Lord knows, I love me some Disney. I feel the need to state this upfront just to underscore how much I enjoy the Disney animated canon. I grew up with those films, watching them over and over again, singing the songs, pretending to be a princess (or one of the dancing ostriches from 1940’s Fantasia–I loved them, and still do). Disney has had a presence in my life for as far back as I can remember.
But as I have gotten older, and watched these movies from the perspective of a (somewhat) jaded adult, I’ve realized that there are some messages embedded in these films that are not exactly what you might call “progressive.” Especially in the older films in the canon, there are issues of insensitivity, bordering on racism, that makes modern-day viewers squirm uncomfortably–issues that have, to this day, prevented the home video release of 1946’s Song of the South here in the United States. Added to that is the great deal of stereotyping in the development of many of the classic Disney characters–most particularly in the characterization of the females, an issue particularly reserved for the simpering, helpless, sometimes bodily useless princess figures. And while these issues bother me quite a bit (with that last one in particular being the crux of an epic post I have been working on for the past two weeks regarding 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, a lovely film with some not-so-lovely implications about gender roles), these are subjects for another day.
No, today we’re going to talk about the gays. Well, not the outright gays–because homosexuality is about as welcome in a Disney film as a bear to a honey party (unless that bear is Winnie the Pooh, of course)–but the way in which some familiar characters are drawn to appear “othered” in comparison to so-called sexual norms. Let’s start with a look at some supporting male characters whose behavior and dialogue are strongly indicative of queerness, characters whose prescribed and cliched “femininity” makes them appear weak, useless, and unworthy of anything but ridicule at the hands of the more “manly” figures whom they generally serve.
LeFou, Beauty and the Beast
LeFou is Gaston’s right-hand man, and as such, he has many roles in the film: ego stroker, punching bag, errand boy … LeFou is short and fat as opposed to Gaston’s virile manliness (which LeFou lauds in one of the funniest songs in the Disney songbook. I dare you not to laugh when Gaston brags that he is “especially good at EXPECTORATING!” After all, the ability to spit is the ultimate sign of a man’s man). LeFou is abused and serves as the butt of the jokes–and takes on the brunt of Gaston’s anger. He never takes initiative to step outside of that role, seeming content to be a lackey and soak up whatever leftover adoration he can get from Gaston’s many admirers. Essentially, what the characterization of LeFou tells us is that the less masculine you are, the more of a bumbling imbecile you may be. And you will certainly never get the girl—in fact, the girls will laugh at you while fawning over your ripped (and equally idiotic) friend.
Wiggins, Pocahontas (1995)
He makes gift baskets for the Natives and acts as a glorified hairdresser to Percy the dog. The manservant to the evil Governor Ratcliffe (who is himself depicted as being immoderately fey), Wiggins is shown to be little more than a weak, skinny beanpole, practically frightened of his own shadow and looked at by the other men as being of absolutely no use in the brewing conflict between the Natives and the Englishmen. He is undeniably one of the more overly effeminate characters, down to his vocalizations (“Ooh, gift baskets!”) and his hip-shaking movements across the screen.
Smee, Peter Pan (1951)
It’s hard to determine why, exactly, Smee remains so loyal to his boss, Captain Hook (who, again, is painted with own innately foppish, feminine-edged qualities). In comparison to Hook, Smee is kind and gentle, concerned about others, and loyal to a fault. He helps Hook in his evil deeds, but there’s always a sense of reluctance. He’s weak physically and weak-willed, in many ways, allowing Hook to push him around, but at the same time, the relationship between the two is painted almost like a marriage, with Smee in the subservient “wifely” role.
This othering of the male characters is not limited to the ones in supporting roles, however–there are a number of main villains that fit the trope, though in these cases, they exert much more power than the more effeminate sidekicks, either through deviousness or sheer intimidation born from slyness.
