Onward, Pixar’s first non-sequel movie since 2017’s Coco, notably features the studio’s first openly gay character. Queen & Slim screenwriter Lena Waithe plays a cyclops cop named Officer Spector who appears in two scenes. In the first, she commiserates with her fellow officer, Mel Rodriquez’s centaur cop Colt Bronco, about being a new stepparent, saying, “My girlfriend’s daughter got me pulling my hair out.”
This one line, delivered in passing with no follow-up, marks the first verbal recognition of a character’s gay relationship in an animated Disney movie. It’s a step forward for the company, which has been making moves toward better LGBTQ representation in recent years. But fully embracing the LGBTQ community means going beyond small gestures of inclusivity. Stigmas against portraying queer relationships in children’s entertainment have been thoroughly smashed, with beloved animated series like Steven Universe and Arthur telling thoughtful LGBTQ stories in a family-friendly way. Officer Spector’s throwaway line still leaves Disney/Pixar miles behind its competitors.
Fans have been calling for more LGBTQ representation in Disney movies for years, most notably with the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend movement. Many queer viewers saw a kindred spirit in Elsa, reading her hidden ice powers as a metaphor for hidden sexuality. “Let it Go” became a coming-out anthem, and the hashtag was born in the hopes that Frozen 2 would canonically confirm Elsa as Disney’s first lesbian princess. The Frozen 2 soundtrack reignited the potential relationship. Elsa’s new ballad, “Show Yourself,” sounded pretty dang gay. With lyrics like, “I have always been a fortress, cold secrets deep inside / You have secrets too, but you don’t have to hide” and, “I am found,” it was easy to imagine number as a lesbian meet-cute, especially since the other voice on the track was Evan Rachel Wood, who is openly bisexual and a vocal LGBTQ advocate. But instead of Elsa’s girlfriend, Wood appeared as the spirit of Elsa and Anna’s mom. While there are plenty of queer themes present in Frozen 2, it’s all subtext.
When it comes to Disney movies, LGBTQ fans have been conditioned to project queerness onto anyone we can. Disney villains have been queer-coded for decades, and in more recent years, fans have scoured Disney movies for the slightest indication of a same-sex relationship. Eagle-eyed Frozen viewers noticed that, when the shopkeeper Oaken introduces his family, it looks like he’s pointing to four smaller figures surrounding a large man. Many fans speculated that the strapping blonde hunk was Oaken’s husband, but the filmmakers never confirmed whether that was the case. Similarly, both Pixar’s Toy Story 4 and Finding Dory feature potential lesbian couples in the background, but the Finding Dory filmmakers demurred when pressed, saying “They can be whatever you want them to be.”
Whether animators covertly added those gay moments, or it’s just fans projecting, the best-case scenario for Disney is to let LGBTQ communities celebrate potentially gay characters without the company having to acknowledge their queerness. Disney’s audience is huge, and unfortunately, it includes vocal homophobes — both in the States and in international markets, including countries where being gay can land you in jail — as well as queer viewers desperate for representation. If the company could get away with continuing to avoid taking sides and alienating either faction (i.e. losing their money), it certainly would. But as LGBTQ fans and allies have gotten louder in their calls for Disney to commit to representation — not to mention competitors like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network making comparatively larger and earlier strides forward — Disney has been forced to catch up.
Thanks in large part to lobbying from fans, Disney started featuring explicitly gay characters in recent years — in mostly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments. Back in 2017, director Bill Condon made headlines when he announced that his live-action Beauty and the Beast remake would feature “a nice, exclusively gay moment” courtesy of Josh Gad’s LeFou. The obsequious sidekick to Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston had always been suspected of admiring the swaggering villain as more than just a comrade, but according to Condon (who is openly gay himself), his version of LeFou would be explicitly crushing on Gaston. He later walked his statement back, lamenting that it had all been “overblown,” but the comment stuck.
Condon’s announcement sparked cautious excitement from LGBTQ audiences ready to finally see ourselves explicitly acknowledged by the largest entertainment company in the world, mixed with disappointment that it would come via a B-list villain’s sidekick. That “exclusively gay moment” ended up being even more disappointing, however, when it only amounted to some (by Condon’s own admission) “subtle” flirting, and a few seconds of footage where LeFou and a man in drag collide at a celebration.
Even Disney’s more adult-oriented properties have been slow to embrace LGBTQ representation. Avengers: Endgame co-director Joe Russo said that it was so important to him that Marvel movies reflect the queer community that he wanted to play the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first gay character himself. But that character, an unnamed man who mentions that he lost a boyfriend to Thanos’ snap, is a minor role, especially when Tessa Thompson is champing at the bit to make her character Valkyrie canonically bisexual. (Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has confirmed that there will be finally be a gay superhero in the MCU, courtesy of Brian Tyree Henry’s character in The Eternals.)
A similar pattern played out with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The obvious chemistry between Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron and John Boyega’s Finn led many fans to hope that the two would become space boyfriends by the trilogy’s conclusion. Director J.J. Abrams dashed those hopes ahead of the film’s release, though he hinted at the possibility of LGBTQ representation — which turned out to be a brief kiss between two female resistance fighters that was cut from the version of the film that aired in Singapore. Similarly, in the Russian version of Onward, Officer Spector’s line is reportedly dubbed with a more gender-neutral word meaning “partner.”
Disney has done slightly better on television. Gravity Falls confirmed that sheriff Blubs and deputy Durland, long theorized to be a couple, were indeed in love on the show’s finale. Cyrus Goodman, the best-friend character on Disney Channel’s Andi Mack, came out as gay in a 2017 episode. Disney Plus’ High School Musical: The Musical: The Series features a gay romance. But the company has still been reluctant to put the full array of queer experiences at the front of a “family-friendly” property; After moving its Love, Simon spinoff, Love, Victor, from Disney Plus to Hulu, a source told IndieWire that the decision was due to “general sexual exploration.” In this case, the sexual exploration happens to be gay, while films like Never Been Kissed and 10 Things I Hate About You, which feature similar high-school sexual territory, are still on the platform.
There’s a numbness that comes with a pattern of congratulatory headlines about Disney’s steps forward in LGBTQ representation, followed by disappointment and frustration that the “representation” amounts to small, throwaway moments that are easily edited out. That’s no longer enough, especially when compared to shows like Steven Universe, which portrays queer relationships with just as much beauty, angst, and nuance as straight ones.
It’s a bit of a paradox. We should treat LGBTQ relationships as just part of the world, and in the words of Bill Condon, “not make a big deal of it.” But given Disney’s history of ambivalence toward the LGBTQ community, “not making a big deal out of it” means doing the bare minimum and expecting congratulations for it. In 2018, Disney had never received anything above an “adequate” from GLAAD’s annual Studio Responsibility Index, and failed five out of seven years between 2012 and 2018. The studio should absolutely treat this failure as “a big deal,” and work hard to correct it.
LGBTQ viewers just want to see ourselves reflected in the media we love. Unless and until Disney gives us queer princesses and heroes, the message its sending to queer audiences is that we are background characters, unworthy of our own stories.