Mai 2017 English hastuPAUSE Heft Nr. 72 0

Disney’s Gay Closet – Out or In?

Disney movies are often viewed as a stronghold of fairy tales and classical romance. But a closer view shows signs of queerness beneath heteronormativity even before the recent adaptation of Beauty and the Beast.

Illustration: Tom Simpson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Illustration: Tom Simpson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the last couple of years, the Walt Disney Company has not only significantly broadened its repertoire by buying into the Star Wars and Marvel franchise, but also by offering real-life versions of beloved animated fairy tale movies, some more, and some less faithful to their Disney original. The most recent adaptation, after Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book and Maleficent is Beauty and the Beast, which is almost eerily similar to the animated version, sometimes offering the same scenes shot by shot. And yet, voices all around the world have been speaking up, asking the movie to be banned, like a cinema in Alabama, USA decided to do on its own. In Russia, the beloved children«s classic received only a PG-16 rating, while in Kuwait, the movie was prohibited altogether. Why all the fuss about a story that has been told and re-told countless times, even by Disney itself?

The strong reactions can be traced back to one single character: LeFou. Not even a major character, he serves as a sidekick to the fairy tale«s villain, Gaston. All the outrage, for a simple reason – even according to the film«s director Bill Condon, LeFou has an exclusively gay moment. Besides the obvious point that openly displayed – and innocently displayed, at that – homosexuality should not be a reason to disregard a movie in any way, there remains a question: was it really the first time Disney featured gay characters on screen? Not quite, if you follow the direction several scholars in the field have taken.

Indeed, 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 – the animated version. 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.


Foto: Thomas Hawk (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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 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 the early 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. Her 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 seeing 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 the animated version 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.

It will be an interesting social-experiment to see whether the open display of homosexual characters like LeFou will influence further character developments. Might we even get to see Elsa in a lesbian relationship in Frozen 2, like so many fans called for? Maybe. Will Elsa«s sexual orientation be left for interpretation, as so many characters« before her? This seems more probable. Even though Disney took a stand in pulling LeFou out of the closet, after all, the corporation is in business for selling dreams and fairy tales. And as we all know, dreams are subject to interpretation.

  • Eine frühere Version dieses Artikels erschien unter dem Titel »The Not So Secret History of Queer Disney« im Februar 2017 in der »unique – interkulturelles Studentenmagazin für Jena, Weimar & Erfurt«.

Über Anna Scheer

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.

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Erstellt: 31.05. 2017 | Bearbeitet: 20.06. 2017 19:22