Ratigan, The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
The extremely theatrical Ratigan’s love for champagne, caviar, and the finest in designer rat threads already mark him as different from the other rats (or mice, as it were, as Ratigan tends to lose his shit whenever anyone calls him a “rat”), showing that he is of an entirely separate rank, at least in light of the caste system of the rodent underground. But it’s his desire to take over for Queen Mousetoria–to essentially “become” the Queen–that truly marks him as an other–especially if you take that goal somewhat literally.
Scar, The Lion King (1994)
At the beginning of the film, Simba calls his plotting uncle “weird,” to which Scar replies, “You have no idea,” with a drollness that can be construed in multiple ways. Is he “weird” because he is planning to kill his brother and his nephew in order to claim the throne (“weird” being a–shall we say–inadequate word to describe those plans)? Is he “weird” because he prefers the company of the hyenas, who don’t view him as one of the other lions, but instead think of him as one of their own? Or is he “weird” because his otherness is defined in terms of sexuality? Recall that Scar has no mate, nor does he seem to take one after he assumes control of the Pridelands. The subsequent death of the kingdom could therefore be symbolic of Scar’s inability–and unwillingness–to mate with a lioness in order to produce an heir (though the sequel to the film does show that he essentially adopted one before being killed).
Prince John, Robin Hood (1970)
He has “mommy issues,” and throughout much of the film, he’s shown sucking his thumb while tugging on his ear. Need I say more?
There is another side to the coin, too–the butch female, found most abundantly among the female villains of these films–for instance, Ursula in The Little Mermaid (1989), whose lust for Ariel’s voice could be construed as a deeply-ingrained lust for the mermaid herself; and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959), who spends the entire film trying to put another woman to “sleep.” It’s even evident in some of the heroines, perhaps most notably in Mulan (1998), in which the title character disguises herself as a boy and tries to force herself to act masculine by puffing out her chest, adopting a low tone of voice, and punching the male characters. And there are so many more I could name on BOTH sides of the gender line … but then, I’d be here all night.
Still, by and large, it is the male characters who are painted in such broad, stereotypically gay tropes. And in the end, what these characters indicate to us–and to the children who watch these films and become so invested in these characters–is that being “fey” is a bad thing. It is presented to us as a choice between being weak and ineffectual, or being irredeemably evil. Now, true, these are the extremes, and there are some in-between figures here; for example, Genie from 1992’s Aladdin, who is at times an updated gender-ambiguous Bugs Bunny-esque type, or Bambi’s (1942) Flower, the “pretty” boy skunk with the dainty name who lives and breathes the concept of “shy and retiring.” These characters fall safely in the middle ground, and so escape the deadly consequences of villainy and/or the ridicule doled out to the femme sidekicks. But the fact remains that, with a few exceptions, the “others” in these films are generally meant to be read as dangerous because they are different.
Disney is far from the first production studio to resort to stereotype in order to question the virility of its male characters; as far back as the days of silent film, actors portraying gay figures played up effeminate gestures, swishing across the screen and swinging their hips in wild exaggeration. These are tropes that have been present in films for one hundred years, and are still presented in modern-day movies as a way of telegraphing a character’s sexual persuasion without having to outright state it. At its heart, it’s not only horrifyingly judgmental and biased, but it’s also a mark of lazy filmmaking and a lack of desire to characterize gay figures as something deserving of respect. And Disney perpetuates this idea with these characters–it’s the “sissy myth,” reproduced for your child’s viewing pleasure, to be reinforced with every repeat viewing for years to come.
[Note: That last part sounds much more ominous than I intended it to be. Look, I don’t think Disney is (entirely) the evil corporation people sometimes make them out to be. I can’t look at them that way–that company has given me more personal joy over the years than I could possibly quantify. And they have admittedly come a long way down the road to acceptance, considering some of the anecdotes from Walt’s tenure at the head of the company. But it’s silly to ignore the fact that some of the themes in certain Disney flicks are ill-conceived at best, and downright offensive at worst. In writing this post, I’m not trying to insinuate that Disney is trying to turn children into homophobes. But it is important to recognize these underlying tropes, acknowledge them, and ensure that they are not perpetuated in real life. In other words–parents, teach your children about these issues. Don’t rely on these movies to do it for you. And that’s my totally unwarranted, unnecessary, unsolicited PSA for the day.]
