No sex please, we’re Disney: Why we shouldn’t look to the House of Mouse for stories of sexual liberation

No sex please, we’re Disney: Why we shouldn’t look to the House of Mouse for stories of sexual liberation

No sex please, we’re Disney: Why we shouldn’t look to the House of Mouse for stories of sexual liberation

No sex please, we’re Disney: Why we shouldn’t look to the House of Mouse for stories of sexual liberation

Disney has a sex problem. Debuting in the UK last month was Love, Victor, a spinoff show from the popular romantic comedy Love, Simon. It follows a new student, Michael Cimino’s Victor, who enrolls at a Texas high school and has to deal with his own self-discovery as a gay teenager. On the surface, Love, Victor feels like any other TV show telling a coming-of-age story, the only difference being that its main character is queer. Yet the show’s background is murky.

In 2019, Love, Victor was set to stream on Disney Plus. Less than a year later, its content was deemed “too mature” for the family-friendly service, and it launched on Disney’s adult-oriented platforms instead: Hulu in the US, and Star in the UK. Reports at the time indicated that Disney Plus was concerned about the show’s content clashing with the service’s family-friendly ethos (it features alcohol consumption and themes of marital crisis and sexual exploration), but the decision provoked concern: was the very existence of a reasonably tame depiction of queerness enough to render a show “mature”?

This isn’t the only time in recent history when Disney has mishandled its queer properties. In the same month that Love, Victor debuted on Star, animation studio Blue Sky Studios, which had been acquired by Disney in 2019, was shut down in the middle of making an adaptation of the Noelle Stevenson comic book Nimona. It would have been the first Disney feature with queer leads. The closure was blamed on Covid-19, and it is unclear whether Nimona will resurface elsewhere within Disney.

Even outside of queerness, the concern about “adult themes” continues to be restrictive. The messy realities of sexual attraction are usually avoided across Disney entertainment. Romances tend to be passionless and chaste, while a grown-up reboot of the 2000s sitcom Lizzie McGuire collapsed last year. Disney reportedly became skittish about the show’s plans to feature mature content – the premise on which original star Hilary Duff had been lured back in the first place. The recurring issue here is that things that are part and parcel of the lives of many must be sanitised to fit into the Disney brand. It severely limits the stories that can be told.

Taken individually, these aren’t particularly sinister decisions, but when you look at them in the broader context of Disney’s output, a worrying pattern emerges. This is a company which spent decades putting queer-coded villains in wildly successful movies. The Lion King’s Scar, Hercules’ Hades and The Little Mermaid’s Ursula all leaned into lisps and high camp to emphasise their villainy, entrenching the association of queerness with evil. More recently, queerness has been limited in Disney films to blink-and-you-miss-it moments. The promotional campaigns for Avengers: Endgame, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast all played up their respective use of gay characters, though in execution those characters appeared very little. These moments in particular made it feel like Disney was more interested in getting pre-release headlines about being progressive than actually providing meaningful on-screen queerness.

This isn’t the first time that queer and adult themes have been heavily restricted in American entertainment. In the 1920s, US movie studios were condemned by pressure groups over the “morality” of their films, with targeted boycotts cutting into their revenue. In response, and to avoid federal government interference, the major studios collectively set up the Motion Picture Production Code, better known as the Hays Code. The central idea of the code was that “no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it”, something specifically inspired by the Christian-influenced “morality” of white high-society.

As is always the case with these things, the code hit already-marginalised groups the hardest. Depictions of female sexual agency were out of the question, and interracial relationships were banned from the screen. Queer characters couldn’t appear on film at all, unless they were presented as figures of disgust, or if their queerness was kept strictly in the subtext. The code lasted until 1968, but its long shadow can still be felt in mainstream American entertainment today – and in Disney’s creative output in particular.

Many of the films and shows in the Marvel Cinematic Universe reinforce the puritan-tinged cultural dichotomy of sex and violence. Anything alluding to sex or passion is considered adult and can only occur off-camera. Only specific kinds of violence are normalised and supported, too. Legitimised violence coming from mechanisms of the state is fine (Captain Marvel doubles as a thinly veiled recruitment tool for women in the Air Force, after all), but “illegitimate” violence on the side of justice is not. In 2018’s Black Panther, the fictional African nation of Wakanda doesn’t attempt to force structural change onto the rest of the world when it makes its existence public. Instead the solution presented is for it to work in tandem with the CIA and open an information centre – as if the structural violence that black people face can simply be overcome with education.

Another key parallel is that Disney’s approach to sex and gender is driven by an apparent safeguarding of “the family” from inappropriate content. The tent of “the family” may have broadened over the years – white middle-class people can get divorced with few issues, or if they’re respectable enough can marry someone of their own gender – but it remains shackled to pre-established and culturally conservative standards. This “respectability” is usually attained through having “normal” middle-class jobs like accounting or middle-management, never really rocking the boat, and generally aiming for the ideals of heterosexual couples.

The Disney/Pixar film Onward, which was released last year, may have featured the animation studio’s first openly queer character, but she’s also a married, non-human police officer who only features in one scene. Her wife, who she mentions casually, is left off-screen. Disney can therefore give itself a pseudo-progressive sheen and receive good press, but only for walking a path of representation that’s been laid out by artists and activists for years beforehand. It is no surprise, then, that the scene rings hollow for the people it is supposedly for.

The family, as we understand it in the west, is inherently a political construction. Even with the aforementioned expansion, it is still centred around the interests of nuclear units with white and married parents that adhere to Christian values. The people who stray outside of those standards are deemed to be deviant and dangerous.

Most queer stories cannot fit within the “family-friendly” framework that Disney is fixated on, because the cultural idea of the family is specifically constructed to exclude the majority of queer people. If even the aggressively PG-rated teens of Love, Victor cause a stir, then there is absolutely no way for shows like Pose, or films like Lingua Franca, to exist in a way that is “family-friendly”. It means those types of stories just won’t be told by Disney. Or, if they are, they’ll get shoved into a smaller streaming service detached from the all-important main brand. If Disney were smaller, this would be less of an issue, but the company has come to dominate much of the entertainment market.

The ultimate lesson here is that we cannot rely upon corporations to produce art that embraces the liberation of queer and trans people, women and marginalised communities. If the people at the bottom were Disney’s priority, they wouldn’t be making tens of thousands of already low-paid workers redundant in the middle of a pandemic while executive pay remains astronomically high.

To keep turning a profit, they will always pursue entertainment that sits comfortably within hegemonic spaces which normalise exclusion and oppression. To combat it, we must turn outward – to independent artists, community work, and the people for whom creativity is more than just another piece of content on a spreadsheet. It is there that we can be represented in our multitudes, and that better worlds can be imagined.


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