In this final part we look at the House of Mouse’s long, problematic road to good representation in its shows, and how TV animation like the Owl House is now setting an example for Disney’s big screen projects to follow.
The Owl House, Gravity Falls, Star VS The Forces of Evil and Ducktales
Disney may claim to be the Happiest Place on Earth, but the Straightest Place on Earth is more accurate. Their track record with LGBTQ representation basically amounts to a slew of queer-coded villains. Recent attempts- see Beauty and the Beast, The Rise of Skywalker, Avengers: Endgame, and Pixar’s Onward – were used to generate headlines while proving functionally non-existent to make overseas censorship easier (hello again, queerbaiting). The pattern continues with the (very straight, very camp) Jack Whitehall’s casting in the upcoming Jungle Cruise.
Ideally soon there won’t be a headline every time a cartoon adds even a background LGBTQ+ character, because it will just be normal
In fact, Gravity Falls (2012-2016) creator Alex Hirsch has gone on record about the pushback he received making 2014 episode ‘The Love God’. The episode featured their take on Cupid doing what Cupid does and making people fall in love, including a pair of older women – until Disney found out and told Hirsch it wasn’t appropriate. When Hirsch argued things escalated; if he didn’t cut the lesbians, Disney would cut the whole episode.
(Bear in mind that ‘The Love God’ came from the same season where Disney let Hirsch include shots of blood running from animals’ eyes. The double standard here is staggering).
By Gravity Falls’ finale things had improved a little, and Disney let Hirsch canonise that comic relief characters Sherriff Blubs and Deputy Durland were in love. This may have been because Gravity Falls was by then Disney’s flagship show, but it also speaks to a wider pattern: Rebecca Sugar has said one of the reasons it was difficult to tell the queer stories she wanted to in Steven Universe was because she didn’t play them for laughs – executives only seem comfortable representing homosexuality as the butt of the joke.
Hirsch told Entertainment Weekly his crew debated whether “the benefit of allowing these characters to be gay outweighs the potential drawbacks of them not necessarily being the best possible characters for that representation” before deciding to go ahead.
In recent years Disney has improved somewhat, allowing a same-sex background kiss in Star Vs the Forces of Evil (2015-2019) (that this was a big deal is pretty tragic). SVTFOE’s final season later revealed that secondary love interest Jackie Lynn Thomas was bi, giving her a black girlfriend after she broke up with main character Marco. (Marco, with his love of makeup and crossdressing, also carries on the Steven Universe tradition of defying traditional masculinity).
All this led up to The Owl House (2020-), which follows hardcore fantasy nerd Luz Noceda as she stumbles into the demon realm and is taken under the wing of Eda the Owl Lady, public enemy number one and self-proclaimed most powerful witch on the Boiling Isles. Now, instead of attending Reality Check Summer Camp like her mother believes, Luz spends her time training to be a witch under Eda and getting into demonic misadventures with her new friends.
Its LGBTQ+ representation stands out from its predecessors in a few ways, and its creation can be seen as a culmination of the positive movement that’s been building over the last decade
ToH has quite the pedigree from shows already covered here. Created by Gravity Falls and Ducktales (2017) alum Dana Terrace, The Owl House crew includes former Star Vs the Forces of Evil writer and wife of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (see part 4) creator Noelle Stevenson, Molly Ostertag, and head background designer Steven Sugar, brother of Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar and the inspiration for the titular Steven.
The Owl House is my definition of comfort TV, funny and sweet and ever so slightly macabre. It also has a bi lead (Luz) with a lesbian love interest, Amity Blight. Its LGBTQ+ representation stands out from its predecessors in a few ways, and its creation can be seen as a culmination of the positive movement that’s been building over the last decade.
First of all, this isn’t the tokenism of Disney big-screen ‘efforts’; like Catradora, Luz and Amity’s relationship is built into their character arcs without overshadowing the plot – Amity is arguably the show’s most complex character.
The second, and biggest, difference between ToH and its predecessors is in how it treats its representation so normally. Instead of being crammed into the finale or final season, ToH confirmed its LGBTQ+ subplot midway through its first season, following patterns laid out by the straight romances in Avatar the Last Airbender or SVTFOE. Co-star Wendie Malick found out Luz was bisexual reading a season 2 script, suggesting that like Benson before her, Luz’s sexuality will be addressed head-on.
Make no mistake, Disney isn’t doing this purely out of the kindness of their hearts. They’re willing to put their toe in the water now because they want their share of the positive press that Steven Universe and She-Ra garnered
Things are different behind the scenes too: Instead of keeping it a secret, Terrace said she was very open about her intentions and, after initial refusal, her stubbornness was eventually supported by new management at the network – Alex Hirsch (who voices the demon King on the show) congratulated Disney’s growth. Both Rebecca Sugar and Noel Stevenson have discussed how support for representation in kids’ animation has slowly grown, particularly as the number of queer executives does too.
Make no mistake, Disney isn’t doing this purely out of the kindness of their hearts. They’re willing to put their toe in the water now because they want their share of the positive press that Steven Universe and She-Ra garnered. While they pepper background representation into other shows like STVFOE and Ducktales, The Owl House acts as Disney’s ‘flagship’ queer show, targeting the same audience that SU and SPoP proved is profitable.
And yes, One Million Moms has already petitioned to get the show cancelled twice, (once for “spiritually demonic” content, and a second time for the LGBTQ+ stuff) but never fear, because the show was renewed for a second season before season one even premiered.
Overall, through secrecy and sacrifice, there’s been massive improvement in LGBTQ+ visibility in Western children’s animation in the major studios, evolving from ‘queerbaiting is the most the studio would allow’ with The Legend of Korra, to ‘I had to sacrifice my story to pave the way for others’ with Steven Universe, to ‘we’re developing our own subgenre of queer-themed cartoons’ with She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, right on to ‘this is just like any other romance’ with The Owl House.
Things are not perfect. While there’s been an explosion of sapphic/wlw lead characters from Korra to the Crystal Gems to Adora to Luz, mlm/male homosexual rep is still often relegated to characters’ parents (Clyde’s dads from The Loud House, Bow’s dads from SPOP, Violet’s dads from Ducktales 2017) Ducktales story editor Francisco Angones is “well aware that the ‘queer representation through parents and background characters’ trope is an issue,” but steps are being made.
The most important thing is for the industry to not rest on its laurels. Though we may never reach a point when One Million Moms and their ilk stop petitioning to cancel every piece of children’s entertainment that acknowledges queer people exist, ideally soon there won’t be a headline every time a cartoon adds even a background LGBTQ+ character, because it will just be normal.
Featured Image courtesy of Glenn Haertlein via Unsplash.
Videos courtesy of Disney Channel via YouTube.
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