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Is Disney Merely Dipping Its Toes Into a (Queer) 'Strange World' (2022)?

SPOILER WARNING for Disney's 'Strange World' (2022), 'Luca' (2021), and Raya and the Last Dragon (2021).

Disney LGBT queer

Have you heard about the film Strange World (2022)? Honestly, I hadn't until recently. No posters nor trailers. I merely stumbled upon the hidden gem on Disney+.


I say hidden gem, because among the mine of Disney+, this film secretly dazzles with the colours of a thousand rainbows...

See, Strange World (2022) is unique and ground-breaking to all other Disney movies, because it is the first Disney movie to feature a gay character!

... Except it isn't. First it was Oaken from Frozen (2013), then it was Lefou in the live-action Beauty and the Beast (2017), and the list goes on. I'm not even STARTING on the plethora of LGBT+ characters in the Disney TV series.

Now what does indeed make this film different is that it features, Ethan, the first openly gay adolescent protagonist in a Disney movie. This is significant because, up until now, every LGBT+ character in Disney movies had been strictly an adult, which erases the visibility of LGBT+ teens.

And it's not like Disney teen protagonists haven't addressed their sexuality before. All the princesses are fawning, googly-eyed, over the princes, and vice versa. Even Snow White, at 14 years old, is (questionably) kissed by The Prince.


The thing is, I know Disney to have been formative to many people (including LGBT+), and their sexualities even. Yes, I am talking about Nala's "come hither" eyes bringing many furries out of the closet.

LGBT+ people have also been included in Disney since forever. Villains in earlier Disney days have tended to be queer-coded (think Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989) who likely takes on heavy inspiration from Divine the drag queen). To boot, I know many LGBT+ people who have resonated more with the Disney villains than the heroes.

But now, I think, we want to also feel the same relatability in our heroes. Like all nostalgic kids born in the 80's and 90's, we wish to see ourselves on the screen because, yes, representation matters.


Why was Strange World (2022) lukewarm in its LGBT+ commentary?


The film had some positive moments in its handling of LGBT+ issues, but these were tempered by other aspects...

 

Ethan has a same-sex love interest, Diazo, and they share a happy ending where they both get together without any drama! HOORAY!


... But Diazo isn't seen at all between the very beginning and end, and we don’t witness their relationship developing. Oh...

You can say, well it's an understated part of the film because being gay is only a part of Ethan’s identity and a part of the movie. The film just needs to say, I'm here and I'm queer, and that's enough. But come on, The Mitchells VS. the Machines (2021) did a much better job at the subtlety in confirming the protagonist Katie's lesbian identity through her crush on her college friend.

 

The film was so revolutionary, Disney was willing to stick by the film even through its ban in numerous countries spanning across the Middle East to many African and Asian countries! YAY!


... Yet, Disney's lack of marketing and strange silence about the film runs suspicious and suggests Disney wants to sweep the film under the rug to please their conservative audiences. Hmm...

 

The film accepts and depicts queerness as very natural. It doesn't dwell on the topic or overplay it, and Ethan's family are immediately accepting of his sexuality. Refreshing!


... However, there are so many other themes being explored that the LGBT+ theme gets lost in the sauce. This also ignores the whole truth that LGBT+ people also face adversity, hate/intolerance, and socio-political systems that have (historically and presently) unfairly targeted the LGBT+ community. Oh boy...

Furthermore, we don't see anything past them flirting, nuzzling and half-hugging. Not that we need a kiss per se, and I think lately Disney is veering away from 'the kiss', but after 61 films that depict heterosexual relationships, one little same-sex kiss wouldn't cost a thing and would demonstrate great bravery!


Luca (2021), Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), and Disney's Frequent Queerbaiting


Yet, this is at least an improvement to other movies Disney have recently released that have been criticised for queerbaiting, namely Luca (2021) and Raya and the Last Dragon (2021).

Queerbaiting refers to presenting your characters as potentially LGBT+ to draw in LGBT+ audiences, whilst remaining the character's sexuality ambiguous and 'up for interpretation'.


Luca (2021) focuses on the friendship between two sea-monster boys. Luca and Alberto watch the sunset together with arms around each other, have a running-after-the-train-to-say-goodbye cliché, and encourage two older ladies (who are always seen together) to 'come out'... as ‘sea-monsters’... sure...


Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) also suggests the protagonist, Raya, and the antagonist, Namaari, are attracted to each other, as they tease or flirt with each other subtly. Namaari is queer-coded in her muscular build and undercut hair (the stereotype of the 'butch' lesbian), and Raya’s voice actress claimed to have played her as queer.


BUT...

Neither friendships blossom into anything openly deeper, and neither directors confirm LGBT+ possibilities- in fact, the director of Luca (2021) vehemently rejected these notions, claiming they’re just ‘good friends’.

And sure, Luca and Alberto’s relationship could be read as friendship only, but it is telling that the sunset hugging that made people speculative of Luca and Alberto's sexuality is the same gesture that confirms Ethan and Diazo's relationship in Strange World (2022).

Conclusion: Stepping Solidly Into a New, 'Strange' World

Ultimately, it’s obvious having an openly gay main character in a Disney film is, no doubt, an extremely positive thing given Disney's LGBT+ history and the need for representation. However, Strange World (2022) has commitment problems in offering a wholehearted, genuine LGBT+ representation as there are other themes in the movie that end up taking precedence. For Disney going forward, they need to assure they are not queerbaiting, set attainable, nuanced plot goals, and not be so afraid of alienating their conservative audience. Only then can they truly relate to and step solidly into our contemporary ‘strange’ world.

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