Give Us a Gay ‘Sleeping Beauty’: Why We Need More LGBT Characters in Kids’ Movies

GLAAD has issued what it calls a “Studio Responsibility Report,” tracking the representation of LGBT people in film. Organized by studio, the report assigns ratings to each based on their performance. All the majors performed “adequately” except for two this year, Twentieth Century Fox and Disney, who both got failing grades. Fox struck out entirely; Disney did only marginally better with one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts in The Avengers. If that little tidbit about Disney seems so pathetic to you as to not even merit mention in this report, I would point out that even in the other studios’ cohorts the showing is rather weak. It’s a sad day when you have to count things like Seth MacFarlane’s TED and American Reunion in looking for gay characters. Brokeback Mountain these ain’t.

Let’s be real for a second: even the artiest of the big-studio movies these days give us what can only be generously called a broad reading of heterosexuality itself. A few shots of Iron Man in bed with Piper don’t make for much exploration of any kind of sexuality other than lust for Robert Downey Jr., and that’s all audience projection. But we do get all those sideways grins and the snappy comebacks, we straights, tossed at us to imply romance. We get to root for someone to get the girl or the boy. It’s not a very careful slicing up of desire, which is why these films aren’t usually offering interesting or nuanced portrayals of heterosexual love affairs. But it is something, and it is so particularly when you are young and alienated and the movies, among other pop culture artifacts, offer you the promise of a wider world where there are people “like you.”

There are undoubtedly lots of reasons why this sort of representation isn’t leaking into films the way it has been on television for almost a decade now. The first, of course, is that the big-studio film production process is such a horrific mess at the moment that any kind of psychological depth in main characters is basically too much to ask for. This is an industry that considers Judd Apatow’s address of male sexuality and insecurity deeply affecting and groundbreaking. I am more than a little afraid, actually, of what hash they would make of movies with gay protagonists, not just in terms of homophobia but in terms of progressing beyond stereotypes.

But clearly another reason is that the suits are still afraid of making people angry. And they are not wrong to be, I think. In coastal cities the culture war over gayness may look over, but the truth is that the heartland of America is still fighting those battles. Someone I know recently published a book about gay people, and the Goodreads reviews from random folk all over the country contain complaints that they were Not Warned That This Would Be A Gay Book. And these are people willing to read nonfiction geared to adults!

There is, after all, another reason to single out Disney’s result. By and large, Disney films are aimed at children. Sure, sometimes, as in The Avengers, we’re talking about children-at-heart. But let’s say I’m really thinking here of every sappy Disney family movie in existence, most of which effectively pretend we live in a heterosexual world. And sure, that’s about the concern that to allow gay characters on children‘s screens would somehow corrupt them. When you throw people’s overwrought concern about The Children into the mix, people start to wax rhapsodic about protecting values for “America’s youth.” And I don’t think it’s wrong to worry that someone’s pot is gonna get all stirred up about this.

But it shouldn’t matter. It really shouldn’t matter. And in fact, if anything, it’s crucial that children’s movies start modelling this kind of relationship as normal, a fact of life. Look, the writing is on the wall, as far as gay marriage goes. Increasingly children will be growing up in gay families that look more or less like straight families, which is to say that both will enjoy the benefits and vicissitudes of legally recognized monogamy. And for your average discerning kid — in my experience, children and toddlers especially have excellent bullshit detection meters — it’s going to seem weird that every kid’s film out there effectively pretends such family arrangements don’t exist. And that no one would ever want them. So I turn the “think of the children” back to you. If the goal really is, for Disney and the like, to make quality, wholesome children’s films, they have a responsibility to address those children’s lives as they actually exist. So let’s see a gay Sleeping Beauty or a lesbian Princess and the Pea sometime soon.