Over the past decade, Disney has started representing underrepresented communities more, which is an amazing step for such a global brand. While the company has become more forward-thinking, many of the liberal tones are subtle; however, they are moving in the right direction. Below are 14 ways that Disney has gotten more progressive for the better.
After Frozen came out in 2017, there was much debate over whether or not Queen Elsa of Arendale was part of the LGBTQ+ community. Throughout the film, while her sister Anna fantasizes about the idea of finding true love with a man, Elsa is focused on keeping her magical power a secret— and potentially the secret of not being interested in men. The film started a Twitter campaign as fans began to trend #GiveElsaAGirlfriend in the hopes that Frozen 2 would finally showcase queer representation (spoiler alert: it did not, but we will get there). Although the hashtag may not have worked, Elsa’s song “Let it Go” became a coming-out anthem. The film also briefly shows the winter shop owner’s family that has two male partners with kids. However, if you blink, you can miss the subtle nod to LGBTQ+ relationships completely.
- Frozen 2
While Elsa may not have gotten the girlfriend that people rallied for, Frozen 2 hinted at Elsa’s perceived sexuality. Most notably, Elsa’s ballad, “Show Yourself” includes lyrics such as “I have always been a fortress, cold secrets deep inside,” “You have secrets too, but you don’t have to hide,” and “I am found”. While explicitly this song is about Elsa trying to figure out where the noise is coming from— the answer to Elsa’s secret power— it also potentially answers the question of Elsa’s secret sexual orientation. Additionally, the film introduces a female local warrior, Honeymaren, with whom Elsa forms a strong connection. However, their relationship does not go any further than friendship in the film. Fans have speculated that Honeymaren is Disney’s subtle nod to giving Elsa a girlfriend without coming right out and saying it.
- Good Luck Charlie
In 2014, Disney featured its first ever same sex couple on Good Luck Charlie. In the episode, entitled “Down a Tree,” Charlie is about to have a playdate with a classmate named Taylor. Amy and Bob (the parents of Charlie) get into an argument about the name of Taylor’s mom, with Amy swearing the mother’s name is Susan and Bob saying he met Cheryl. When the doorbell rings, it becomes apparent that Taylor in fact has two moms. Amy and Bob are extremely welcoming, and treat the situation as if having two female parents is normal (as it should be) rather than problematic. The acknowledgement of a gay couple on the channel was novel but well executed, especially for a network that is often deemed conservative.
- Toy Story 4
In Toy Story 1 and Toy Story 2, Bo Peep was presented as Woody’s object, or toy if you may. She played a background role and remained largely absent for the third film; however, in Toy Story 4, she made quite the kick ass come back. She reappears strong and powerful, making a complete 180 in terms of attitude, outfit and reliance on men. Instead of being covered in pink, a bonnet and petticoat, Bo Peep wears pants (!!!) and mostly blue, with her sheep hook as a power symbol rather than decor. Bo teaches lessons to the men in the film and even saves Woody, showcasing that women do not have to be submissive.
- Andi Mack
Andi Mack is the first Disney TV show to have a character explicitly state their sexuality. At the beginning of the second season, Cyrus Goodman tells his friends, “I’m gay.” This was a milestone in Disney history. While the episode opened doors for young individuals to see representation on TV, the episode was not without its backlash. Many parents were upset with the “bad morals” the episode presented, while others criticized the lack of discussion of bullying and reality of coming out as gay while in middle school/high school. Still, many applauded the episode for being accessible and relatable. The story line even inspired the actor who plays Cyrus to realize his own sexuality and come out as bisexual. LGBTQ+ representation makes a difference!
- That’s So Raven
My favorite Disney channel episode to date may be the episode in which Raven confronts racism head on. While many of the shows and films on this list are relatively new, the episode of That’s So Raven was rather liberal for the time it aired. In season 3, episode 10 called “True Colors,” Raven applies for a job at the mall with her best friend Chelsea. While Raven is more qualified than her friend, the manager of the store decides to hire Chelsea who can’t even properly fold a shirt. Raven questions why her friend got the job and she didn’t, when suddenly a vision hits her. She sees the store manager say “Truth is I don’t hire black people.” Raven tells her friends, to which her friend Eddie states he has never seen a person of color working at the store and Chelsea seems alarmed that racism exists. Shocked and disgusted, Raven and her friends head to the store to confront the manager, eventually getting her fired for being racist. The episode has been criticized, specifically by Funny or Die, since white people wrote the script about racism. The importance of the episode touching on taboo social issues is more important than who wrote the script, in my opinion. While confronting racism is not as simple as the episode makes it appear, merely discussing discrimination was a big stepping stone for Disney.
- Raven’s Home
In Raven’s Home, both Raven and Chelsea are divorced moms who decide to raise their children together. In most Disney (and Nickelodeon) shows, the parents are either in a perfectly happy marriage or are never seen on screen. Raven’s home defies the norm of Disney’s “conventional” family. The series has showcased the challenges and triumphs of raising kids without a significant other. The show reflects what many modern families look like. It would be great to see a single dad on the show at some point!
- High School Musical: The Musical: The Series
Okay, if you have not yet binged this show on Disney+, you need to! High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is about the actual high school where High School Musical was filmed putting on their own production of High School Musical. Maybe it’s because the show isn’t on cable but rather a streaming platform that allowed Disney to make it so progressive. Whatever the case may be, I absolutely love it! The show remarks on LGBTQ+ topics, divorcing parents, race, body positivity, being an outcast, and so much more. There are definitely more issues the show can tackle, but they have done a great job so far. Let’s be real, the show also finally shows the gay characters that the original High School Musical deserved (i.e. Ryan and Chad).
