Disney Has a Queer Politics Problem

Ho hum! Disney is currently facing backlash for a casting faux pas that most studios — even in Scarlett Johansson’s 2018 — have fallen asleep to.

Jack Whitehall is slated to play Disney’s first openly gay character in the upcoming film, Jungle Cruise. Described as “hugely effete, very camp and very funny,” the character is set to test the actor’s chops considering that Jack Whitehall identifies as straight.

This isn’t to say all gay men are effeminate, camp or extremely funny (the gym gays, for example, aren’t funny at all), but that these are common tropes and personality markers popularly associated with a pride of queers (we’re pretty great).

Now, as controversial as it may initially seem, I’m not fully convinced queer characters need to always be played by queer actors. In an ideal world an actor’s talents would shine through by the breadth, rigor, and diversity of their roles; transforming them — bibbidi bobbidi boo— into an entirely different person (obvious exclusions apply). The argument that only queer actors are equipped to understand the plight of a queer character because of some wisdom, aura or mystique inherent to their identity doesn’t really fit my shoe all too comfortably.

First, because this very idea of “inherent wisdom” could easily be weaponized against us, perfectly lending itself to that crappy circus-like fetishization that straight-playing-queer actors always seem to face during press tours. “Wow, it must have been so difficult playing this role… how did it feel being intimate with a man on screen!?” as if the very idea of queer love and desire is just so utterly unthinkable.  

Second, sexuality is a tangled mess (didn’t an actor from Love, Simon only come out after production had basically wrapped?) and while a bunch of hets have indeed played queer characters in the past, it’s also worth remembering that this is Hollywood… there are undoubtedly a number of high-profile closeted stars terrified of staining their reputation. It sucks and it’s not fair, but you can’t fault the player for playing the only heinous game that exists. And if we’ve learned anything from #MeToo it’s that there are a number of powerful industry gatekeepers (typically white, straight, male) who are controlling some pretty important strings, Pinocchio.

I’m also under the persuasion that maybe — just maybe — straight actors playing queer roles could be a tool for building solidarity: perhaps reading a script and method-acting their way into a queer person’s life could make a straight actor – and their fanbase – more empathetic to our history and trauma. (Then again actors have been playing poor people for decades and the redistribution of celebrity wealth never seems to be a hot topic of discussion.)

Queer actors don’t necessarily need queer roles — they just need more roles.

But as we glare into society’s mirror we quickly realize there is no fairness in this land and we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a whole new world where only 12.8 percent of major 2017 films had at least one LGBTQ character, where over half of all LGBTQ identifying performers believed directors/producers were discriminating against them due to their identity, and where actors stay closeted because it’s evidently the best career decision. So until we reach a more equitable outcome, queer characters need to be played by queer actors. Hollywood’s circle of life barely makes room for queer characters and so when they are written it needs to be us who find their voice and tell their story right.

Disney’s decision to cast a straight actor isn’t surprising, particularly in the context of their troubling history with queer politics. When I first read that this character would be effeminate, camp and funny I immediately thought, “Oh, a villain!” Why? Because Disney has a history of molding evil-doers to traits typically associated with queerness. Think of Scar from The Lion King, Jafar in Aladdin, Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. Hell, when Hades said, “We dance, we kiss, we schmooze, we carry on, we go home happy,” I really felt that. What else could so accurately describe my gay little life?

This analysis was interrogated in the 2014 documentary Do I Sound Gay? “I watched Wreck-It Ralph, and the villain is very effeminate… there’s a clear connection between the implied sexuality and his being a villain,” said Do I Sound Gay? director David Thorpe.

Sometimes Disney’s association between queerness and wickedness is made even more explicit. Our favorite tentacled sea butch witch, Ursula, was largely modeled and inspired by actor and drag queen, Divine — sporting his signature makeup, jewelry, body shape and all-around glamor. Personally, I love these spicy sassy scumbags much more than the bore chore heroes that have fallen from Disney’s Olympus (Snow White & Aurora were literally asleep for a good chunk of their film, and villains always have the best songs).

But it’s easy for a grown queer like me to love the baddies. I note the colorful hats the characters are made to wear, understanding that the lines between good and bad are muddied and often romanticized. This nuance, even with the rise of modern anti-hero narratives (Elphaba in Wicked, Frozen’s Elsa, Beauty & the Beast, Maleficent), isn’t readily afforded to children who are quickly taught – in this less than ideal world— to see society as a collection of binaries (good/evil, male/female, hero/villain).

So I wonder what Disney was saying about gender expression and behavior when it dressed these flamboyant characters as something grim and dreadful, to be stopped, defeated, conquered. Was Disney— perhaps without ever intending to — normalizing homophobia? Was Disney priming us to feel shame about our atypical — queer — expression?

Disney’s evolution has seen an expansion in what its characters can accomplish, becoming both the beauty and the beasts of their own narrative. Galloping from the passivity of Snow White & Sleeping Beauty to the queer radicalness of Mulan, to a depiction of strength in sisterhood via Frozen. The Princess & the Frog, Moana, Mulan, Pocahontas have created kaleidoscopes for little girls of color to see themselves as brave and worthy.

As Disney continues to play Wonderland — enchanting and compelling the imaginations of younger generations — it’s important we champion these moves towards greater diversity. But it’s also important we hold Disney to account for all its rotten missteps and misdirections, and additionally be prepared to acknowledge the residual poison it left in the generations — our generations — who were too quick to bite into its shiny shaming heteronormative apple.

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