Mickey Mouse painting rainbow head
Priya Ganji/Daily

For decades, Disney has prided itself on creating magic. Disney’s products are designed to add some magic to life, to create an escape from the greater problems of the world. But all of that work promoting itself as a source of joy and happily-ever-after sometimes seems like a shiny coat of paint over a cluster of wider issues. The truth is, when you wish upon Disney’s star … well, it might make a difference who you are.

In the grand scheme of things, the umbrella of Disney companies occupies an incredible amount of cultural space. Despite being technically intended for kids, Disney’s movies, media and theme parks have an outsized effect on adults. Such an audience gives Disney influence and relevance not afforded to most companies.

As a result, one of the strongest traits at the heart of Disney’s business model is that they try to please everyone. Find themselves with a controversial installment in a beloved franchise? Use the next movie to walk everything back. Release a movie that represents Pixar’s first box office failure? Stick to sequels based on existing IP. Get complaints about the homogenous nature of stories told in Disney films? Branch out to different media. 

Over the past decade or so, Disney has leaned into a push for diversity in media, both in terms of characters and the creators who bring them to life. But one area where Disney has been increasingly hesitant is the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters, and its stance on LGBTQ+ rights. In recent months, this hesitancy has unfolded dramatically in relation to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida. After initially not making a statement against the bill, numerous outraged employees spoke out on social media; Disney later apologized to employees and made an open statement of opposition that caused Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to take away tax-related autonomy that was previously awarded to Disney’s Orlando-based theme parks and resorts. 

Disney’s timidness about its support of the LGBTQ+ community is nothing new. For years, Disney has walked the line about Queer characters, trying to include characters that they can peddle as gay while also minimizing their presence to avoid enraging conservative Americans. Disney’s strategy, up until now, has been trying to appease both sides; the result, however, is that neither side is satisfied.

Over the past few years, Disney and its subsidiaries have made several half-hearted attempts at LGBTQ+ representation in films and TV shows (although Disney has a long-running habit of queer-coding characters). In 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast” live-action remake, Le Fou is canonically gay because of a brief dance between him and Gaston. “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker” features a brief kiss between two women. “Avengers: Endgame” shows a male character casually mentioning going on a date with a man. In “Onward,” a police officer briefly mentions her girlfriend. Most recently, a brief kiss between two married women in “Lightyear” received a lot of press — initially because of its removal and subsequent return, but more so now because of the countries that have banned the film’s release because of it.

The connecting word here? “Brief.” All of these “representations” of LGBTQ+ characters were less than 10 seconds.

These attempts to add Queer characters to the canon feel hollow because they are. Being inclusive and open-minded is trendy for businesses. Checking boxes — a gay character here, a person of Color there, a disabled character somewhere in there — is a business strategy designed to prove a kind of inclusivity that is becoming more prevalent in the U.S.

The reality of an issue-conscious economy is what leads to a phenomenon called rainbow washing. Rainbow washing is when a business shows public support for the LGBTQ+ community without putting in any actual work towards empowering queer folks. It’s associated with empty gestures like changing logos for pride month (which are then routinely changed back on July 1) that create a front-facing show of support without addressing the culture within their company — or, more often than not, without acknowledging donations to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians. It’s hypocritical but tactical; this way, if companies are accused of being bigoted or homophobic, they can point to their rainbow logo and tell conscientious consumers, “No … see?”

In the case of Disney, selling pride merchandise and changing their logo and social media scheme during Pride Month is only part of their rainbow-friendly strategy; the same mentality behind rainbow-washing is what leads to the incremental inclusion of Queer characters. Each of these moments, despite feeling like the bare minimum, is then touted as momentous by directors and executives and conflated into a significance that feels difficult (if not impossible) to achieve in the span of a few seconds. Showing small, ephemeral exchanges of affection between gay characters is a welcome step, but categorizing it as a “milestone” feels disingenuous; more often than not, it’s marketing.

For many members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies, it’s frustrating to watch blink-and-you’ll-miss-it indications of queer characters in Disney films be lavishly praised by the filmmakers themselves, who love dropping the word “representation.” For the “Rise of Skywalker” kiss, director J.J. Abrams talked up the significance of the “representation” it provided; for the (unnamed) gay character in “Avengers: Endgame,” the Russo brothers praised this “representation” as an important step in Marvel “becoming incredibly diverse” (made stranger by the fact that the role was a cameo by Joe Russo himself). As Justin Kirkland wrote in Esquire back in 2019 regarding the gay “Avengers” character: “If anything, stashing a gay man in the narrative so that Captain America can pat him on the head and tell him how brave he is only reinforcing the idea that (LGBTQ+) people should feel lucky to be included at all.”

In a recent interview with The Independent, actor Josh Gad, who played Le Fou in the 2017 “Beauty and the Beast,” shared candid thoughts about the way that the director advertised a significant “gay moment” — a fleeting glimpse of Le Fou dancing with Gaston. Gad stated that if those involved in the publicity were “going to pat ourselves on the back,” then the so-called representation should have been more substantial. “We didn’t go far enough to warrant accolades. We didn’t go far enough to say, ‘Look how brave we are,’” Gad said.

Disney might think that these moments are brave because they’re always thinking of the economic fallout. The international response to “Lightyear,” for example, has been less than ideal, but it won’t be economically fatal. The Disney vs. “Don’t Say Gay” situation led to disparaging remarks from conservatives about “woke” Disney, and the aforementioned tax repercussions from that. This perceived politicized version of Disney has been flinging at Disney parks for a while: One Disney fan and guest columnist received backlash for complaining that “Disney cares more about politics than happy guests.” The frustration, it seems, is that Disney is letting politics get in the way of the magic.

The problem is that the reverse is also true: Disney is often trying to sweep anything overtly Queer under the rug. Moments referring to sexuality are often cut from Disney films. Even though there are some openly gay characters, their sexuality isn’t always put in the spotlight of their character. Many films and TV shows under the Disney umbrella that revolve around Queer storylines are relegated to non-Disney+ streaming services like Hulu, citing “mature content” (although the return of “Love, Victor” to Disney+ after two seasons on Hulu is an intriguing pivot). The result is a Disney+ Pride Collection that is disappointingly empty. It’s never a great sign if one of your top LGBTQ+ titles is “Glee” (which is hardly a shining example of representation).

As pride month ends, it’s important that Disney starts to think about where it stands. They’ve gone years keeping the bar low in the hopes of not rocking the boat, but the passive plan has stagnated. Conservatives are going to keep complaining about “woke Disney;” liberals are going to keep complaining that Disney isn’t doing enough. Changing your logo doesn’t change your politics; calling moments of representation “significant” doesn’t make it true. Pandering to both sides of the debate around LGBTQ+ existence means that, in the end, there are no winners. Whether they like it or not, Disney’s decisions make an impact on the socio-political space and American culture as a whole. It’s time they realize it and stop trying to walk the line.

Statement Correspondent Kari Anderson can be reached at kariand@umich.edu.