I’m going to take a second to tell Disney, the mega media conglomerate whose myriad princesses really helped me come into my own as a young queer kid, that they really are out here looking ancient as fuck with the news of their latest gay character. Let me explain.
Over the weekend, Disney found itself at the center of social media scrutiny over casting decisions. The movie studio announced that its upcoming cash grab Jungle Cruise would feature a gay character, to be protagonist Emily Blunt’s brother, and that character would be played by straight actor Jack Whitehall. Immediately, Whitehall and Disney faced a barrage of criticism for casting a straight guy in gay face.
On one level, the decision just seems absurd given the social media landscape right now. We’re in a post-Scarlett Johansson world, where casting non-LGBTQ people in LGBTQ roles seems like a one-way ticket to getting your mentions blown up. We’re also living in the world of Pose, a television show that has stretched the bounds of queer people’s ability to tell their stories in front of the camera and behind it. How can we go back to a Whitehall-shaped Trojan horse?
But, more than griping over some straight British guy getting a check for playing a tertiary queer character, the larger question is: why is the movie studio who has given us Scar, Jafar, Terkina and so many coded queer characters stumbling to give us a major character who happens to identify as queer? We’re so busy trying to make sure a queer person gets cast in a shitty role that we’re not asking why Disney is still so far behind in queer representation that “Emily Blunt’s femme brother” seems like a breakthrough.
If Pose, Orange Is the New Black, Claws and other shows have taught queer people anything, it’s that we no longer deserve the scraps, or need them to get by. Are there enough queer people on television? No. And that goes doubly if you’re talking about queer people in marquee roles. But for Disney to only be dipping its toe into the LGBTQ pool — this announcement follows last year’s “exclusively gay moment” in the live action Beauty and the Beast adaptation — while a macho network like FX has chosen to highlight the queer and trans people of color of New York City’s 1980s kiki ball scene, doesn’t bode well for Disney. You get egg on your Mouse-fronted face.
As an adult, it seems odd that in a world where MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Angelica Ross and others exist, that we might have to look to a Disney blockbuster for representation. But the truth is, I can’t knock the effect that Disney films have had on my life and how I embody queerness. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t used to throw my head back under the shower faucet and pretend to be Ariel in the The Little Mermaid. Disney is childhood, even in the age of social media. So beyond making sure Jack Whitehall’s is the last check cut to a straight actor playing a gay role, LGBTQ people need to keep our eyes on the prize and demand more from a studio that continues to demean and dismiss its LGBT viewers, whether it be with Jungle Cruise or erasing bisexual icon Li Shang from the upcoming live adaptation of Mulan.
Let this moment serve as a reminder. Disney, the paragon of childhood magic, is not interested in spreading the enchantment to queer youth. Disney clearly wants some of the $917 billion in coin that LGBTQ people command in the United States. And while they do want to plunder queer coffers, that doesn’t mean they’re willing to write an actual queer actor or storyteller a check to see an LGBTQ character realized.
The truth is, Disney will probably not capitulate to online pressure from the queer community and fire Whitehall. The only person who’s been able to catch Disney’s ear is Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, whose deep dive into James Gunn’s decade-old tweets led to his dismissal from the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. When we focus on a single film, like Jungle Cruise, it’s hard for execs to see past the dollar signs in their eyes. If Jungle Cruise does well, the studio will manufacture McSequels and all of our queer outrage will mean nothing. If it fails, expect the film to blame its director or actress or marketing campaign.
Instead, queer people have to find ways to make Disney’s movie studio reflect its own corporate values. As a corporation, Disney is pro-gay and even threatened to back out of filming in Georgia if it passed a religious freedom bill. By one estimate, 40% of Disney’s employees identified as gay — in 1998. Disney has a heart, but doesn’t always have the mettle to show it. If we remind them that its young queer viewers are just as important as the queer employees who work in its parks, we might be able to make some progress.
Queer people are not the “Emily Blunt’s gay brother” of the media landscape. We deserve more — and we need to let Disney know that.