Disney Channel: The Queer Allegory

””As a giant entertainment company that prides itself on creating “safe” and “family-friendly” content that can suit everyone, Disney the company and Disney as a conglomerate of artists are as different as night and day.  When the news arose that the Disney executives gave money in support of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, I thought, “well, that’s not surprising” since Disney as a company has never been in support of explicit LGBTQ+ representation (and the irrelevant side character’s in the articles titled “X Disney character is gay” do not count), yet so much of Disney's recent media is shrouded in queer allegory and have fostered so much talent from members of the LGBT community. So, how could Disney betray the community whose members contributed to the company’s success?

Many of Disney Channel’s shows and movies in the early 2000s can be generalized as the main character having to live two separate lives out of fear of social repercussions (Hannah Montana, High School Musical, and Camp Rock). High School Musical, for example, had an entire musical number called “Stick to the Status Quo,” where the majority of characters share their disdain for peers who have other interests. Demi Lovato’s character in Camp Rock sings a song about finally accepting herself for who she is and not lying about her background to appease others. Many of these iconic Disney channel staples live a message about living your truth despite societal pressures and expectations like “how will my friends and crush react to this secret and will they still accept me” and “having to present more masculine because my parents and friends expect me to or else I’m not man enough.” A lot of the subtext and text for a lot of Disney Channel programs with these undertones do relate to a lot of children who are in the closet. Hannah Montana’s character Miley Stewart shows multiple instances where she comes out to her friends and to the general public while the bops like “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Ordinary Girl” encourages kids to celebrate their differences and teaches kids that no one should prescribe themselves to the notion of perfection since they’re only human.

Movies such as Cheetah Girls and Lemonade Mouth celebrate the notion of found family and the diversity of people and their personal backgrounds. These movies were about loving one another despite what the differences may be. In the case of Lemonade Mouth, it’s quite the opposite of the first High School Musical movie where Stella openly challenges the status quo and authority. Also, Stella being portrayed by Hayley Kiyoko (aka Lesbian Jesus) really puts the nail in the coffin since queerness does challenge the status quo and super ancient institutions, and yet there is still a community available for people who don’t feel accepted by the majority because they are different.

Even though Disney Channel was able to get away with a walking gay stereotype and pass him off as a happy-go-lucky theater kid, many of the channel's attempts to have open LGBT characters proved to be difficult. The most infamous instance where the channel’s gay representation went wayward was when Good Luck Charlie had an episode where Charlie’s friends had two moms. It was a very short scene but the outrage, harassment, and threats that the cast and crew received were enough to scare some people who work on the channel. Usually, some creators will provide representation with pride flags and gay couples in the background. However, thankfully there are a lot of creators who still continue to push the boundaries for LGBT people and characters in media.

Recently Disney Channel creators and shows have been increasing the representation of LGBT characters. In 2019, Disney Channel had Cryus, their first major TV character, come out twice on Andi Mack. The Owl House is a cartoon that includes two main, bisexual characters in sapphic relationships and non-binary characters. The biggest Disney Channel trilogy, High School Musical, was created by Kenny Ortega, an openly gay man who would continue to work with Disney on projects such as Descendants and the Cheetah Girls. High School Musical’s character Ryan Evans would be considered the most “explicit” depiction of a gay character on the channel for a little over a decade, even though the character’s queerness was conveyed through stereotypes. Unfortunately, the list isn’t enormous, but progress is being made now.

Disney has been a major stepping stone for many queer celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Raven Symone, Dove Cameron, Hayley Kiyoko, Josie Totah, Garrett Clayton, and many more. Many of their work resonated with the hearts of many gay children who could relate to the themes of acceptance. Although Disney as a whole has a complicated history with minority communities in general, if there is one thing that can be learned is that there is an audience for queer representation in children’s media.