This article focuses on the history of same-sex representation in animated films and the importance of having such representation for children.
History of Representation
When it comes to the representation of same-sex families and storylines, family-friendly animated films are sorely lacking. Media giants such as Disney and Pixar have struggled with adequate LGBTQ+ representation, with their content historically portraying cis-gendered, heterosexual couples or queer-coded characters.
Queer Coding: When characters may not explicitly be stated as queer, but through subtext, an audience may view them as such. Instead of being openly queer, these characters are “coded” as queer.
In the 1900s and early 2000s, queer-coding villains was used as a tool for animators to establish a character as “other” – creating a link for audiences between queerness and evil. During the same period, queer traits such as cross-dressing were often used for comedic relief. Creator Rebecca Sugar commented on this practice, saying, “If you can only exist as a villain or a joke, I mean, that’s a really heavy thing to be saturated with as a kid.”
Some popular examples of characters considered to be queer-coded include:
- Captain Hook (Peter Pan)
- Ursula (The Little Mermaid)
- LaFou (Beauty & The Beast)
- Pleakley (Lilo & Stitch)
- Hades (Hercules)
- Timon & Pumbaa (Lion King)
Figures 1-6: Captain Hook/Ursula/LeFou/Pleakley/Hades/Timon & Pumbaa
It wasn’t until 2019 that Disney x Pixar made some progress on this front, including a same-sex couple in Toy Story 4. In the movie, a classmate of Bonnie’s has two moms. These characters are not really part of the storyline though, with no real bearing on the plot and no lines – they are background characters and can easily be missed by viewers.
Figures 7 & 8: Toy Story 4/Specter
A year later in 2020, the animated film Onward was released and included the first openly gay character with a speaking role. Specter, a cyclops police officer makes an offhand comment in one scene about her girlfriend’s daughter, hinting at a same-sex relationship. However, the character only had a small role, and her sexuality was only brought up that once – making it a small win for representation.
The most recent Disney x Pixar film, Lightyear, has had the best representation yet, with a kiss between a same-sex couple, and talking about them building a family. Unfortunately, it was a fight to get there.
Lightyear‘s filmmakers have spoken out about the difficult time they had getting this intimate, feel-good moment into the final release of the film. “The couples as they exist – the family as they exist – was always in the film”, according to producer Galyn Susman. “It was just how much affection we could show.”
According to Susman, Disney supported the inclusion of the lesbian relationship – but pushed back on the kiss. As such, the moment was going to be cut. It wasn’t until there was backlash against Disney that they changed their stance, and the kiss was included. “We were able to put it back in and we were thrilled,” says Susman. “It’s all part and parcel of showing a wonderful relationship.”
Censorship is one significant barrier to getting same-sex representation on the big screen. Countries across the globe such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt continue to criminalize same-sex relationships, and choose to limit the content viewed within their borders relating to LGBTQ+ representation.
As such, in an effort to avoid their films being censored or banned by nations, Disney and Pixar have a long history of self-censorship throughout production or post-production. However, they are not always successful.
Figures 10 & 11 – Specter / Lightfoot Brothers
For example, in Onward, the sexuality element of the storyline was minimal. Even still, the film was banned in multiple countries, and the phrasing of the scene was altered in Russia to be made more vague. Pixar employees fought for the inclusion of Specter’s sexuality for purposes of representation, but in the end felt that despite their hard work, very little was included in the end.
A similar fight is currently going on with the new film Lightyear. As mentioned above, filmmakers had a difficult time getting a lesbian kiss included in the final version of the film. After Disney became embroiled in controversy surrounding donations made to the Florida lawmakers pushing for the state’s Parental Rights in Education law (also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill), LGBTQ+ employees of Pixar and their allies wrote a statement. This statement detailed the choice by Disney executives to cut “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection… regardless of when there was protest from both the creative teams and executive leadership at Pixar.”
It was only because of this controversy that Disney decided to include the kiss in the final version. Unsurprisingly, this move made certain nations censor or outright ban the film for their citizens. To date, UAE, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Egypt have chosen to limit or ban access to the animated children’s film.
Same Sex Representation for Children
While the topic of teaching or exposing young children to LGBTQ+ storylines and couples is considered to be quite controversial, it is important. As we know, children can be quite impressionable. The environment they grow up in and the people they associate with can impact their opinions and decisions, influencing the way they view the world, their peers, and themselves. In this day and age, media is a big influence on youth via TV, movies, and social media.
By introducing age-appropriate storylines that are diverse and inclusive, parents can better prepare their children for the real world, and help normalize their own family situations. Normalizing same sex representation on screen would help normalize sex same relationships and identities for children, making it easier for them to understand and accept one another.
The co-founder of a high school gay-straight alliance club (GSA), Milo Armstrong, spoke to his local paper about representative media, saying, “I’m honestly so happy to see people like me in cartoons. Growing up there were always straight couples on the screen and it was hard to know anything about the LGBTQ+ community. It gives me hope that younger kids will know that they don’t have to pressure themselves into liking the opposite gender to fit in.”
“I feel that younger people will be more accepting with more diversity there is in the shows they watch,” Armstrong continued. “The more that LGBTQ+ characters are shown I think it will be easier for them to accept themselves as who they are.”
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