Why Disney Is Failing at LGBTQ+ Representation - VRGyani News and Media

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Sunday, August 8, 2021

Why Disney Is Failing at LGBTQ+ Representation

In the middle of Jungle Cruise, Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) and McGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall) have a small conversation, with Wolff inquiring how Houghton remains so committed to his stubborn sister, Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt). It’s here that Houghton reveals that his loyalty to Lily is because she stood by him. Specifically, she refused to abandon her sibling when it was revealed, after he turned down marrying a young lady, that Houghton’s romantic interests lay “elsewhere.” Yes, this is a coming out of the closet scene in a live-action Disney family movie. On paper, this should be a pivotal moment for the way Disney approaches the LGBTQIA+ community.

Unfortunately, the clumsy qualities of this scene and everything else involving Houghton’s character in Jungle Cruise merely reminds viewers of how much Walt Disney Pictures has been failing in the area of LGBTQIA+ representation in its live-action films. As also seen in earlier projects like Beauty and the Beast and Cruella, doing the barest amount of positive representation for this community is an ongoing hurdle for the studio.

RELATED: Why Are Straight People Always Hogging the Spotlight of Queer Stories?Starting with the character of Houghton from Jungle Cruise, Whitehall’s role adheres to an archetype familiar to many queer viewers: the sissy. Established back in the 1920s and 1930s, this figure is depicted as prissy, controlling, and having qualities in his behavior presenting as traditionally “feminine”. The reason for these features is to generate humor in how much he deviates from a classical mold of masculinity. Variations on this stereotype have continued to appear in modern cinema, including in the 1999 film The Mummy through John Hannah’s character Jonathan Carnahan.

Though Jungle Cruise is attempting to subvert some stereotypes of old jungle adventure movies (such as giving slightly more agency to indigenous characters), it embraces the old sissy archetype with glee. From the get-go, Houghton is depicted as a cowardly fellow who flees at the mere sight of danger and who can’t stand to be separated from his dozens of trunks containing luxurious items. His contrast to the decidedly heterosexual and beefy Wolff is also played up for laughs, including one derivative comic beat where Wolff is shown to be flimsily chopping wood with a tiny ax while Wolff is practically tearing down a forest with his gigantic instrument.

Jungle Cruise even goes for an odd bit of gay panic humor later into its run. The audience is supposed to cackle when Wolff, just before getting an object removed from his chest, recoils at Houghton offering his “stick” to bite on. The constant gags revolving around Wolff’s sexuality are peculiar on many fronts, including how they’re uncomfortably geared solely at heterosexual viewers. Rather than use a queer character to expand who could enjoy a classical jungle adventure movie, Jungle Cruise is using Houghton to reinforce the status quo of who these films are aimed at.

Possibly even worse than that, though, is how lazy the jokes are. Sight gags about gay men being physically inept compared to heterosexual dudes, for example, have been around since the days of Charlie Chaplin. The “bite down on my stick” exchange, meanwhile, feels like a rejected raunchy piece of improv from a Judd Apatow movie. Jokes that make gay people the punchline are never acceptable, but making them this lazy is the cherry on top of an insulting sundae.

Even Houghton’s big coming-out scene feels like it’s been sanded off to appeal to straight viewers, including the way it largely exists to emphasize the tolerance of heterosexual protagonist Lily. It’s also telling that Houghton never uses the term “queer” or “gay” here; the term “elsewhere” is the only way he refers to his sexuality. The character’s sexual identity is put off to the margins and never addressed again.

Now, to be clear, real-world members of the LGBTQIA+ community do not have to shout their sexuality or gender from the rooftops to be valid. Refusing to say “queer” or “gay” to categorize your sexuality is perfectly acceptable in the real world. However, Houghton’s monologue isn’t an example of, say, an A24 indie recognizing the fluidity in queer experiences that transcend labels. Given Disney’s track record with the LGBTQIA+ representation, leaving out explicit terms in Houghton’s conversation to Wolff solely feels like a way of not alienating intolerant viewers, who may be put off (and thus not give Disney their money) if they hear explicit references to queerness.

That track record, which makes Houghton’s coming-out scene all the more egregious, includes the decision to make Le Fou (Josh Gad) in the 2017 Beauty and the Beast remake queer. It was a shift that was widely publicized in the preamble to its release and even resulted in one movie theater refusing to screen the production. The fact that, in the 21st century, theaters are refusing to show family movies that even acknowledge the existence of queerness reinforces the continued importance of visibility for this community in mainstream cinema.