- Big Hero 6
Normally, Disney movies are all happy-go-lucky. Of course, princess movies represent an unobtainable fantasy of love and happiness just seems to happen in other Disney films and television shows, but Big Hero 6 does things differently. The film does not tell the story of romantic love or include rainbows and sunshine every second it gets, rather themes of loss and friendship are embedded throughout the movie. In the film, 14 year old Hiro’s brother Tadashi tragically dies, leaving the young boy to figure out his purpose in life and how to cope with his emotions. Mental health is seen and discussed, a subject Disney normally strays away from, especially in boys. Additionally, the film has a radically diverse cast. Most characters in the film are multi-racial and are voiced by people of color. Unlike films like Aladdin which had Middle Eastern characters, yet white voice actors, Big Hero 6 represents people of color in an impressive manner that is not often seen by animated films. Women are also represented as strong leading ladies throughout the film. Both female characters are in the science field (yeah for women in STEM!!) and are never sexualized or forced into a cringy romantic plotline. The movie is refreshing and does an excellent job of encouraging more progressive values towards its target audience.
Disney, technically Pixar’s, newest cartoon creation, Onward, features the studio’s first openly gay character (at least openly gay on a big screen and in cartoon form). Like the Frozen scene with the winter shop owner, if you blink, you completely miss the scene, but more LGBTQ+ representation in Disney is still important. The very brief scene includes fellow cartoon cyclops cop, Spector, stating “My girlfriend’s daughter got me pulling my hair out.” The line is delivered with no follow up, although it is the first verbal recognition of a gay relationship in an animated Disney movie. The line is also the reason Onward has been banned in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Disney has continuously danced around not having a gay main character. Onward is no exception, but I believe including more LGBTQ+ characters is a step in the right direction.
- Secret Society of Second Born Royals (Upcoming Film)
Secret Society of Second Born Royals is set to release sometime in 2020, so not much is known, however it is set to star Niles Fitch, who plays young Randall on NBC’s This is Us. Fitch’s casting makes him the first black prince to be featured in a Disney live-action film. Kind of feels a bit like if the Bachelor ever cast a leader man of color— long overdue, but glad it’s finally happening. Fitch isn’t the only aspect of the film that is different from the Disney norm. The film also follows a princess who does not in fact want to be a princess. Released photos show Sam, the rebellious royal, wearing combat boots with a dress as well as an army green jacket and leggings. Definitely gives some Kim Possible vibes and I’m loving it!
- The Little Mermaid (Upcoming Adaptation)
Okay, I’m not going to lie, the plot of The Little Mermaid is anything but progressive. Ariel literally gives up her voice for the sake of a man, portrays herself as ditzy, and acts like a lovesick puppy around a man she barely knows. While the movie itself may not be the best, Disney’s casting while hopefully bring new light to the role and film. Disney has cast black actress Halle Bailey to play Ariel. Goodbye to the white woman with vibrant red hair and hello to a modern mermaid. The casting shows how Disney is actively trying to be more inclusive.
- Ralph Breaks the Internet (Wreck it Ralph Sequel)
Film rarely portrays women as equals to men and just as strong, but modern films are beginning to show more gender equality. 2018’s Ralph Breaks the Internet is the perfect example of how cartoon films have been changed for the better. In the film, Ralph takes a back seat to his best friend Vanellope. Vanellope is a princess who refuses to dress stereotypically, instead sporting a hoodie and leggings throughout both the first and second films. The second film follows the adventures of Ralph and Vanellope into the world wide web. Danger presents itself when Ralph sets a virus loose throughout the internet because he is afraid of losing Vanellope and is unable to confront that fear head on. Ralph’s hidden vulnerability and toxic behavior result in him having to grow up and show emotions. Oftentimes males hide their real feelings, a stigma held against them. It is nice to see a film, even if in cartoon form, allowing men to express their thoughts and feelings without being ridiculed. It is also great to see woman characters in the spotlight and as heroes. Vanellope helps to save the day, along with Disney’s other princesses, who all realize they do not need men to be strong and powerful.
- Kim Possible
I have always loved Kim Possible. The show emphasizes that females can be strong and powerful. Both Kim and Shego, Kim’s nemesis in a sense, have male counterparts, but they are the ones that are both the brains and the beauts. The show also refutes gender roles as Kim’s sidekick, Ron, and Shego’s, Draco, show their vulnerabilities and weaknesses, traits people stereotypically attribute to females. Kim defies the role of a stereotypical cheerleader, caring more about her friends and saving the world than her makeup and scoring the quarterback (although at some points she does both of these things). Check out my article on how Kim Possible has done the impossible if you want more specifics.
Disney has come a long way in representation of minorities. Movies like Sleeping Beauty, which only included Princess Aurora in the entire film for 17 minutes, certainly hold Disney back from moving forward. However, the company seems to be doing a decent job of trying to include more diverse characters and giving more complex storylines. I would be remorseful if I did not mention that this does not mean that Disney is without its flaws. Recently Disney+ pulled the Love, Simon spinoff, Love, Victor, from its platform and stopped production of the Lizzie McGuire sequel because both were deemed to have messages not necessarily appropriate for young children (which is BS because there are movies on the platform that involve weed brownies [1999 Never Been Kissed], drinking at bars [2006 Invincible] and nudity [1984 Splash]). While it’s sad that Disney+ pulled shows that would have had excellent representation, at least we will get to see them on Hulu.
Although Disney has had some downfalls and could use some more direct LGBTQ+ representation and diverse casting, I give kudos to Disney for trying to be more liberal and putting out content that sparks controversy in a good way. Hopefully Disney continues their pattern of being more inclusive and progressive!