#GiveElsaAGirlfriend and Disney’s Corporate Social Dilemma

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If you’ve used the Internet, turned on the TV, or listened to the radio lately, you know that #GiveElsaAGirlfriend is officially a thing. Not only has the hashtag been retweeted tens of thousands of times, but there have been innumerable articles written on the topic and talk news segments dedicated to it, including our own Trish Bendix’s radio interview last week. The argument made by the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend side is that the stage has in many ways already been set for Frozen character Elsa to become Disney’s first queer princess: Elsa’s life is like an unintentional metaphor for being queer—the isolation from friends and family, the hiding of a “secret,” and the eventual journey to self-acceptance. It would take nothing to change the story now other than to add a nice princess from a neighboring land who also happens to like the same gender. 

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If Disney did make Elsa queer, I imagine the result might be a slightly less dramatic version of what happened when the lesbian-themed movie Fire was released in India in 1998. On the first day, more than 200 people stormed a theater in Mumbai, smashing glass, burning posters, and shouting. They compelled the theater managers to refund tickets to moviegoers. The next day, a theater in Delhi was similarly besieged. In Surat, vandals used sticks to break everything in sight in a theater and drive audiences away. Additional theaters in Surat and Pune preemptively stopped screening the film to avoid being attacked. A disruptive assault in Kolkatta failed only because the audience and ushers fought back. A hundred members of the Bharatiya Janata Party vandalized posters in Kanpur. Protests were held across India, and effigies of the director and lead actors burned. Americans are more likely to use boycotts and emotional Facebook posts to express their opposition to the queering of a beloved Disney character than theater take-overs and burning effigies in the streets, but the dramatic emotions, furious placards, and vituperative rhetorical opposition would be the same.   

Of course, as commentators on the subject have at least tacitly agreed, no one really believes that Elsa will be made queer. Instead, it’s been generally reported on as a novelty cause reflecting how the Twitter bandwagon effect can bring issues to national attention. The unspoken—and sometimes openly stated—reason that no one takes it particularly seriously is that Disney is a corporation, and most corporations are driven by profits. Frozen 2 is expected to be a blockbuster powerhouse, spawning a cornucopia of profits from movie tickets, DVD sales, merchandise, character appearances at Disney theme parks and traveling shows, etc.; a golden goose too good for Disney to give up to conservative boycotts.

Since 19 April, over 1.2 million Americans have signed a pledge to boycott Target in response to Target’s announcement that transgender people visiting its stores can use whichever bathroom or fitting room corresponds to their gender identity. In that same time period, Target’s stock has fallen 20%, roughly $10 billion from shareholder value, according to conservative news site Breitbart’s analysis of yahoo.com stock data. Although some of the loss is a reflection of a struggling US economy that has hit other major retailers as well, some of that loss can be attributed to the boycott, and shareholders at Disney are likely to view Target’s plummeting sales as a major deterrent to leaning forward on queer characters, at least in the next few years. 

That said, why should we assume Disney will always value money over social causes? Companies, like individuals, have agency. They can choose to make decisions on the basis of economic bottom lines, or they can choose to make decisions based on their social values. Last year, Frito-Lay offered rainbow Doritos to donors of the “It Gets Better” Campaign “to show [Frito-Lay’s] commitment toward equal rights for the LGBT community and celebrate humanity without exception.” Frito-Lay continued to offer the special edition Doritos despite facing angry backlash from social conservatives. Frito-Lay isn’t the only one. Since 2005, Ford, Home Depot, Proctor and Gamble, GAP Inc. Brands, General Mills, and J.C. Penney have all faced boycotts for their support of the LGBT community and pushed forward with their support anyway. Clearly, some socially conscious companies are willing to risk taking a financial hit in the short term in order to express their support for progressive social issues in the long term.   

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Although Disney has strong, clear financial incentives not to make Elsa queer, there are also intangible incentives to one day create a queer Disney princess whose values cannot be calculated. Furthermore, in the last two decades, Disney has shown responsiveness to calls to diversify its “princesses.” When critics called Disney sexist (i.e. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty both need a man to wake them from their sleep, while Ariel changes who she is and leaves her family to be with a man), Disney created Belle (1991), Mulan (1998), Merida (2012, Pixar was bought by Disney in 2006, hence why Merida is a Disney princess), and, of course, Elsa and Anna (2013). When it became clear that Jasmine (Arab) and Pocahontas (Native American) were insufficient ethnic and racial representation among the princess stable, Disney introduced Mulan (Chinese) and Tiana (African American). 

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Disney therefore faces a dilemma: bow to the demands of conservatives who decry the idea of a lesbian Disney princess as immoral and retain full profits, or take a heavy loss in the immediate term by having a queer princess but in the long term sleep better at night knowing that the corporation has made a positive impact on the lives of millions of young children? It’s a dilemma (economics vs. morals) that many companies in various industries will face in the next few years. But perhaps the dilemma, at least for Disney, is a false dilemma: Disney won’t jeopardize the massive revenue from Frozen 2, but why not begin work on a new “princess” who can be lesbian? Brave’s Merida planted the seed for the argument that not every princess needs a prince, so why not take it a step further with the next princess and say that some princesses are looking for their own princess? The same elements that made Frozen popular—catchy songs, enjoyable dialogue, an amusing sidekick, loyalty and love—can be replicated in any Disney movie. Yes, it would be nice to have a queer Elsa headline the most popular Disney movie ever created, but if we can’t have that, then at least we can still have a lesbian princess.     

As a final note, the same arguments used against Fire in India in 1998 are used by social conservatives rejecting the idea of a queer Disney princess 20 years later: that homosexuality is immoral and unnatural and could lead to the collapse of traditional marriage and society. Furthermore, for Disney to expose young children to homosexuality is irresponsible and unconscionable. The anti-LGBT polemic among hardcore conservatives worldwide has remained static over decades even in areas in which attitudes towards homosexuality in many other parts of society have begun to shift.

Because of this stasis, no matter when Disney chooses to create a queer princess—and I fully believe it will one day—it will always face conservative opposition. That said, fear of ruffling feathers is insufficient reason not to act, and from a practical perspective, attitudes will continue to change with time. Movies require a long lead time; America today is a tinderbox just waiting to ignite, whether over the issue of race, sexual orientation, or both, but by the time a Disney movie with a queer lead would reach theaters in three or more years, America might have settled down some and be more receptive to the idea. Ditto parts of the rest of the world.

*The author owns stock in Disney.  

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