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Portrayal Of Homosexual Characters In Disney Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2968 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Walt Disney Company first appeared in America (and soon after the rest of the world) in the 1920’s. 90 years later and it is still going strong and is a corporation to be reckoned with. From their beginnings as a simple animation company, it now covers lots of different genres of film as well as branching out to television companies, theme parks, books, theatre adaptations, cruises and music labels. To date, Disney has produced 49 animated films, 10 live-action, 11 ‘DisneyToon’ productions, two stop-motion and 10 Pixar films with the hugely anticipated release of Toy Story 3 in June 2010. But concentrating on their main produce, their range of animated films has been experience by everyone from the ages of 1 to 101. Disney is at the forefront of family entertainment as well as a form of escapism (a flying elephant, living toys, mermaids and monsters?!) and a hidden (if not obvious to adults) way to introduce morality to children as early as possible. However, who decides what morals to portray in these very Americanised films? In recent times, Disney films have reflected the social climate with the introduction of the first black protagonist in The Princess and the Frog (2009). So as these films are becoming true to life and “educating” future generations, has there been an introduction of non-heterosexual characters as well?

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The Disney Company’s first feature length animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) was a colossal project which pushed every employee working on the production extremely hard but the results were worth it. The amalgamation of a moral filled story with realistic animation then paved the way for the following Disney films during, what was known as their “Golden Age”: Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). The morals contained within these films and all to follow, were seen by conservative Americans as important family values and trusted upon Disney to teach these values to everyone.

“For more than 50 years Walt Disney Company has represented all that is good and pure and wholesome in our nation. Families flocked to Walk Disney World and Disneyland because they knew that Walt Disney respected and nurtured the traditional American family and its strong moral values. Disney could always be counted on to provide parents and children alike with family-friendly, good-natured entertainment”

Letter from a coalition of Florida lawmakers, 1995

However, are these morals and values shared by all? And does the way in which they are portrayed actually reflect reality? They are American ideals of conservative family values which support the life storyline of romance, marriage (to someone of the opposite sex) and then children in a parallel world to that of the traditional Anglo-Saxon, Christian American upbringing. Reading further into these ideals are that of the issues of individuality, love and capitalism that are being depicted to all Disney viewers, namely children. These viewers cannot differentiate what is being shown to them as not necessarily the reality of the world (as the world consists of more than just the one religion of Christianity). New generations of children subjected to Disney films are growing up with ideologies from these stories as they have faith in them to contain some element of truth. Not all the storyline’s can be deemed as promoting negative beliefs though. Disney movies always contain an aspect of the ‘follow your heart’ love which if regarded as the most important moral, then maybe some people will overlook the American family values shown in favour of love. However, this ‘follow your heart’ belief can only really exist within some religions as others have strict rulings as to who you can marry and really fall in love with.

Throughout film history (up until recently), there were very few storyline’s which contained a gay or lesbian character as a protagonist. The general film public saw those films, which did include a main gay character, as ‘gay-themed’ (so not to their tastes) or ‘alternative’. In recent years, filmmakers have seen a niche in the market for gay films, although it was in 1896 with The Celluloid Closet that a gay subtext was used within in a film. It would then take some 70 years later before ‘Queer Cinema’ would come about. Censorship on homosexuality in films came about in Britain in 1912 with the founding of the British Board of Film Censors and in 1934, the Production Code in America was enforced. Within this strict guideline for ‘good taste’ was that homosexuality or bisexuality must never be represented or even inferred. Slowly though, gay and lesbian characters were brought into films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Clueless (1995) and Billy Elliot (2000). But as previously said, only in supporting roles as the ‘gay best friend’. When they finally were given the main storyline’s, the characters were shown to ‘imitate’ heterosexuality as much as possible to be accepted. This can be seen in Philadelphia (1993) where many believe this to a patronising look at gay life and the yearning to be accepted as ‘normal’ in a heterosexual world. There are no outrageous scenes of affection between Hanks and his partner within in the film.

