Disney’s History of Rainbow Capitalism: The Difference Between Inclusion and Exploitation

Gravity Falls

Over the past few years, pride month has entered the mainstream, and companies have hopped on board. Practically everywhere you go, you’ll find products with rainbows slapped on them that appeared out of thin air on June 1st.

But representation and advocacy go much deeper than a brightly colored shirt you sell once a year. If you make pride merch but aren’t making strides to support queer communities all year round, or worse, are actively harming them behind the scenes, you’re simply profiting off of a marginalized group’s oppression. 

That isn’t allyship. It’s just a trendy profit margin.

The entertainment industry is guilty of the same sins. There’s a difference between representation and tokenization. Not every media company can, or cares to, recognize the distinction.

And Disney is sadly particularly guilty.

Disney’s Queer-Coding: Refusing to Take a Side

Historically, Disney has kept their queer representation as ambiguous as possible. You’ll find countless articles talking about “Disney’s first queer character,” but they all have contradicting characters as the first one.

There were articles when Frozen premiered touting the “big summer blowout” shop owner as their first openly queer character. In a one-second shot, we look in on his family in the sauna, and in the center you see a large man waving back.

So that was his husband, right?

Disney never confirms this. For all we know, the smaller woman could be his wife, and the man was simply his son.

Once again, when the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast premiered, many saw LeFou as the first queer character. People cited his obsession with Gaston and him dancing with a man in the final scene as the smoking gun to his sexuality. While there’s a deeper history to LeFou as a gay man going back to the original film, it’s still not the representation the community deserves.

This practice, specifically in Frozen, is known as queer-baiting. And that practice is different from queer-coding.

Let’s look at the difference between these two terms.

  • Queer-baiting: A marketing technique where creators hint at a character’s sexuality, but never overtly represent or admit that sexuality.
  • Queer-coding: Creators use subtext to represent a character’s sexuality, but cannot out-right confirm it.

Wait, those sound eerily similar. What’s the difference?

It’s all about the power possessed by the creators. Queer-baiting gives the producers plasuible deniability, which offers them the best of both worlds. They cater to conservative audiences, because the sexuality goes unconfirmed, and they give queer viewers a taste of representation.

It’s an exploitative, wishy-washy approach and a shadow of what representation should be. It reinforces the notion that a queer identity should be hidden, merely brought out of the closet for a quick joke before getting stuffed back in.

Queer-coding comes from a place of fighting censorship. Creators of a show do what they can to impart unto the audience the sexuality of a character. However, they cannot overtly disclose the character’s sexuality, likely due to the censorship of the network.

It’s all about intentions and autonomy. And LeFou comes much closer towards queer-coding than Frozen. But the problem lies in the fact that you could watch Beauty and the Beast without admitting or focusing on LeFou’s sexuality. 

Disney’s Renaming of the Rainbow Collection

Disney employed the technique of queer-baiting with their “Rainbow Collection.” When you entered the Disney park shops, you would find a lot of merchandise featuring rainbow colors. If you searched hard enough, you could even find pins with specific flags that corresponded to different sexualities. 

Nowhere on the branding or marketing did it ever mention the LGBTQIA+ community.

The reason for this is simple; when someone got up in arms about finding rainbows on merchandise, the company could easily say “it’s just a rainbow.”

They created merchandise to sell to queer people without even having the backbone to admit queer people exist.

All this came to a head with the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” bill. After much pushback from people begging Disney to finally make a stand, they did. They renamed it the Walt Disney Company Pride Collection, officially signing away their plausible deniability.

No longer can they say it’s “just a rainbow” while profiting off queer patrons. And 100% of the proceeds are going to organizations that help LGBTQIA+ communities.

Disney’s Queer Coding in Gravity Falls

While Disney has finally taken a stand and has even featured a same-sex kiss in Lightyear, that representation wasn’t always afforded to Disney creators.

Alex Hirsch, creator of Gravity Falls, struggled tooth and nail with Disney to include LGBTQIA+ representation in his show. He’s famously spoken out against Disney in the past. When Disney shared a tweet featuring the Mickey Mouse characters walking in front of a rainbow background with the caption “There’s room for everyone under the rainbow. Happy #PrideMonth!”, Hirsch spoke his mind. 

He quoted the tweet and said, “Disney privately: Cut the gay scene! We might lose precious pennies from Russia & China! Disney publicly: Honk honk we put rainbow bumper sticker on Lightning McQueen today CONSUME OUR PRODUCTS TEENS.” Below, he tweets “To any creative at Disney TV, Feature, Publishing or Streaming: please mercilessly spam your execs with “there’s room for everyone under the rainbow” next time they tell you to “please revise” your LGBTQ+ character for “not being Disney appropriate”.”

His recent sharing of emails sent between him and the Standards and Practices (S&P) Department reveal direct evidence of the censorship of the queer relationship between Sherrif Blubs and Deputy Durland, two characters featured on the show. 

S&P: “Please revise the action of Blubs putting his arm around Durland. As noted in previous concerns, their affectionate relationship should remain comical versus flirtatious.”

Alex Hirsch’s response: “Nope. They’re…buddies. Chill out.”

S&P: “The gesture is approved in this context.”

Read: we’d rather queer relationships remain a punchline than a storyline.

When you watch Gravity Falls and get the feeling Blubs and Durland are in a relationship, that’s due to the creator’s queer-coding. They did what they could under Disney’s imposed restraints to represent a loving relationship between two men. 

It’s interesting to note that Disney included Gravity Falls in their 2022 Disney+ Pride Collection, despite their actions to censor that relationship during its creation.

Moving Forward

Disney is far from the only sinner when it comes to the exploitation of queer people in media and merchandise. We’re glad to see them starting to take steps towards genuine representation, but they have a lot of work to do.

They cannot go back in time and fix their mistakes, but they have to realize that they can’t have their feet in both camps. Having split seconds shots of a same-sex kiss between Commander Larma D’Acy and Wrobie Tyce in Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker is just a baby step. We want content that features queer characters as the main plotline, not just as an aside or a sidekick ready to bare the weight of a punchline. 

Characters that truly represent the community come from queer writers, actors, producers, and creatives working on every step of the process. We hope that Disney makes a point to employ queer creators in order to make stories that represent, not tokenize, queer stories.