Akash Nikolas’ recent editorial in the Atlantic showed up on my Facebook newsfeed as “The Pro-Gay Message Hidden Inside Every Disney Film.” A friend had liked it.
I dubiously clicked. At the beginning, Nikolas tells us, “The culture warriors have decided: Disney’s Frozen is queer. Elsa hiding her ice-powers could be read as a metaphor for the closet [and] the Oscar-winning “Let it Go” plays like a coming-out anthem.”
Well. I never decided that. I mean, I get it- as adults with (hopefully) many years of English classes under our belts, we can recognize metaphors and potential parallels with the queer experience in contexts that are not explicitly queer. Assuredly some older children and teens picked up on these things as well. I know many people have felt empowered by “Let it Go”, and that’s awesome. Hell, I’ve felt empowered by “Let it Go”. But Disney’s younger audience (and arguably, their target audience) is not analyzing Frozen for queer subtext. And we are doing those children a huge disservice if we label Disney movies as “pro-gay” and turn away and slam the door. We are ignoring a very real problem- the void of representations of queer people on screen in children’s media.
Media speaks with a loud voice, and while Disney movies are fiction, children get a lot of ideas about the real world from them. As Tuchman writes in The Symbolic Annihilation of Women by the Mass Media, “Americans learn basic lessons about social life from the mass media.” And when movies lack representation of certain groups of people those people are, as Tuchman and others put it, “symbolically annihilated.” We can’t see them on screen, so it as though they do not exist.
“Symbolic annihilation” might sound like an overly dramatic phrase, but I think it fits the severity of the problem. Nikolas allows that Disney stories always promote heterosexual pairings but posits that “Queer kids [can] identify with Disney protagonists, who are usually outcasts set apart from society by some innate desire… Ariel (The Little Mermaid) wanted to be part of another world, the townspeople think Belle (Beauty and the Beast) is ‘a funny girl… different from the rest of us.’” Feeling vaguely empowered to be different is great, but if queer kids don’t see the full diversity of human difference represented on screen, they probably won’t relate that message to their own identity. If they don’t talk about it at home or don’t see gender and sexual diversity much in the circle of people they (or their parents) know, they might not even be aware that there are other ways to be a person. It’s not media’s sole responsibility to fill this gap, but it’s a part of the problem. When small children don’t see representations of gender and sexual minorities on screen, they don’t get to internalize that it is totally ok to be something other than straight, cisgender, alloromantic, etc., and won’t be as confused if they do no feel that way.
Some day my prince will come. ♫
Some day my princess will come. ♫
♫ Someday my non-binary royal person will come. ♫
I’m glad that Nikolas recognizes gender as a part of queerness, and mentions that “In the seminal Gender Trouble, Judith Butler pointed out how gender was in part performance-based, a fact that Disney has often depicted with cross-dressing and gender subversion.” Nikolas goes on to list many examples in the Disney canon, including the obvious Mulan.
But to call gender “in part, performance-based” is to miss Butler’s point entirely. Butler is not talking about a literal “performance”- for her, the performance of gender is not a pretense or even a conscious choice, but something that people of all genders do every day within a social framework. As Jagose explains in Queer Theory, An Introduction, “Presented by Butler as an example of performativity, drag was taken by many of her readers to be ‘exemplary of performativity’… [but] gender, being performative, is not like clothing and therefore cannot be put on or off at will.” Mulan does not “perform” as a male in this sense; she mimics the performance of “man” that she sees within her social context.
By literalizing the notion of gender performance, Nikolas misses one of Butler’s biggest assertions, that gender is not tied to sex in any way and therefore not a binary of male or female. (Though, sex is hardly a binary itself- as Butler suggests, “perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is a culturally constructed as gender.”) And Mulan is a film very concerned about sex- much of the tension comes from Mulan being afraid she will be “found out”, e.g. discovered to have certain body parts, which has very problematic implications for trans kids. The film also takes many opportunities to remind viewers of the differences between men and women, such as when Mulan first meets her fellow soldiers. They are depicted as all having severely lacking hygiene and seem to be unable to stop punching each other for more than a few seconds.
Other Disney movies maintain this heightened contrast between men and women- Tarzan and Beauty and the Beast stand out as particularly dramatic examples. And as Amanda Marcotte notes in Slate, there are actually numbers to back this up. Marcotte references a study from Cohen at the University of Maryland that looked at the difference between the wrist size of male Disney characters and female Disney characters. They found that the males’ wrists were 3 to 4 times bigger- while in real life the difference between people assigned male at birth and people assigned female at birth is only about a 1.15-to-1 ratio. You could argue that there are always supporting characters that reflect more of a spectrum in character design, but these are often the villain or the comic relief character. It is the protagonists and their love interests that usually follow this trend, which makes it all the more problematic as those are the characters the viewer is supposed to identify with.
All of this is harmful to non-binary kids and gender non-conforming kids alike. And actually, Butler would probably argue that it is harmful to gay/lesbian/bisexual/pansexual/asexual kids, too. As Jagose explains in her summary of Gender Trouble, “Heterosexuality is naturalised by the performative repetition of normative gender identities.”
I will admit that I think Disney creates fantastic animated films, and I make a point to go see them in a theater even as an adult. And I also think that very slowly, Disney movies are getting more progressive. But they’re still not anywhere near where they should be. It’s far past time for a lesbian princess or a gay prince. And I know that bisexual, trans*, asexual, and non-binary folks have much longer to wait for equal representation in Disney movies, when even adult media can’t seem to manage it. But I refuse to accept anything less. Queer kids today deserve so much more, and we can’t settle for hidden sub-text.