The Walt Disney Company has been one of the premier film and animation studios for almost nine decades. Its movies reinvented fairy tales and stories from legend and literature. As one of the top companies in its field, fans, critics and the public look to Disney for leadership, examine the themes in its movies and praise or criticize the company for how it reflects the world. Among the points of interest is how LGBTQ people and concerns are represented. Following the times, and in a few cases leading them, Disney has had characters in its films that audiences have perceived to be part of the queer community. Some of these depictions have been more forward than others.
Few Disney characters are explicitly declared to be gay by the studio or its filmmakers, but viewers have picked up on “gay coding,” characters exhibiting traits corresponding with LGBTQ. Aud Bool on the blog Prezi describes the term: “Coded gay is when a gay stereotype, ‘gay behaviors’ or ‘camp’ are used to imply that a character is homosexual while never explicitly stating that they are.” This is often not seen as a positive practice. However, in some cases, viewers have embraced Disney characters as being part of the fold, or for reflecting their own journey for acceptance. In other cases, viewers have criticized the studio for coding its villains as being gay, conflating gayness with evil or going so over the top as to be insultingly stereotypical, pigeon-holing an entire community. Here, CBR looks at 15 characters in Disney and Pixar movies who are confirmed as gay, or are believed to be by the fan community.
Scar from The Lion King (1994) is queer coded, writes Monique Jones in the “Just Add Color” blog. She notes that he contrasts with brother Mufasa in many ways: Mufasa is burly, deep-voiced and masculine; Scar is slighter and is given to effete mannerisms and phrases, like “Oh, I shall practice my curtsy.” Also, Scar has no mate, which many fans have read into as a signal.
The contrast is so stark, producer Don Hahn declared the two aren’t brothers, in an interview with Hello Giggles in 2017. Hahn notes that in lion prides, there typically is only one male because he’s killed off the previous king and any rivals, including cubs. If there are two males, one dominates. Hahn noted that Scar said so in the movie: “When it comes to brute strength, I’m afraid I’m at the shallow end of the gene pool.” Again, this is an example of potential gay coding, wherein masculinity is seen as being reserved for straight men, but not those within the queer community, exemplified in this case by Scar.
It’s a brief moment in Frozen (2013). Princess Anna is searching for her sister Elsa, whose out-of-control ice powers have plunged the land of Arendelle into a perpetual winter. She is joined by ice trader Kristoff, and they stop in at “Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post and Sauna” for supplies. Kristoff haggles with Oaken over the price. Oaken will not budge, but does offer to throw in free use of the sauna. Looking over, he says “Yoo hoo! Hello, family!” to a man and four children within.
Frozen writer and co-director Jennifer Lee said to The Big Issue, “We know what we made. But at the same time, I feel like once we hand the film over, it belongs to the world. so I don’t like to say anything, and just let the fans talk. I think it’s up to them.”
Ursula, the villain in The Little Mermaid (1989), is brassy and flamboyant. Hazlitt magazine describes how Little Mermaid producer and lyricist Howard Ashman shaped Ursula. He said she evolved from various design sketches; the one of a “vampy, overweight matron who everyone agreed looked a lot like Divine” clicked. Divine was the drag queen persona of the late Harris Milstead, and was a key player in director John Waters’ repertory company of actors, starring in Pink Flamingos and the original version of Hairspray as housewife Edna Turnblad.
Ashman shared roots in Baltimore’s theater scene and gay scenes with Divine, and Ashman directed actress Pat Carroll in Ursula’s voice, phrasings and personality. Divine died three weeks after Hairspray was released in 1988, and thus couldn’t be Ursula. Documentarian Jeffery Schwarz said “he would have wanted to play the part himself,” leading many fans to believe that Ursula, so influenced, must have taken on similar traits.
12. GOVERNOR RATCLIFFE AND WIGGINS
Governor Ratcliffe from Pocahontas (1995) is also tagged as a coded gay villain in Monique Jones’ “Just Add Color” blog. As the representative of the crown among the group who left England to settle in what will be known as North America, Ratcliffe stands apart. Ratcliffe is foppish, dressed in a purple doublet with ruffled cuffs, and a cape. In a fantasy sequence, his outfit turns white, trimmed with gold lamé.
