Disney has a gay problem. A subtle gay problem, but nonetheless a gay problem. Princess films are saturated with it, understated narratives of ‘correct’ heterosexuality woven throughout the tales. There is no actual denouncing of gay figures or hate crimes towards them (Snow White doesn’t start hollering homophobic slurs at the Seven Dwarves, for instance), but heteronormativity is masked under a pedagogy of ‘innocence’. Heterosexuality is depicted as ‘natural’ and perfect, whilst homosexuality is something humorous.
The feeling of naturalness is created with the linking of heterosexuality and the natural world. Snow White is singing with the birds when she first meets the Prince, Belle and the Beast are frolicking in the snow and the Beast is feeding birds when she begins to fall in love with him in Beauty and the Beast, and the entire setting of Pocahontas is in the trees and water of the forest. In Beauty and the Beast, Mrs Pots the teapot says of Belle and Beast “[if] there’s a spark there, [we must] let nature take it’s course”. There’s the underlying idea that a male and a female must be attracted to each other, and they must be compatible. It’s just… nature.
There’s another word here that is interesting, however. The ‘spark’, which refers to something explosive and exciting. This ‘spark’ is often depicted through fireworks exploding as the two characters kiss, such as the cumulative scene of Beauty and the Beast. To match the handily-placed explosive devices, the first kiss between the male and female often ends with a massive, life-changing transformation. Snow White is actually awoken from the dead by the Prince’s kiss (now that’s a good kisser, Cosmopolitan magazine), the Beast is transformed back into a Prince when he kisses Belle, and Ursula’s spell is broken when the Prince realises Ariel is his soulmate in The Little Mermaid.
Heterosexual love conquers all: nothing else matters when the Prince comes trotting along on his (white) horse. Snow White, Belle and Ariel all defy their parents in their quest for true love, Pocahontas defies the social rules of her culture, and Mulan marches (illogically) back into war. Heterosexual love is so powerful here, so all-consuming, it is outside of any social forces. It is disorderly, insuppressible, and magisterial, and must be allowed to ‘take it’s course’.
There are contradictions here. Heterosexual love is somehow both natural and magical, commonplace and special. The effect is heterosexual love is constructed as hegemonic and inspiring: it is the ‘normal’ thing to do and it is also the ‘appealing’ thing to do, making other choices hard to make.
Kisses between cross-gender characters are the pinnacle of the films, and are often transformative. In Beauty and the Beast, when Beauty and Beast kiss, the entire kingdom is transformed from winter to springtime, with flowers blossoming and grass sprouting. This is in direct contrast to the depiction of two male characters kissing. In the same film, Beasts’ servant Luminere (the candlestick) kisses Cogworth (the clock) to thank him for saving him. This scene is meant to be humorous, with the usually stoic Cogsworth looking embarrassed at Luminere’s display of affection. This humorous depiction of homosexuals is present in many of the films. Although not outwardly gay, an extremely effeminate soldier, Chien-Po, is the comic relief in Mulan. He is excessively tall, loves food and is quite accident-prone. Similarly, Governor Ratcliff in Pocahontas is portrayed as overly emotional, sensitive, and is often ridiculed and belittled by other men who are displaying ‘appropriate’ masculinity in the film. Furthermore, this character is stereotypically gay: he is a hairdresser and constantly grooms his dog and himself.
And these aren’t even actual gay characters, they just have the possibility of being so. For the most part, gay characters are woefully absent. Even the Seven Dwarves, who live together in the woods and share one bedroom, are coded as explicitly heterosexual through their attraction to Snow White. There is also a total and noticeable absence of any sort of gay female within the films- indicative of the patriarchal nature of the films where a ‘masculine female’ is disregarded because of the privileging of ‘girlie-girl’ versions of femininity.
So homosexuality is both marginalised and mocked, which only works to enhance the undertone of heteronormativity. If heterosexual marriage is such an amazing, explosive, life-transforming event, why wouldn’t little girls aspire to it? And how does this make other girls- who might not find that idea appealing, and might not actually fancy the Prince- feel? They’ve been exempt from the fairytale, it’s not for them. Their choice of lifestyle doesn’t come with a ticket for ‘happily ever after’. And is this a lesson we want young girls to learn?
For more on Disney and bad role modelling, I’d suggest visiting the amazing ‘Feminist Disney’ blog. http://feministdisney.tumblr.com/
Note: This is rewrite of a proportion of my undergraduate dissertation, ‘Through the looking glass: Exploring the ways in which Disney Princesses reinstate heteronormative femininity’