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Gay Representation and ‘Onward’

photograph of Disney castle

Disney-Pixar’s latest film Onward has generated a mild flurry of controversy in the week before its release. The film, which is set in a modernized fantasy world, features Pixar’s first openly gay character, a police officer (who also happens to be a cyclops) voiced by actress and writer Lena Waithe. Christian right-wing groups have protested the character’s existence, viewing her inclusion in the narrative as a blatant attempt to peddle the “LGBTQ agenda” to children. But surprisingly the LGBTQ community has evinced mixed feelings about the film as well. Disney’s frank attempt at inclusiveness could be seen as a groundbreaking move away from heteronormativity in mainstream film. Representation is a certainly good thing; the limits of our imagination is at least partly determined by pop culture, and when we see something treated as acceptable within the bounds of fiction, that thing starts to feel more possible in real life. But some have taken issue with the nature of LGBTQ representation in Onward, for two main reasons. First, they argue that it’s problematic to herald Disney as a champion of progressiveness in any context, and second, they take issue with the type of character Disney has chosen to make LGBTQ.

Any gesture towards inclusivity feels hollow when delivered by a mega-corporation like Disney, which has a checkered history with the LGBTQ community to say the least. In the same week that Onward announced their lesbian character, Disney also announced that they would be removing Love, Simon, a television show based on the movie of the same name centered on the life of a gay teenager, from the Disney + streaming service. Apparently, the show’s frank discussions of the main character’s sexuality pushed it out of the “family friendly” category, despite the fact that other shows still hosted on the service contain decidedly non-family-friendly themes, like explicit violence. Disney is a monstrously large company, and despite its many attempts to shape itself into a homogenous brand, it can still send out contradictory messages, like taking down a show for being “too gay” and proudly announcing the existence of a gay character in the same week. Part of this comes from the company’s desire to appeal to everyone, both the “family values” advocates and a more progressive crowd at the same time. In that sense, Disney’s form of representation will always feel false. It comes across as an attempt to make money and not a deep-seated commitment to equality.

In an article for Slate, Sam Adams further breaks down the problem with Disney’s gay representation, beyond the scope of just Onward. He explains that “From the ‘exclusively gay moment’ in the live-action Beauty and the Beast to a kiss between two minor female characters in last year’s The Rise of Skywalker, each baby step has been preceded by a flotilla of coverage proclaiming the advance—and each has been followed by the inevitable sense of confusion and betrayal when viewers see the movie and realize, “That’s it?” He correctly points out that the way these movies often use their landmark gay moments as a marketing tactic, drawing both positive and negative press (which, in terms of a company’s bottom line, often amount to the same thing). The marketing is often loud and expansive, in proportion to the half-second of actual screentime for the gay characters themselves. According to Adams, “The problem is often less with the movies themselves than with the self-congratulatory buildup to them.” It’s an attempt to capitalize on “woke points,” or credit for inclusiveness without actually being progressive, which ultimately translates into box office sales.

Beyond the film’s marketing, the lesbian character and the way the filmmakers have chosen to portray her is a source of controversy. Adams noted that “Waithe’s character is, like pretty much every character in every Pixar movie, essentially sexless; her girlfriend never appears on screen, so whatever intimacy the two of them might share happens only in the viewer’s imagination.” It’s worth asking whether this approach is better or worse than making the character’s sexuality more apparent, which might fall into the trap of harmful stereotyping. At the same time, treating gay characters in the exact same way as straight characters with the aim of normalizing them can has the effect of erasing difference completely.