This post is a final, last-minute contribution to this week’s Queer Blogathon, hosted by Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrr. Check out the other wonderful entries and marvel at the fantastic submissions from throughout the past week!
21 thoughts on ““Queering” Disney.”
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A note about Ursula. The visual design of the character is derived from Divine, and she seems much more in line with a particularly vicious drag queen than any variety of lesbian. I read her desire for Ariel’s voice as a craving for Ariel’s femininity itself. In the taxonomy of transphobic tropes, this is an example of the kind of appropriation of femininity that the second wave feminists have always feared from trans people. This is particularly uncomfortable (for me) in a movie that employs one of the common mythological analogues for transgenderism (the mermaid who longs for a life on land).
An excellent point, Christianne, and another example of how wide-open these characters are to interpretation. I’ve been reading the book THE DISNEY VILLAIN, written by two of the “Nine Old Men,” Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and there is no mention of Divine or of any design influence other than that of the live octopi (octopuses?) used in the initial development of the character. And yet, looking at the sketches of Ursula’s evolution in the book, the Divine influence appears rather evident, particularly in the design of her face and her expressions. It’s interesting, then, that the animators don’t mention this influence in the book, because it seems like a pretty vital detail to any description of the character. (And by “interesting,” I mean, “Of COURSE they didn’t mention it.”)
This post makes me happy. I’ve forever been trying to put a finger on what bugs me about Disney films.
Just wait until you read my upcoming feminist rampage on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. You’ll be entertained.
You’ve given me some food for thought here…
Glad you enjoyed it!
Thought-provoking post, Brandie. In addition to all the characters you’ve mentioned, I always wonder a little about Jafar, another campy villain who, for the vast majority of Aladdin seems totally uninterested in the beautiful princess as anything but a road to the throne. Hell, he seems downright annoyed at the inconvenience of having to marry “the shrew.” No, he’d rather trade quips with his buddy/stooge Iago and hypnotize the girl’s father and stroke his beard (ahem). It’s only for the finale that he suddenly and very briefly becomes a sexual threat to the hero, by turning Jasmine into a harem girl. Guess that makes him a sort of skinny Jabba the Hut.
I feel like all the Disney stereotypes seem to come about as the dark side of a studio that, let’s face it, is all about stories concerning the restoration of normalcy and balance and traditional romance. The “other” is something to either be destroyed or assimilated.
I thought about mentioning Jafar (along w/Cruella de Vil, Shere Khan, and any number of other villains–my, there were a lot of characters who could fit this trope), but this post was already running pretty long. But I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis! At some point in the future, I think it would be fun to go back and revisit this idea for our ongoing Saturday Morning Cartoons series and give each of these characters the analysis and attention they deserve.
Yes! I always knew Wiggins was gay, I mean he’s probably the most flamboyant Disney side character ever. Thank you for shining a light on this, glad to know I’m not the only one who sees these characters for what they really are lol. Great post!
Thank you very much!
This is a really interesting interpretation of some of the Disney “sidekicks” and secondary male characters. It’s interesting that you noted that people like Smee and Wiggins are the hetero-life-partners of villains like Captain Hook and Governor Ratcliffe. The villains in particular aren’t “deserving” of love or sexual partners, so they have male support systems that are either asexual or too different in some capacity to be considered as a sexual object. Really interesting, I would love to hear you take a stab at the female villains and their partners, like Ursula with Flotsam and Jetsam (who are phallic eels?). You could probably go a million ways with that haha. Good job!
Thank you! I really do hope to get the chance to revisit this idea soon and expand upon this post. 🙂
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Dangit, and I thought Disney was just sexist and racist!
Well, at least that all-male ostrich ballerina corps looks generally favorable.
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