How Disney’s Animated Movies Awakened My Queer Imagination
Animation can teach a kid a lot about themselves and the world around them. Disney movies taught me about my queer desires.
thirst, reading queerly, and the films that have shaped his identity as a gay man.
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Nevertheless, the sentiment is not mine alone. Animation, so often understood as childish entertainment, is irrevocably tied to didacticism. With its exaggerated facial expressions and elastic character designs, animation can teach a kid a lot about themselves and the world around them. Everything from anger (Donald Duck) to smugness (Bugs Bunny) can be traced within a few animated lines, often without even a hint of dialogue. Animation lives and dies on Ursula’s preferred mode of communication: body language.
Much of that body language, in Disney flicks at least, depended on romance. Every storyline required a boy and a girl, a meet-cute, and a happily-ever-after. Think of Ariel smiling forcefully at Prince Eric, or Belle turning her head at Beast as she sees there may be something there that wasn’t there before. These were fairy tales that hinged on love. Rarely was there room for lust.
Unless you were looking for it, that is. There may be no hint of sexual chemistry between, say, the beauty and her beast (theirs is a story of tenderness, of all-knowing glances, and dancing sequences), but the film’s bulked-up villain nudged us towards the thought of these characters existing in a world of sexual beings.
Gaston may be toxic masculinity made flesh (or ink, I guess), but his unabashed narcissism and exhibitionism meant that a G-rated animated film could include the line “and every last inch of me is covered with hair” as an image of his burly furry chest took over the entire frame. To this day, that moment astounds me in the way it begs viewers to imagine what else is as hairy as Gaston’s upper body.
Similarly, Hercules’s body is created precisely to be displayed and, like Gaston, imagined as useful for one thing: to save the girl. The workout montage that turns a scrawny kid into a goofball of a gym bunny is aimed, after all, at getting Herc to successfully save a D.I.D. (“damsel in distress” in the film’s Greco-contemporary lingo).
Not that there were that many of those to save. In contemporary Disney flicks—yes, from Ashman’s heyday in the early nineties and onwards—women protagonists were anything but damsels. Young girls were finally getting strong female role models like Belle (who loves to read and dreams of adventure!) and Meg (whose quick wit helps her become an independent woman). Such characters broke apart, if ever so slightly, the more retrograde fairy tale princess stories Disney had been serving for decades.
With such female empowerment came, perhaps, an unintended consequence. The male gaze, which turns female protagonists into images and bodies meant solely for men’s consumption, is absent in these modern Disney films. Or rather, it’s turned into something else. The French triplets who sigh and faint whenever they catch sight of Gaston, Meg’s calculated-turned-authentic swooning for Hercules—these all shift the audience’s gaze. As Disney gave its female heroes agency in their desire, it also allowed audiences to objectify its male protagonists too.
I can’t stress enough how revelatory that felt as a kid. Or, ahem, even as a teenager. Growing up in Colombia, I was constantly bombarded with scantily-clad images of women. The Miss Colombia pageant, to give you but one example, all but takes over the entire country in ways that rival how the Superbowl is covered here in the United States. Telenovelas and news broadcasts alike continually fed me ideas about women that, though intended to titillate me (like they did my fellow schoolmates), only made me feel uneasy.
But that also meant I internalized this notion that you were allowed and invited to gaze at women. Rarely did men offer themselves up. This was also the case in Disney classics, where Snow White’s and Cinderella’s nondescript princes were, not just forgettable, but neutered ideals of manhood. They were Prince Charming in the most abstract, sexless ways possible.
Not so in the ’90s where we were given more than an eyeful. And while Prince Eric’s hair is quite enviable and Aladdin’s midriff was quite alluring, nothing could’ve prepared me for Tarzan, where I, as a bumbling teenager, was given free reign to ogle at a lithe, wiry (if, yes, animated) male body for a good eighty-eight minutes.
I internalized this notion that you were allowed and invited to gaze at women. Rarely did men offer themselves up.
Tarzan gives us permission to admire its eponymous protagonist—and the nude male form—as he surfs and skates his way through the jungle. (Disney animator Glen Keane modeled him after Tony Hawk, naturally.) Like the adventurer-romantic interest Jane, the hunter-antagonist Clayton, and the exoticized Burroughs narrative that inspired it, the film insists we observe Tarzan closely. To index his every movement. His every curve. And with no discernible grasp of English whatsoever, Tarzan has to resort to communicating with his body, making me notice and envy his abs and obliques.
This somehow felt slightly less blush-inducing than watching Brendan Fraser parade around in nothing but a very flattering loincloth in George of the Jungle. Partly that’s because Fraser’s physique was more, let’s say, pronounced. But also because Disney animation frames itself as family-friendly, thus implicitly allowing my lustful gaze to roam freely in ways it couldn’t and hadn’t elsewhere. Keane’s lines forced your eyes to work your way down Tarzan’s body, tracing his chin, his pecs, his abs. They even dared you to imagine what was underneath that loincloth. It was the look I’d reserved for models in underwear ads in the privacy of our family bathroom. But in the context of a Phil Collins-scored Disney flick, that kind of gazing somehow felt a tad more chaste.
Gaston. Hercules. Tarzan. It does not escape me that these textbook cases of socially-sanctioned masculinity ended up serving as gateway crushes for a young curious boy who was as soft as they come. They embodied what I craved and what I feared. The bully, the jock, and the skater boy were more than mere tropes. They were real-life schoolmates who constantly humiliated me and would have scoffed at my own inability to be anything more than a maricón who pined away for animated men who felt accessible precisely because of their irreality.
Five years after my brush with Herc’s rippling pectorals, I found a way to unlearn the shame that prompted my blush at their sight. Or, to begin unlearning it, to own up to the sexual orientation that openly established my fixation on said pecs. At college, I began the slow process of coming out, which would bring me to my first brush with a pair of pecs that, though not quite as rippling, were equally as titillating.
As I look on with envy at my husband’s own rather impressive chest (of the two of us, he has more discipline when it comes to hitting the gym), I’m left with the sense that perhaps what first clued me into my own gayness wasn’t just a lust for the male form.
“I will find my way if I can be strong,” the animated Greek hero sings longingly, tapping into a queer call to arms I perhaps didn’t heed soon enough. “I know every mile would be worth my while / when I go the distance, I’ll be right where I belong.”
Thankfully, Herc’s Apollonian physique wasn’t distracting enough to miss the lesson of self-acceptance and self-fashioning his Disneyfied story preached. I may not have yearned for the happily-ever-after he and Meg enact at the end of the film, but in both wanting and wanting to be this kind of “Wonder Boy,” as Meg calls him, I felt nudged to find who I was always meant to be: a thirsty gay man brave enough to flirt my way into asking such a boy for his name.
Manuel Betancourt is a film critic and a cultural reporter based in New York City. His academic work on queer film fandom has appeared in Genre and GLQ, while his work of cultural criticism has been featured in The Atlantic, Film Quarterly, Esquire, Pacific Standard, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is a regular contributor to Remezcla where he covers Latin American cinema and U.S. Latino media culture, and Electric Literature, where he writes about book-to-film adaptations. He has a Ph.D. but doesn't like to brag about it.