Over the past few years, Disney has made strides in introducing audiences to more diverse characters, like Moana. Pixar took audiences to the Land of the Dead in “Coco.” And we saw the first lead Asian American character in the “Star Wars” universe.
However, its diversity efforts have yet to include the queer community. That may be addressed in the studio’s upcoming movie based on the popular theme park attraction, Jungle Cruise. However, recent news about the appearance of first “openly gay” Disney character in the movie is cause for concern for some in the LGBTQ community.
British comedian Jack Whitehall has been announced as the new co-star opposite Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt. The Sun reported that Whitehall’s character will be “hugely effete, very camp and very funny.”
The news did not go over well on social media.
It was only in July that Scarlett Johansson stepped down from a project because she had been cast as a transgender man, perpetuating unfavorable stereotypes about the trans community. With the number of real-life issues facing the trans community like misgendering and prejudice, representation in media is a crucial way to dispel false narratives about the LGBTQ community.
Many LGBTQ actors are never considered for straight roles, which means the industry is systemically brushing LGBTQ actors aside for the sake of a bigger name star, in the case of Johansson, or for a new straight face like Whitehall. Queer actors are pigeonholed so that they’re not in consideration for straight parts, but the same does not apply to straight actors, who enjoy various degrees of heteronormative privilege in Hollywood.
Historically speaking, Disney has not had the best record of positive LGBTQ characters. In 2017, there was one ill-advised push behind the character of Le Four (played by Josh Gad) in the live-action adaptation of “The Beauty and the Beast.” The film’s director Bill Condon hinted that the character was gay, and that he both wanted to emulate his hero, Gaston, and to be with him. In the end, Le Fou’s big gay moment was talked about longer than the sequence itself. There’s also some debate as to whether or not that means that Disney already had its first openly gay character.
That’s not to say that gay characters don’t exist in Disney film canon. Queer-coded characters are often the villains opposite the very heteronormative couple, essentially equating gay characteristics as nefarious traits. Think of Captain Hook in “Peter Pan” or Governor Ratcliffe in “Pocahontas,” who are not only wicked but fabulously dressed at sea or in the wilderness. Scar’s effeminate demeanor is the polar opposite of Simba and Mufasa’s masculine presence. Ursula in “The Little Mermaid” was based on the drag queen Divine. King Candy in “Wreck-It Ralph” has a strong lisp that’s first meant to signify his silliness before it turns sinister.
The list goes on, but if the studio is making the choice to make him the company’s first openly gay character, hopefully he won’t won’t fall into the sissy villain trope. According to their source, The Sun reported that the script is set in a time when being gay wasn’t socially acceptable. Will that make homophobes the butt of the jokes or are we supposed to laugh at Whitehall’s exaggerated mannerisms? We’ll have to wait and see, but for now, there are some uneasy waters ahead for “The Jungle Cruise.”