Queer identity can be related to many different people not just gay and lesbian individuals. The Western world may seem like a land of equality but to those in the minorities, it is not. Studies have shown it is suggested by traditional teachers and career advisors that schoolgirls go into ‘feminine’ jobs (Apter, 2000) while schoolboys are driven away from jobs seen as traditionally ‘female’ (Woodward, 2000). Men and women’s identities have changed however as equality for women in the workplace is fought more and more showing that females can be the ‘provider’ that men traditionally were. This leaves the men unsure of their identity in the world but through popular culture and mass media, they can be shown as well as women where they belong in contemporary life. So as society has become accepting of women in the workplace by it being reinforced by popular culture and mass media (but perhaps not by Disney films) that when non-heterosexual characters are introduced, tolerance towards them should improve? With Disney films, the morals and values are “chosen” so it can be said that capitalism will control how homosexuality is visualised and dealt with. Despite this limited perspective, society is becoming more accommodating of different sexualities although many non-heterosexuals are still facing prejudice and discrimination from older generations and others. America is slightly less open-minded than the UK as a survey by Gallup showed that although homosexuality is tolerated more as an acceptable lifestyle, 42 per cent of the people surveyed felt that homosexuality should be illegal. Contrasting against this is a poll from the same year showing that just 17% of people in England felt ‘less positive’ towards non-heterosexuals (MORI, 2001).

Heteronormativity can be defined as a set of ‘lifestyle rules’ to which society follows and falls into a specific gender with an outlook of a traditional role in life. Heteronormativity occurs in nearly every film in various ways. It can promote the message of men being the dominating person in a relationship with women following after them being housewives. However it is usually seen to promote that heterosexuality is the ‘normal’ sexual orientation and any kind of sexual relationships should only be between a man and a woman. Sometimes it is obvious and other times the viewer does not realise that the story they are watching is promoting heterosexuality and that this is the “ideal” (or assumed, expected, ordinary and privileged) sexuality. Viewers can recognise that films have hidden meaning and semes such as good vs. evil, rich vs. poor, children vs. adult’s etc. However it is the seme of heterosexuality vs. homosexuality, which is the problem with films pushing heteronormativity.

“Films that set up neat systems of good and evil – do’s and don’ts – are part of the pervasive simple-mindedness that posits heterosexuality and queerdom as irreconcilable opposites which cannot co-exist respectfully.”

Todd Hayward, “The Lyin’ King” Planet Homo 69 (21st Sept 1994, 17)

With heterosexuality being the assumed sexuality of society, this only reinforces discrimination and prejudice towards non-heterosexuals. The amount of different heterosexual storyline’s shown will increase the amount of heteronormativity within the media in general as generations are exposed to it. With heteronormativity shown in most popular culture, it also redefines how homosexuality is perceived. It can be compared to public vs. private, with heterosexuality being public and homosexuality being private therefore something to be hidden. Even before a viewer experiences heteronormativity in a film, the masculine/feminine definitions of gender are promoted first. From this, sexuality, pleasure and identity can then come forth as the storyline’s and characters develop, which leads to heteronormativity.

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Obviously it is easy to see that Disney films promote heteronormativity although many people believe Disney films to be sexually ‘free’, it can still be a non-sexual part of our lives. Disney films show the traditional domesticity of the roles of men and women against a credible heterosexual backdrop by replacing sex with romance and reinforcing the patriarchal family structure. This can be seen in Bambi (1942) as Bambi’s character is promoted as the ‘King of the Forest’ and will take over from his father. It also depicts his forsaking of his dependence on his mother as she is killed during the film. The very over-used storyline of the princess or girl being romanticised by the male character, which then leads to an eventual wedding, is predominant in many Disney films. A comparison of Disney films against other animated films from different companies made during 1990-2005, show that there is a much stronger hetero-romantic storyline in Disney films. Many Disney films have a reference to a hetero-romantic storyline, usually as the main plot but they also contain sexiness (Kazyak and Martin, 2009) as women’s bodies are portrayed as curvaceous with semi-revealing costumes. With these hetero-romantic storyline’s, heterosexuality is glamorised as being special and different from other kinds of relationships. It is shown to have the power to change the world (either by breaking a spell (Beauty and the Beast), belonging to the “ideal” world (The Little Mermaid), stopping a war (Pocahontas) or changing an old-fashioned law (Aladdin)). These storyline’s are usually only shown through kissing and no other sexually embodiment. This can reinforce the heteronormativity, as Conservatives believe that any two characters have to be heterosexual unless seen kissing someone of the same sex. For instance, there could be some homosexual affection between Aladdin and the Genie but viewers do not read into this friendship with this outlook. The friendships portrayed in Disney films do not reflect reality as it is unusual for a female character to have a same sex friendship with another character unless they of a maternal nature, whereas in reality, many young girls and women have a female best friend. For males they usually have a comical friend/sidekick which could be said to show reality slightly more. All of this can be shown that Disney endorses heterosexuality within the majority of their films and even tries to influence the thinking that being heterosexual is far more glamorous than being homosexual.