Furthermore, the character is a police officer. This may seem like an innocuous choice, and given the light tone of the movie and the little amount of screentime given to the character, it probably is. But at the same time, LGBTQ cops are often difficult to portray in works of fiction. One has to balance both the reality that LGBTQ cops exist (and that they often become police officers with the aim of improving the way law enforcement treats their community) and the history of police brutality against gay people who protest against the state. This troubled relationship between gay people and cops is evident throughout the latter half of the 20th-century. In 1974, for example, the police department of Alamedea County in California began recruiting gay officers, because gay people in San Fransicsco were deeply uncomfortable reporting crimes to straight officers. In January of 2020, the San Francisco pride parade voted to ban various police departments from marching, and issued a statement that “[Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies can participate in Pride] so long as they do not visibly identify as deputies of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office while doing so.” This small example is a microcosm of the relationship between police officers and gay people on a larger scale, which involves both opposition and intersection. In that sense, portraying a gay character as a police officer, especially if that character is the first gay character in your animation company’s history, inevitably comes with baggage.

We might compare this problematic representation with NBC’s hit show Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which has been ensnared throughout its run in the same controversy as Onward. One of the main characters of the show is both a black gay man and a high-ranking captain within the NYPD. Funké Joseph, a black fan of the show, has written about the whiplash he experiences every time he sees this character, and how he balances between enjoying the show’s jokes and remembering the brutal reality behind the script. He explains that,

“Real life cops have abused their power countless times against me and people who look like me. It still feels like almost every other day there’s another black police brutality victim being turned into a post-mortem hashtag. That’s why cheering for the utopian version of cops is a moral dilemma for me.”

That same moral dilemma is evident on a much smaller scale in Onward. The film encourages gay viewers, who may have a deeply negative relationship with the police, to cheer for a lesbian cop.

The fact that there is a gay character in Onward at all is a good sign; at the very least it signals that Disney thought it was more profitable to market to a LGBTQ or LGBTQ-friendly audience than the “family values” group. But it remains crucial that we understand Disney’s profit-based motivations for this move, beyond the empty rhetoric and marketing strategies. One solution for the moral problem of representation, perhaps, is to stop giving Disney credit for every new “first gay character,” and begin to ask what kinds of gay representation are considered acceptable for mainstream audiences and why.


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The Unexpected Tension of Netflix’s Nanette

photograph of a microphone and a dark background

“I don’t feel comfortable in a small town. I get a bit tense. Mainly because I’m in this situation,” Hannah Gadsby, a gender non-conforming comedian, says, airing her hands over her navy T-shirt and open blue blazer with a black lapel. “And in a small town, that’s alright. From a distance. People are like, ‘Oh, good bloke.’ And then you get a bit closer and then it’s like, ‘Oh no, no, trickster woman, what are you doing?”

Released on Netflix June 19th, Nanette has reached international attention. Gadsby’s opening string of jokes that introduce her comedy show at the Sydney Opera House seem like a humorous introduction to her life and the small Australian island of Tasmania where she comes from; however, they actually foreshadow the whole show. From a distance, comedy seems safe. You know what you are getting out of the genre. If you get offended by a joke, you’re too sensitive or don’t have a good enough sense of humor.

Ironically, Gadsby, the comedian running the show, says that people tell her all of the time, “Don’t be so sensitive.” I’m sure that many of us have laughed at jokes with which we were uncomfortable just because everyone else did. Maybe we have even walked out after a comedy show a bit sick to our stomachs about some offhand humor. But Gadsby’s show is unlike any other because she liberates us from the groupthink and easy laughter, raising her expectations for the audience. In fact, it would be inappropriate to laugh during the serious portions of her show. She brings a question into the mix that you would never expect out of a comedy show: “Why is insensitivity something to strive for?” She challenges her audience to think critically, and her show navigates humor and heartbreak.

Gadsby jokes about people apologizing for calling her sir: “I love being mistaken for a man because just for a few moments, life gets a hell of a lot easier. I’m top shelf normal, king of the humans,” she shouts in a deep voice. “I’m a straight white man.” Just like her initial physical appearance to passing strangers, her comedy show invites the audience in with disarming self-deprecating humor before challenging the genre and making people consider the price of her jokes. Trickster woman.

