There’s something frustrating about the controversy surrounding Disney’s The Jungle Cruise, which has been fuelled by rumours that Jack Whitehall, a straight actor, has been cast as the studio’s first out (and official) gay character.
Even before we talk about whether straight actors should be playing gay roles when gay actors aren’t exactly afforded the same flexibility, how is it 2018 and we’re still waiting on a major studio to debut their first LGBT+ character?
It’s a question that, perhaps, strikes to the heart of the discussion. Whitehall’s casting is the topic of such hot debate explicitly because Disney currently faces the responsibility of correcting decades of missteps and missed opportunities when it comes to LGBT+ representation.
And there’s a fairly abysmal history to be uncovered there: despite the studio making concerted efforts to improve diversity elsewhere, the LGBT+ community still remains locked out. GLAAD, which monitors LGBT+ issues in the media, has repeatedly called out Disney’s lack of action, pointing out that it has the poorest track record of all the major Hollywood studios.
Certainly, the situation hasn’t been aided by the studio’s tendency to indulge in “queerbaiting”, in which creators will sometimes attempt to appease fans by merely assigning an LGBT+ identity to a character off screen, without the film itself actually putting in the work in to depict said identity.
Press interviews for Thor: Ragnarok revealed a scene, cut from the final edit, in which Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) was confirmed to be bisexual. A year later, screenwriter Jonathan Kasdan said that Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) in Solo: A Star Wars Story is “pansexual” while also expressing his regret that this wasn’t reflected more explicitly on screen. Then there was LeFou, a character some would argue was the first openly gay character in a mainstream Disney film.
Indeed, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast received massive amount of publicity after its director, Bill Condon, said the film would feature a “exclusively gay moment” for Gaston’s sidekick. Yet the reality was underwhelming. LeFou is granted a single, suggestive glance with another man and a quick spin around the ballroom.
The fact that, only a year later, we’re now referring to Whitehall’s Jungle Cruise role as Disney’s first openly gay character seems proof in itself of Beauty and the Beast’s lack of conviction.
Disney needs to break this cycle in a radical way. It’s long past due. And, specifically, it needs to stop treating LGBT+ characters as if they’re something to be quietly, gradually edged into frame in the hopes no one will notice.
Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trialSign up
It needs to not cast a straight actor as a stereotype played solely for laughs, as Whitehall’s role may prove to be, if the reports his character is “hugely effete” and “very camp” are true (as can arguably also be said of Josh Gad’s version of LeFou from last year). It needs to stop relying on the old excuse that LGBT+ characters will threaten worldwide box office sales. The same used to be said of films with majority black casts, and have you seen the global receipts for Black Panther?
Let’s move on from subtext and “queerbaiting”, and deliver audiences a lead that the LGBT+ community can truly invest in. A superhero. A Jedi. A real hero. Someone who can herald a new dawn, a promise of a world where LGBT+ people no longer have to be surrounded by a culture that actively works to marginalise them.
You need only look to the immense impact of this year’s Love, Simon, a film that rewrote the John Hughes formula for the modern age, delivering a gay protagonist at its core. It’s already become one of the highest-grossing teen films of all time. Audiences are hungry for change, it’s only a question of whether Disney will answer the call.
Follow Independent Culture on Facebook for all the latest on Film, TV, Music, and more.