On The Rift OutRight Debates - Should There Be More LGBT Characters in Disney Animated Films?

Jessica Stern, OutRight's Executive Director, writes to response to "Should There Be More LGBT Characters in Disney Animated Films?"

Disney’s animated films are a staple of growing up for kids around the world. They are a source of entertainment, but also a source of life lessons – the storylines inform children and shape their understanding of the world.

Consequently, the responsibility placed on the makers of Disney films is all the greater. And it is a responsibility that Disney has increasingly embraced. Gone are the days of Snow White waiting for the Prince to rescue her – recent films have featured empowered female characters and tackled topics around race and mental health.

Including more LGBTIQ characters would simply represent reality

Disney has also improved representation of the diversity which exists in real life. Increasingly characters come from all walks of life, they are no longer represented in unrealistic body shapes, they are of different races and nationalities.

Yet lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) characters and storylines have, thus far, remained absent. This should change.

Due to the stigmatization LGBTIQ face, many keep their identity concealed, so knowing what proportion of society LGBTIQ people constitute is impossible. It is also irrelevant. LGBTIQ people have always existed, exist today, and will continue to exist across the world. Currently, this existence is entirely overlooked in an important form of popular culture. Including more LGBTIQ characters would simply represent reality.

Beyond representation of existing diversity, one cannot deny the educational power of animated films. “Moana” encourages girls to embrace the strength and believe in themselves, “Zootopia” tackles topics of race relations, while “Frozen” embraces individuality and difference. Similarly, featuring LGBTIQ characters and storylines would encourage acceptance and tolerance, and inspire LGBTIQ youth to follow their dreams.

One cannot deny the educational power of animated films

Visibility is incredibly important. Representing LGBTIQ people in popular culture normalizes queer identities, and provides a frame of reference. Bullying of LGBTIQ youth is a problem across the world precisely because the only frame of reference is a heteronormative cis-gender one, leaving a vacuum in knowledge and understanding which can lead to violent rejection and exclusion. Being introduced to LGBTIQ characters from an early age will result in children not being surprised or scared when they meet LGBTIQ people in real life; and may even counter prejudice promoted by others.

Further to fostering awareness and tolerance among the wider society, representation of LGBTIQ characters can be a crucial lifeline for children who are LGBTIQ. Not fitting the dominant norms can be hard at any time in one’s life, but it is especially hard for young people. It is no wonder that rates of LGBTIQ youth suicides are disproportionately high. Having LGBTIQ characters to relate to in animated films would LGBTIQ kids that being LGBTIQ is ok, reassure them that they are not alone, and empower them to embrace these elements of their identity.

However, the above is only true if done responsibly. LGBTIQ characters should not be the subjects of ridicule or the dominant villain. Gender identity and sexual orientation should not be conflated, nor should harmful myths be perpetuated. Moreover, being LGBTIQ is only one element of a person’s identity – this should also be reflected in animated films.

If Disney steps up responsible representation of LGBTIQ people in its animated films, as it has done with empowering female characters and tackling important questions or race, cultural diversity and mental health, I have no doubt that acceptance of LGBTIQ people will grow immeasurably!

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