But Ashman’s story also offers an example of how the substance of Disney’s films reflect an interest in LGBT peoples’ struggles. Ashman worked on Beauty and the Beast while suffering through the worst (and final) phases of his illness, and composer Alan Menken called the film Ashman’s “personal story.” The result is a movie that can be viewed as an allegory: Shunned from society, his body hideously transformed, and his life wilting away like the enchanted rose, the Beast is a figure of degenerative disease. Belle’s love and the ultimate breaking of the curse is the fantasy cure that Ashman was denied.
But even without Ashman’s involvement, queer kids could identify with Disney protagonists, who are usually outcasts set apart from society by some innate desire (usually indicated by an “I want” song that details whatever dream that particular character is pining to attain). Ariel (The Little Mermaid) wanted to be part of another world, the townspeople think Belle (Beauty and the Beast) is “a funny girl … different from the rest of us” and Pocahontas (Pocahontas) does not want to be steady as the beating drum. This marks the Disney protagonist as odd, unusual, queer.
Even classic Disney films featured these archetypes. Initially mocked by his peers, Dumbo (Dumbo) “comes out” and waves his freak flag after hallucinating pink elephants and learning to fly. Pinocchio (Pinocchio) reflects queer anxiety since he doesn’t know how to act like “a real boy,” and he thinks performing masculinity through smoking, cursing, and misbehaving will earn his father’s love.
Then there’s the fact that Disney protagonists often reject traditional marriage partners. Ariel wants to marry a human against her father’s wishes, Belle rejects Gaston’s proposal in front of the whole town, Jasmine refuses to marry the sultan’s suitors, Pocahontas refuses to marry a tribal warrior, and Mulan rejects conventional matchmaking. In this way, even though Disney films usually offer a traditional happy ending with a heterosexual marriage, the journey always involves rejecting parental and societal expectations, and exercising a “freedom to marry whomever you love” spirit that is endemic to gay rights.
Indeed, many Disney romances are examples of “impossible desire,” a trope that is crucial to the queer experience, as gender-studies theorist Heather Love argued in Feeling Backward. It was impossible for Ariel to be with Eric unless she became human, or for Belle to be with the Beast unless he became human, or for Aladdin to be with Jasmine unless he became a prince, or for Pocahontas to be with John Smith unless she left her people.
In the seminal Gender Trouble, Judith Butler pointed out how gender was in part performance-based, a fact that Disney has often depicted with cross-dressing and gender subversion. The company’s animators cite the drag performer Divine as the inspiration for Ursula in The Little Mermaid. Just as Divine was cast in Pink Flamingos because “society saw [drag characters] as perverts so they decided to revel in their status,” so too Ursula is marked a pervert by introducing sex to a children’s animated film. She encourages Ariel to use her body to lure the prince, and her magic not only gives the mermaid legs but also (presumably) a sexual organ, as Ariel emerges from the sea completely naked and must be covered up.