like a married couple. But ... were they?

The answer, available to sharp-eyed movie fans, comes in the closing credits: Bucky and Pronk share a last name, Oryx-Antlerson.

While gay and lesbian characters are standard players in films and TV shows for adults, they remain a fleeting or barely acknowledged presence in children’s entertainment.

Last week, a campaign to change this caught fire on Twitter, under the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend – a plea to Disney to make one half of its beloved princess duo a lesbian in the forthcoming sequel to its 2013 animated blockbuster Frozen.

A children’s film may seem like the last place to be talking about sex. But advocates note that in almost every gaudy princess film or action-packed superhero cartoon, there are relationships – mums and dads, aunts and uncles, princes and princesses – that, thus far, have quietly reinforced a traditional standard for romantic love.

Yet Disney and other giants of children’s entertainment have evolved over the decades to reflect changing norms – from including characters of many races to ditching the trope of helpless damsels in distress. Could creating a hero with two dads, or giving a princess a girlfriend, be the next step?

Some Disney fans argued on Twitter that it would have been a huge help for them to see gay characters in movies when they were young – that they might have become more sensitive and accepting towards gay peers, or better able to grapple with their own sexuality. Studies have suggested that seeing gay characters in popular entertainment can decrease prejudice towards those groups.

“There is no doubt that kids seeing positively portrayed gay characters could have a significant effect that would contribute to such children’s learning about the world and who is in it,” said Edward Schiappa, a professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But doing so is a risk for children’s entertainment companies, who have a financial incentive to make films as widely accessible – and therefore as non-controversial – as possible.

“Any little thing can set off a firestorm,” says Lori Pearson, lead critic for Kids-In-Mind, a nonpartisan, non-religious group that warns parents of potentially unsavoury content in movies. Pearson points to a time in the mid-1990s when a rumour spread that in The Little Mermaid, there was a suggestive bulge in the pants of the man officiating the wedding of Princess Ariel. Conservative groups called on parents to boycott not just the 1989 classic but all Disney products. The bulge, of course, was nothing more than the cartoon character’s knee.

“Now, especially with the advent of Twitter and places where information can travel quickly, if a certain group decides something in the content is unacceptable, it will spread, and people will decide based on that information not to go see the film,” Pearson says. “And that will affect the box office.”

When asked if Disney might include an explicitly gay character in a children’s film, the company responded that its brand “has always been inclusive, with stories that reflect acceptance and tolerance and celebrate the differences that make our characters uniquely wonderful in their own way. . . . Disney remains committed to continuing to create characters that are accessible and relatable to all children.”

To date, Disney’s only obvious instance of a same-sex relationship in children’s entertainment came on the small screen. In an episode of Disney Channel’s Good Luck Charlie, one of Charlie’s friends had two mothers.

The only explicitly gay character in a kids’ film was in ParaNorman, an animated film from Laika, an independent production company. The 2012 cartoon, nominated for the best animated feature Oscar, included a scene in which the character voiced by Anna Kendrick asks a bulky bro named Mitch on a date. Mitch responds by telling her, “You’re going to love my boyfriend.”

“I knew it was the first of its kind when I was writing it,” says director Chris Butler, who is gay. “I honestly don’t think I worried much about it, but maybe I was a bit naive.” Butler drew criticism from some conservative viewers that he had essentially tricked the audience into liking Mitch before revealing he was gay.

He says his intention was to have every character in the film subvert stereotypes: The bully turns out to be weak, the mean cheerleader becomes loving, the jock is revealed as proudly gay. Plus, he noted, the goofy horror story was meant to pay homage to the old Scooby-Doo cartoons. And Mitch was the member of the gang most like Scooby-Doo’s Fred.

“Of course Fred was gay,” Butler says. “Anyone who wears white cashmere sweaters and little neckerchiefs is probably not as interested in Daphne as he says he is.”

Pop culture geeks have long swapped theories about cartoonish characters who maybe gave off a gay vibe, including cross-dressing Bugs Bunny, high-pitched-voiced SpongeBob SquarePants and best friends/roommates Ernie and Bert. Sesame Street’s production company was even compelled to put out a statement on the latter topic some years ago: “They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets.”

Traditionally in shows meant for children, even the characters whom their writers intend to be gay almost never came out and said so. One of the earliest instances of a homosexual relationship in a cartoon was on ABC Family’s Braceface. In 2004, the show’s Sharon (voiced by Alicia Silverstone) set up her Celine Dion-loving male friend with an interior decorator working on her mum’s office. She went on and on about how the boys were a perfect fit for each other, yet the word “gay” was never used.

“That probably wouldn’t have been acceptable to parents,” says Melissa Clark, the show’s creator. “But it was clearly wrapped in rainbows.”

Most of the hinting done since has been far more subtle, like the scene in Zootopia, or an incredibly brief moment in Frozen: When the character Anna visits a trading post, its owner waves to his family members, sitting in a a nearby sauna. There are four young-looking girls and one large blonde man, who could be the male owner’s husband. The family is onscreen for less than two seconds.

If Disney seems to be creeping cautiously towards recognising diverse sexualities, it’s a natural step in the company’s long history of reflecting changing cultural norms.

In the 1940s, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Hollywood studios to make their films more appealing to South Americans, to promote American values and combat the growing influence of Nazi politics south of the border. In response, Walt Disney gathered 16 artists and flew to Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Soon enough, Donald Duck was wearing a sombrero and dancing with a parrot named Jose – absurd stereotypes, perhaps, but a lively bit of multiculturalism for wartime audiences.

During the second world war, Donald Duck joined the Air Force while Minnie Mouse stayed home hoarding bacon grease, to the dismay of a hungry Pluto, so it could be used to make explosives. Then the war ended, “and suddenly they were all wearing Hawaiian T-shirts and living in the suburbs,” said animation historian Jerry Beck. “If the country was into a certain sport, the characters would go play that sport.”

But the company hasn’t always kept pace with the times. The studio eventually introduced a black Disney princess, but not until 2009, with The Princess and the Frog.

Carmenita Higginbotham, an associate professor of art at the University of Virginia who teaches a course on Disney, says choosing a non-white lead even then made some viewers less likely to see Princess and the Frog. It was deemed less of a commercial success – and therefore made the risk of stepping outside the box less likely in the future.

“Whatever good intentions individuals may have toward the identities of these dominant characters within the Disney universe, money will always be a factor,” Higginbotham says.

She believes it will be a long time before Elsa or any other animated Disney character will be looking for love within their own gender.

“Until you have a broad audience that will welcome alternative presentations,” she says, “Disney won’t go there.”

The Washington Post