Why Disney needs a gay princess

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Why Disney needs a gay princess

To those not engrossed in the Frozen fandom, the recent #GiveElsaAGirlfriend hashtag probably sounded like a parody of the social-justice movement. “Oh sure, everybody has to be diverse nowadays,” was the main response I saw when I wrote about the online campaign to make Elsa gay in the upcoming Frozen 2. But far from being an arbitrary call for diversity (if there is such a thing), the campaign is tied very specifically to the text of that insanely popular 2013 film.

For one thing, Elsa is the only Disney princess (er, queen) without a potential love interest. (The official Disney princess lineup is Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, and Merida.) While that fact alone doesn’t mean she’s gay, it does mean her sexual orientation is still open for discussion. More importantly, Elsa’s journey can be read as a coming-out metaphor. From a young age her parents teach her to hide away the thing that makes her different (in this case, her ice powers), as she recites the mantra “conceal, don’t feel.” She lives a life of unhappy repression and isolation until she finally embraces her abilities, belts out that song you can’t get out of your head, and eventually rejoins her kingdom as a much happier ruler. In other words: She comes out and she’s better for it.

Like most allegories, it’s an imperfect one. Elsa’s ice powers have ramifications and dangers that don’t apply to sexual orientation. And there are equally valid readings of Elsa’s powers as a metaphor for mental illness, autism, or any kind of invisible “otherness” that makes people feel ashamed and alone. But in particular, she’s become a poster child for many in the LGBT community, with “Let It Go” adopted as something of a gay anthem. The #GiveElsaAGirlfriend campaign is simply a request to canonize the subtext many already see in the film.

Yet the call for a gay Elsa is also far more than just a demand for a particular story beat. Studies have shown that entertainment has a concrete impact on both self-confidence and tolerance, and a gay Disney princess would be a powerful statement of acceptance for young LGBT viewers. Alexis Isabel, the 17-year-old who started the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend hashtag, explained for MTV:

Growing up, I was really confused about who I was… Giving young girls the chance to understand that a princess can love another princess the same way Cinderella loved her Prince Charming is vital to their development. No one deserves to feel isolated and confused about who they are. All we need is someone to show us that there are other options, other kinds of princesses, and other ways to have the happy ending that you deserve.

Though the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend campaign has unsurprisingly launched a rival #GiveElsaABoyfriend campaign, what’s more interesting to me is the pushback from well-meaning people who claim not to have a problem with LGBT representation yet still don’t feel quite right about a gay Elsa. One frequent counterargument is that it’s more powerful to keep Elsa as an independent woman who doesn’t need a love interest at all. While it’s true that female characters tend to disproportionately focus on romance, in a world where gay and bisexual teens are four times more likely to try to kill themselves than straight teens, I would argue the power of a gay Disney princess far outweighs the power of a independent one. And when you consider Disney has recently offered female characters without romantic arcs in Zootopia, Inside Out, Wreck-It Ralph, and Brave, the demand that Elsa be single rather than gay feels slightly more disingenuous.

The other main critique is that making Elsa gay would be Disney shoehorning diversity into its storytelling to appease fans. But even if that is the case—who cares? Children’s entertainment has been shoehorning in positive messages for the past half-century. It’s Frozen’s explicit message of tolerance that caused so many read it as a metaphor for coming out in the first place. Sure, there’s a good chance it will feel slightly clunky whenever Disney does eventually decide to introduce a gay protagonist, simply because we’re just not used to seeing gay stories in children’s entertainment. But to pretend entertainment only matters on an aesthetic level is to be woefully naïve about what it’s like to seldom see yourself reflected on screen.

So the question remains: Would Disney ever actually canonize a gay Disney princess? A few weeks ago my answer would’ve been a definitive “no.” And while I still find it highly unlikely we’ll actually get a gay Elsa in Frozen 2, a recent episode of the live action Disney series Once Upon A Time proved the company isn’t quite as averse to changing with the times as I would’ve expected.

In the cleverly titled “Ruby Slippers,” Dorothy (of The Wizard Of Oz fame) is awoken by a true love’s kiss from none other than Ruby (a.k.a. Little Red Riding Hood). The show introduced its first same-sex couple with remarkable little fanfare; the characters simply took it as a given that true love could exist between two women.

This powerful moment was a perfect rebuttal for those who worry that introducing gay characters into family-friendly properties will either confuse children or overly sexualize the material. OUAT handled its gay romance exactly as it’s handled its many straight romances, with flirty chemistry and a few kisses—proving there’s nothing more inherently sexual about being gay than there is about being straight. Far from forcing parents to “explain” homosexuality to their children, the episode did a great job of normalizing same-sex attraction to the point where it didn’t feel like something that needed to be explained at all.

But the Dorothy/Ruby romance also speaks to Disney’s caution when it comes to protecting its franchise. After all, Dorothy Gale and Red Riding Hood aren’t official Disney characters, so the company can play around with their identities without the fear of hurting its brand. Interestingly, the series has previously all but revealed that its version of Mulan is gay as well. But the scene in which she almost confesses her feelings for Aurora (a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty) is written with just enough ambiguity (Mulan had also been close with Aurora’s husband, Prince Philip, and it seems like she might be talking about him) that those uncomfortable with the idea of a gay Disney princess didn’t have to read it that way.

The show’s actors and creators may discuss Mulan as a gay character, but it’s notable that she’s not the one involved in the show’s first same-sex relationship and that she never uses pronouns when discussing her “broken heart.”

It’s likely Disney will continue to take this tentative approach to LGBT representation over the next few years (Ruby, Dorothy, and Mulan aren’t even regular characters on OUAT). And perhaps not without reason; when the Disney Channel debuted its first same-sex couple—a pair of lesbian moms—on Good Luck Charlie in 2014, the show’s 5-year-old star received death threats from angry conservative fans. But in an era where gay marriage is now the law of the land, it would be nice to see the company take a big, definitive step with LGBT characters, rather than merely creating veiled gay villains and hiding potential Easter Eggs about gay families in its films.

And Elsa is perhaps the perfect protagonist for such a step. Having Elsa fall for a girl would build naturally on her narrative from the first film and ensure Disney isn’t just usurping the LGBT struggle without telling actual LGBT stories. And since the character is already beloved by kids everywhere, her sexuality would be seen as just another part of her complex identity, not her defining feature. Plus thanks to its dual-protagonist structure, Elsa’s sister Anna could still provide a traditional heterosexual romance as well—a nice compromise for those not quite ready to make the leap to a solo gay protagonist.

Though it might seem silly to ask Disney princesses, of all things, to stand on the front lines of social progress, as I’ve written about before, the Disney princess line isn’t quite as conventional as people think. For instance, 35 percent of them are woman of color (including this year’s upcoming Moana), a number that stands in stark contrast to the predominantly white male superhero protagonists who will helm the Marvel Cinematic Universe through 2018. And in a world in which women’s stories are often considered “niche,” the ubiquitous Disney princess boldly asserts that female heroes can be mainstream too. Adding a gay princess to the mix would in fact be perfectly in keeping with the subtly progressive ethos of the Disney princess line.

In other words: Don’t expect fans to let this one go any time soon.