Furthermore, Ratcliffe has shoulder-length hair tied into pigtails with red bows. He has a pencil-thin mustache and a soul patch. And he implores the earthy sailors to dig for gold, but insists he can’t join them: “I’ve got this crick in me spine.” Ratcliffe’s manservant, Wiggins, is even less masculine than the sailors. Wiggins cares for Ratcliffe’s pug, Percy, carries a parasol over Ratcliffe’s head to protect him from the rain, and loves making gift baskets. All of this, some fans argue, makes both outmoded caricatures of the queer community; automatically making them evil, thus amplifying the case for what some call toxic masculinity.
11. TIMON AND PUMBAA
In The Lion King (1994), self-exiled lion cub Simba falls in with meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa, who raise him to adulthood. Timon is voiced by Nathan Lane, who is openly gay, and Pumbaa by Ernie Sabella. In an article about the upcoming Lion King live-action remake, Jezebel refers to Timon and Pumbaa as gay lovers and “their fiercely loving and judgment-free romance,” marked by the song “Hakuna Matata.”
On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Lane described his email correspondence with Billy Eichner, who will play Timon in the remake. Lane said, “Now that gay rights have come so far, in this version Timon can finally marry Pumbaa and live openly in the Serengeti. Believe me, once you’ve have warthog, you never go back.” A joke, certainly, but one that confirmed in many fans’ minds this longstanding ship!
LeFou — which translates as “the fool” or “madman” in French — is the sidekick to the arrogant, macho hunter Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. In the 1991 animated film, LeFou has a goofy admiration for Gaston. But for the 2017 live-action remake, LeFou was conceived as expressly gay and played that way by actor Josh Gad.
Director Bill Condon told Attitude magazine, “LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston. He’s confused about what he wants. It’s somebody who’s just realizing that he has these feelings. And Josh makes something really subtle and delicious out of it. And that’s what has its payoff at the end, which I don’t want to give away. But it is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.”
9. BUCKY AND PRONK
Zootopia (2016) tells the story of Judy Hopps, a small-town girl who fulfills her dream of becoming a police officer in the big city. The police chief, however, thinks she can’t cut it and assigns her to traffic duty. But the plucky Judy uncovers a drug ring and political corruption. This being a Disney cartoon, Judy is a rabbit in an anthropomorphic world. In one scene, she introduces herself to neighbors Bucky and Pronk. Bucky, a kudu, responds, “Yeah? Well, we’re loud.” Pronk, an oryx, adds, “Don’t expect us to apologize for it.” Moments later, Judy hears them through the walls.
Viewers noticed that Bucky and Pronk have the same last name, Oryx-Antlerson. Clearing up any doubt about their relationship, Zootopia co-director Jared Bush tweeted, “They are a gay married couple. But they don’t yell at each other because they’re gay, they yell because they’re real. ;)”
8. COGSWORTH AND LUMIERE
Also featured in Beauty and the Beast (1991) are the castle’s staff, who have been transformed into household objects. The fussy majordomo, Cogsworth, was turned into a clock; the valet, Lumière, into a candlestick. The hoopla over the “exclusively gay moment” in the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast (2017) — LeFou dancing with a man while singing Gaston’s praises — spurred several pieces pointing out there was another gay couple in the film.
At Mashable, writer Heather Dockray states that Cogsworth is “a caring, tidy clock who just so happens to be in love with a charming candelabra named Lumière. Of course, neither Lumière nor Cogsworth can go public with their relationship and risk the wrath of an insecure buffalo literally named the Beast. But just look at how they look at each other throughout the entire movie. If only we could all find animated love like this.”
In his screen debut in Toy Story 3 (2010), Ken has a dream house with a closet full of sparkly outfits. Mattel launched the doll — not action figure — in 1961, two years after Barbie. The “Earring Magic Ken” introduced in 1993, which sported a purple mesh shirt, pleather vest and a chrome ring on a necklace, unexpectedly attracted a cult following from the queer community.
Not all were pleased with his film portrayal, though. Natalie Wilson wrote for Ms. that Ken, “is depicted as a closeted gay fashionista, with a fondness for writhing in sparkly purple ink with curly-Q flourishes. Played for adult in-jokes, Ken huffily insists, ‘I am not a girl toy, I am not!’ when an uber-masculine robot toy suggests so during a heated poker match. Pairing homophobia with misogyny, the jokes about Ken suggest that the worst things a boy can be are either a girl or a homosexual.”
Frozen (2013) is the highest-grossing animated film of all time. Elsa’s struggles with concealing and containing her growing power were perceived as an allegory for her coming to terms with being queer, and her signature song, “Let It Go,” a coming-out anthem: Don’t let them in, don’t let them see / Be the good girl you always have to be / Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know / Well, now they know / Let it go, let it go / Don’t hold it back any more.