Unfortunately, such visibility would not come from Beauty and the Beast. Turns out, all the hubbub over Le Fou being gay was for naught. Le Fou’s sexuality is barely featured in the movie. It’s only explicitly referenced in the character’s final three seconds of screen time when he’s seen dancing with a guy. The only other indicators of Le Fou being queer are in his bursts of stereotypically flamboyant behavior throughout the movie as well as a brief conversation between himself and Miss Potts (Emma Thompson) where his decision to stop aligning with Gaston (Luke Evans) is framed like a romantic break-up.

Once again, a live-action Disney movie used hints of stereotypical queerness for gags rather than for something more thoughtful. Between Le Fou and Houghton, modern family films from this studio have an odd habit of resorting to very old-fashioned stereotypes of what gay men can accomplish. By going down this familiar path, Le Fou failed to provide a new thoughtful queer character in cinema, though it did give Disney some extra publicity to help promote Beauty and the Beast. That also plays into another trend for Disney and the queer community. Gay characters are good for clickbait headlines but not for being prominent parts of a movie.

Another disappointing element in Disney’s foray into queer characters is found in Cruella through the character of Artie (John McCrea). There are, admittedly, mild improvements in Artie compared to Le Fou and Houghton. Chiefly, his pronounced outfits and attire are decidedly in step with 1970s queer fashion. This guy looks like he walked right out of a John Cameron Mitchell movie, which is the kind of specific detail missing from other Disney queer characters. Meanwhile, his screen time includes him mentioning that it’s just as valid for boys to wear dresses as anyone else. In a political climate that demonizes trans and gender non-conforming adolescents, that single line does feel bold.

Unfortunately, Artie doesn’t get to have that much screentime in Cruella despite McCrea being one of the most charismatic members of the cast. He’s relegated to a disposable part of the titular lead’s inner circle and disappears for long stretches of the runtime. This is despite a queer character in the 1970s being a perfect fit for a movie about characters who rebel against the norms of mainstream society. Alas, Artie is around for so little time that he ultimately feels like he’s around to check off a box and drum up more pre-release clickbait headlines rather than be a fully formed person.

The scarcity of Artie in Cruella speaks to another problem with Disney’s approach to LGBTQIA+ characters on the big screen. Giving figures like the smooching Lesbian couple in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker minimal doses of screentime makes it easier to trim these figures out entirely for certain foreign markets. In tackling these characters, the artists behind Disney projects like Jungle Cruise are thinking about how best to appease those intolerant of the LGBTQIA+ community instead of how to make entertaining queer characters or even just what’s best for the narratives of their movies.

There’s also the fact that these films only find room for one explicitly queer character, a problem comprised of a whole mess of smaller issues. For starters, this makes characters like Artie or McGregor Houghton feel like examples of “tokenism”. Going this route also eschews an opportunity for these films to explore one of the greatest things about the LGBTQIA+ community; its sense of, well, community. The camaraderie and bonds between queer people can be so strong as they validate one another in a largely intolerant world. A Disney family film like Jungle Cruise, with its single gay character, though, has no time for exploring that facet of queer experiences in between hollow rehashes of elements from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Disney’s ongoing problems with properly representing the LGBTQIA+ community are all the more infuriating due to actions like the company’s insistence on intruding on Pride Month. While Disney may send out tweets saying that there’s “room for everyone” at the company, their movies send out a different message. The lack of positive LGBTQIA+ representation in the output of Walt Disney Pictures indicates that Disney, like so many conglomerates, only supports queerness when it’s convenient for the sake of marketing. Put simply, if you’re only standing behind marginalized communities when it best suits you, you’re not actually standing behind those marginalized communities.

That’s just one of the many toxic ideas put forth through the shortcomings of LGBTQIA+ Disney characters like Jungle Cruise’s Houghton McGregor. Disney has managed to make movies headlined by everything from a Million Dollar Duck to crime-fighting guinea pigs over the years. Yet, the studio can’t even be bothered to give substantial, let alone thoughtful, depictions of queer characters. Such individuals are only good for gags for straight viewers and easily disposable conversations. In a pop culture landscape that’s growing to be more and more inclusive, Disney’s family movies continue to seem more and more arcane in their failures with LGBTQIA+ representation.

KEEP READING: Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt on Why It Took So Long for ‘Jungle Cruise’ to Get Made



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