With this “educating” outlook, Disney actually took another step by creating military and educational films during the 1940’s. As the Second World War took its toll, Walt Disney knew his company was facing bankruptcy as the profits from Snow White were transferred into the productions for Pinocchio and Fantasia but these did not reach the same high profits. With a strike by animators also, productions were delayed for months. Disney knew he had to keep his company going and believed that his animation films could be used to help the war effort through education and propaganda. Military training films were churned out at an amazing rate and low budgets. The films used the, by now, well-known characters and newly designed mascots to keep the soldiers morale’s high. Soon they were being made to also keep the spirits high of American’s at home, while their loved ones went overseas to fight. With these films, the federal government and Disney were forming a strong relationship, as the studios were used by army personnel and kept afloat for the duration of the war. The federal government even made it possible for Disney to obtain the chemicals needed to make the films despite its requirement for the making of weapons. The films were hugely popular as they used the traditional animation and moral-driven narrative used for the previous Disney films and this suited the government’s needs. Many cartoons started to take on a wartime theme to entertain but also to educate. “Disney’s public health and education films were, in part, attempts to provide models for domestic life” (Cartwright and Goldfarb (1994), 175). Within these educational films, there was the notion that hard work combats illness whereas laziness breeds disease. So as well as supporting heteronormativity within their films, Disney had started to educate not just America but the world, in their ideals. Being practically “sponsored” by the federal government, the issue was then whose ideals were being portrayed – America’s or what the government wants its country to represent?

Even within their films for children, Disney started to become an influential power over everyone who watched their films. Subliminal messaging started to occur in its short films as a humorous way for the animators to disrespect Disney as he refused to share creative credit. However, some of Disney’s films from the 1990’s started to have questionable sexual subliminal messaging. Some instances of these hidden messages are an erect penis on the cover of The Little Mermaid video as well as an erection in the film (which was actually the character’s knee). Others saw the word “sex” depicted in The Lion King (it says SFX as a credit to the special effects team) whilst others heard someone whispering “All good teenagers, take off your clothes” in Aladdin. And finally it was thought you could see that Jessica Rabbit wasn’t wearing any underwear in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? These supposed messages could be seen as “queer” readings (not in the non-heterosexual meaning but in the non-standard meaning) as people started to think of Disney as a lewd company with a “gay agenda”. However these messages are focussed on sex not sexual orientation and really do rely on the viewer knowing to listen or look for them. But when a child likes a film, many will watch it over and over again. And through this repeated viewing, children can begin to understand more and perhaps the innuendoes that were meant only for adults. This is particularly so as it is becoming almost impossible to avoid popular culture and advertising which can broaden a child’s mind prematurely. A survey in 2006 of 1,300 UK families showed that seven in 10 children now have their own television in their bedrooms, with more than half of these also owning a DVD player. Similarly, a survey in America released in November 1999 showed that 88% of all US households have two or more televisions, 60 % have three or more and 53% of all children have a television in their bedrooms. With all this access to popular culture, children are growing up with the media’s point of view on situations and relationships. With Disney such a presence in children’s lives also, once again whose morals are they growing up with?


Disney film’s can be a used a form of escapism, not just for children but also for adults. Despite whether its supporting heteronormativity or Americanism, their storyline’s often show that a good life is possible despite misfortune and difficulty. Even the homosexual culture has adopted this chance of escapism


However as the 20th Century progressed, as did the heads of the company. With the passing away of Walt and then his brother Roy Disney, Michael Eisner took charge during the mid 1970’s and started to change a few things about the company. Miramax films were brought under the Disney umbrella, which allowed an outlet for (more profitable) R and X-rated films (15 and 18 under the BBFC). This started to threaten the “Disney ideals” that had been so strongly portrayed in many of its films. Right wing Christian fundamentalists felt it was a betrayal of their trust in a company they had believed in for so long. Various organisations (the American Family Association, the Family Research Council and Morality in Media for example) started to boycott Disney as they thought that the company


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