For Frozen 2, fan Alexis Isabel Moncada launched the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend campaign on Twitter, which drew a countervailing campaign in conservative circles. Co-director Jennifer Lee was coy to the Huffington Post: “I love everything people are saying [and] people are thinking about with our film — that’s creating dialogue, that Elsa is this wonderful character that speaks to so many people.”
The name Maleficent stems from Latin; it loosely translates as “harmfully malicious.” As the evil queen in Sleeping Beauty (1959), Maleficent is called “the Mistress of All Evil,” and the failure of the king to invite Maleficent to the christening of Princess Aurora spurs her to put a curse on the child because of that insult. The live-action Maleficent from 2014 retold the story from Maleficent’s perspective, and Slate’s review lauded it for its “utter campiness.”
As the title character, Angelina Jolie “does a fabulous job of stalking around in an outfit made for a drag queen, casting biting shade and patrician disaffection wherever she goes,” J. Bryan Lowder wrote, adding that Maleficent is “subject to prejudice and even physical violence once she wanders beyond the borders of her ‘safe space’ in the faerie moors.” Not to mention, the “true love’s kiss” that frees Aurora from the curse comes from Maleficent herself.
4. KRONK AND YZMA
In The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), one of the most popular characters is the over-muscled Kronk. He is kind to animals, able to talk to squirrels, and dumb as a bag of hammers. He also is a wizard in the kitchen. Most of all, Kronk is deeply loyal to his mistress, Yzma, royal adviser to Emperor Kuzco. The only inkling of dissension between Yzma and Kronk is the moment when she declares she never liked his spinach puffs; the insult sparks the devil and the angel on Kronk’s shoulders to take Yzma out.
Queer Love in Film and Television: Critical Essays states, “it cannot be denied that Kronk reflects a queer sensibility.” For her part, Yzma, who plots to destroy Kuzco, is described in Mic magazine as “another charismatic, campy caricature of an aging diva.”
Hercules (1997) follows the title character as he tries to become a “true hero.” Working to undermine him and overthrow Olympus is Hades. In the magazine Little White Lies, Henry Bevan writes, “If James Woods’ Hades wasn’t busy taking over the world, he’d be the gay best friend in a romantic comedy. He drinks Cosmopolitans and reminds Meg that Hercules will leave her because ‘He’s a GUY!'”
Woods tells Den of Geek that the directors gave him license to be funny: “Almost every line I did in that over the next year and a half was ad-libbed. I came up with the idea of the hair being on fire. I said, ‘Hey, he’s got this fire-y hair. Wouldn’t it be kind of of cool … you remember John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, where he goes, ‘Not the hair! woah, woah?’ ‘Is my hair out?’ — they loved that.”
The name “Jafar” translates from Arabic as “rivulet” or “stream.” Jafar, the grand vizier to the sultan in Aladdin (1992) is stately and refined, with a pencil-thin Van Dyke beard, prehensile eyebrows and dark lids that hint of eye shadow. Unlike the other men in the film, he wears a robe, not pants, and has a cape, and he prefers to use magic rather than get his hands dirty. Many folks, for better or worse, associate this with his sexuality.
The lead animator on Jafar was Andreas Deja, who is openly gay, and has worked on Hercules, Lilo and Stitch, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast and Scar in The Lion King. In Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out, author Sean Griffin notes that Deja “admits to conceiving of the [Jafar] character as a gay man ‘to give him his theatrical quality, his elegance.'”
Merida, the heroine of Brave (2012) is the first female lead in a Pixar film. Set in medieval Scotland, the film has the princess refusing her mother’s insistence that she participate in an arranged marriage that would unite her clan with another. Merida is a master archer, and competes — and wins — against the would-be suitors for her hand.
In Entertainment Weekly, Adam Markovitz asks, “Could Merida be gay? Absolutely. She bristles at the traditional gender roles that she’s expected to play: the demure daughter, the obedient fiancée. Her love of unprincess-like hobbies, including archery and rock-climbing, is sure to strike a chord with gay viewers who felt similarly ‘not like the other kids’ growing up.” On the other hand, Andrew O’Hehir writes in Salon, that the Brave co-directors “created an autonomous, independent-minded and indeed pre-sexual or nonsexual character, whose principal relationship is with her mother.”
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