Podcast: Why Disney can’t let its queer characters be themselves

In the latest episide of NOW What, our staffers wonder why Disney's Cruella, Marvel's Loki and Pixar's Luca all flirt with queer representation, but won't let their characters act out


Last week, the Disney+ series Loki canonically identified its hero as bisexual, making Tom Hiddleston’s Asgardian trickster god Marvel Studios’ first openly queer leading character. But his sexuality arrives with an asterisk, as it does for so many characters under the Disney umbrella.

Are the sea monsters voiced by Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer in Luca just good friends, or are they connecting on a deeper level? Is Artie, the Bowie-adjacent vintage-shop clerk who becomes Emma Stone’s confidant and wardrobe consultant in Cruella, a watershed for Disney’s representation of gay characters, or just another snippy sidekick? And what about the kiss between two women in the last Star Wars movie? Was that genuine progress, or is it all just lip service from a company that can’t go any further for fear of alienating conservative and international audiences worth hundreds of millions of dollars?

In the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, NOW’s associate entertainment editor Glenn Sumi and art director Daniel de Souza join me to discuss what is and isn’t achieved with this sort of representation, and how we’ll know when gay and lesbian characters are truly being seen in mainstream entertainment.

“When I grew up, the Disney musical was sort of in its heyday,” Sumi says. “I remember the character of Scar from The Lion King, and Jafar from Aladdin – and even earlier, the George Sanders character [Shere Khan] in The Jungle Book. Coded queer characters, often with an English accent for some reason. They didn’t engage in the sort of normative heterosexual sort of relationships that everybody else did.”

It wasn’t until the stage version of The Lion King came along that Sumi saw the risks of coding outsider characters that way.

“Every time I see it, I keep thinking, ‘Are they going to change these lines?’” he says. “Because as an adult, it really did offend me when Zazu says to Mufasa, ‘There’s one in every family.’ What are you supposed to think of? And at one point Simba says, ‘Oh, you’re so weird, Uncle Scar.’ And he says back, ‘Oh, you have no idea.’ Neither of those lines got a laugh, so I’m thinking, ‘What does this even mean now? Is the joke even paying off?’

“You know, I can accept somebody like Ursula in The Little Mermaid; apparently she was based on Divine… this outrageous drag queen character we don’t necessarily think of as lesbian, but is obviously way outside of the norm. I’ve grown up with this.”

Sumi didn’t read Luca and Alberto as “explicitly queer-coded,” though. “I read it as hiding,” he says. “Hiding anything. It could be that they’re queer, it could be that they’re from a lower socioeconomic class. You know, there was stuff about people ‘smelling’ them… one of the antagonists said that they smelled sort of funny. It could be about hiding your religion, the fact that you have really annoying parents. And I think when I was younger, I would have understood all of that. It’s just sort of another layer.”

“They’re using the template of coming out as gay to tell a much more generalized and much more universal story,” de Souza says. “It’s a coming out story for everyone, about anything they might be hiding or that they might be insecure about. You’re going to bring whatever baggage you have in life to that kind of story, and I think that’s what they’re hoping for.

“I don’t think it’s as specific [as] Jafar or some of the other queer-coded characters from our youth, where it’s very specifically picking up on pop-culture tropes and pop-culture stereotypes about gay people and using it for the full effect,” he adds. “‘These are awful people, they’re immoral, they’re sneaky, they’re British – they’re like foreigners!’ [Luca] is the extreme counterpoint to that. And maybe they’ve sort of gotten a little too generalized and they could have gone a bit more specific, but it also would have been kind of hard to do.

“A lot of the other stuff, like Loki being bisexual, some surface acknowledgment about Marvel characters or other superheroes being gay – that feels like pandering to me. It’s like J.K. Rowling saying ‘Oh, by the way Dumbledore is gay, actually.’ In a way that’s great, because that’s what being gay is in life: it’s just sort of being a normal person. You’re not gay at work often. You’re not the headmaster of a crazy wizardry school and you’ll definitely come out later. But it also feels very cheap.”

Which is also the problem with Loki, whose newly acknowledged queerness doesn’t quite make up for the fact that we’ve never seen him have a relationship with anyone in a decade of Marvel movie appearances. There’s also the whole Asgardian thing, to say nothing of the character’s origins as a Frost Giant infant adopted by Thor’s father Odin, which might make it easier for Marvel to label Loki queer without alienating any of their conservative fans: Loki is already an Other several times over.

“The one danger with making aliens gay is that we’re talking about human sexuality,” de Souza points out. “What does it mean for Loki to be bisexual when he’s basically a god? What’s the range of sexuality or sexual identities and genders in gods? Is it a meaningful distinction? Do gods have sex? Do gods have gender identities? They’re trying to be clever with these kinds of things, but they end up just sort of obliterating what they’re doing into meaninglessness. It’d be like finding out that the weird lizard aliens in Men In Black are gay. You’d be like, ‘Well, what does that mean? Did they even have a gender? Were any of them female or male?’

“And that’s why they eventually need to have a human gay [character], I think, as opposed to relying on aliens. But I think the other reason to not say who’s coming out as gay or who’s going to be made gay is it’s a gay cliffhanger. It’s a marketing thing! And it’s not just for gay people, although I’m sure gay Marvel people will be super into it. It’s for everyone. It’s also for the haters, to find out what character they’ve ruined by making them gay because they weren’t gay before: ‘How can you make this person gay? They once looked at a girl in this other comic book 10 years ago!’”

Hear the entire conversation on the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.

@normwilner

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