The culture warriors have decided: Disney’s Frozen is queer. Elsa hiding her ice-powers could be read as a metaphor for the closet, the Oscar-winning “Let it Go” plays like a coming-out anthem, and a character in the film evokes the question of whether homosexuality is a choice by inquiring of Elsa’s powers, “born with it or cursed?” Some liberals have praised the film for its subtext; some conservatives have denounced it.
But the most remarkable thing about queer readings of the film may be how unremarkable they really are. Through both its corporate practices and the content of its films, Disney for decades has implemented the so-called "gay agenda"—which is to say, helping make the world a more accepting place.
To start in the most obvious place: As a business, Disney has long held a progressive attitude toward LGBT people. Gay pride events have been hosted at Disney World since 1991, and the company started offered its gay employees health insurance benefits for their partners since 1995, a decision that wasn’t entirely popular back then.
One of the most poignant examples of the company’s tolerant atmosphere is the case of lyricist Howard Ashman, who was openly gay and died of AIDS in 1991. Not only did Ashman write songs for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, he was also closely involved in those films’ productions, casting actors and holding story meetings with animators. At the end of Beauty and the Beast, Disney acknowledged his contributions with this tribute: “To our friend Howard Ashman who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.”
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.
In another instance of gender bending, the Genie in Aladdin shapeshifts into many characters, including female ones, and even dons feminine clothes and underwear at different points in the film. Indeed, Aladdin’s romance with Jasmine is much less developed than his friendship with the genie, and his decision to free the genie provides the movie’s poignant climax. Robin Williams's character even acknowledges the queer undercurrent: “I’m getting kinda fond of you kid … not that I want to pick out curtains or anything.”
Another obvious example: Mulan, where the protagonist disguises herself as a male soldier. When the soldiers later dress themselves as courtesans so they can sneak into the palace, the film completes its theme of gender as performance, with women pretending to be men and men pretending to be women. Mulan’s “I Want” song also plays like an anthem for kids born into the wrong gendered body—“When will my reflection show who I am inside?”—and intriguingly, the film insinuates that her male captain fell in love with her while she was masquerading as a man.
More subtly, Disney protagonists often mature in ways that evoke the queer experience. In The Queer Child Kathryn Bond Stockton argues that queerness is not just about homosexuality, but also about growing in abnormal ways that makes the child an outcast. First there is “growing sideways”—children who in physical ways signify that they're different—which Disney has depicted through Pinocchio’s nose, Dumbo’s ears, and Rapunzel’s hair. Secondly there is “delayed growth” as seen in Peter Pan and The Jungle Book where Peter and Mowgli want to remain in Neverland and the jungle respectively so they won’t grow up. Similarly, the enchanted objects in Beauty and the Beast cannot grow until the spell is broken and they become human again, and Quasimodo and Rapunzel have been locked away in towers all their lives, precluding adult socialization. Thirdly, there is “growth by animals” where pets reflect the inner lives of their queer masters. Certainly this last conceit is all over the Disney canon, where aside from the obvious anthropomorphism of films like Bambi or The Lion King, there are also lots of animal sidekicks reflecting the emotions of their masters in films about human protagonists. Jiminy Cricket represents Pinocchio’s conscience, Ariel’s pet fish reflects her joy or sorrow, and even villains get their own vicarious pets, like Iago parroting Jafar’s evil.
Thus, Disney films have been both traditional and subversive, serving wholesome princess stories to a largely hetero-normative global audience while also subtly appealing to queer children. You don't need to be up on your queer theory or buy into the “It Gets Better” campaign to understand why any of this matters. Through conventional happy endings for outcasts and oddballs, Disney films let every child know that it’s ok to be different.