An audience member complained after her show once that there was “not enough lesbian content,” which becomes a refrain that she repeats in a sarcastically bitter voice throughout Nanette. Gadsby jokes, “I cook dinner way more than I lesbian. But nobody ever introduces me as that chef comedian, do they?” In her profession and life, her sexuality becomes a marker for her person: a label to boil down her comedy. She does not identify as transgender nor believe that lesbian is an appropriate identifier for her, but other people are eager to categorize.

A comedian would not be introduced as that straight comedian. Comedians would not be described as male or white. The expectations for their content are not qualified. People with intersectional aspects of their identities become “not normals”—to use Gadsby’s words—while the people who trump them in race, sexuality, class, ability, and gender privilege become the baseline normal with the top of the privilege ladder being simply: a comedian.

Another refrain throughout the show is her announcement that she has to quit comedy. Reflecting on her career as a whole, she says, “When I first started the comedy over a decade ago, always, nothing but lesbian content.” She tells her humorous tale about coming out to her mother and a joke about a young man who was about to fight her at the bus stop because he thought that she was a man flirting with his girlfriend. The jokes work. The audience erupts in laughter.

Halfway through the show, Gadsby says, “Let me explain to you what a joke is.” She continues, “a question that I have artificially inseminated with tension. I do that. That’s my job.” Gadsby can control tension so well because—as a gender non-conforming woman—she has been familiar with it since childhood: “I didn’t have to invent the tension. I was the tension.”

Contributing to why she wants to quit comedy, she explains, “In a comedy show, there is no room for the best part of the story. Which is the ending. In order to finish on a laugh, you have to end with punchlines.” Sharing the third part ending of her coming out story, she says, “The best part of that story is that mum and I have a wonderful relationship now.” She pauses, shrugging her shoulders and looking around. “Look what I’ve done to the room. No tension. You all just go, ‘Eh, good on you.’”

With a happy ending, the tension dissipates. Through comedy, Gadsby cannot share full stories, especially the ones that skyrocket the tension and fail to conclude in a punchline that eases our worries. Revisiting the story that she told about the young man at the bus stop, she says, “I couldn’t tell the part of the story when that man realized his mistake. And he came back. And he said, ‘Oh, no, I get it. You’re a lady f**got. I’m allowed to beat the sh*t out of yous,’ and he did. He beat the sh*t out of me, and nobody stopped him.” She did not report him to the police or go to the hospital, explaining, “[B]ecause I thought that is all I was worth.”

Leaving us hanging, Gadsby does not give us the antidote to tension. She does not offer us the relief of laughter that she has been providing audiences for over ten years, proclaiming, “And this tension is yours, I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like because this, this tension, is what not normals carry around inside of them all of the time because it is dangerous to be different.” Gadsby carries that third part of the story every time that she relives the tension of the first two parts that make up the joke, but this time she uses her platform to share the whole thing.

Gadsby shares that her mother once told her that she felt badly for raising her as if she were straight, telling Gadsby, “I made it worse because I wanted you to change because I knew the world wouldn’t.” Well, in this revolutionary show, Gadsby quits playing into the same humor that has launched her career all of the way to the stage at the Sydney Opera House. Instead, she uses the genre to upend it. Trickster woman. And instead of an hour of changing herself, she spends it changing the world through genius, humor, heartbreak, and sensitivity.

California Has its Own Travel Ban. Is That a Good Thing?

Photo of a California highway

In January 2017, a California law went into effect that prohibits state funding for travel to states that have passed laws that are discriminatory toward members of the LGBTQ community.  There are currently eight states on the list: Kansas, North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, South Dakota, and Texas.  The ban does not limit personal, private travel in any way.

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Let Them Eat Cake: Public Accommodations and Religious Liberty in Colorado

A photo of a man waving an LGBTQ+ rainbow flag outside the Supreme Court

On December 5, the US Supreme court heard arguments in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  This case gives the newly minted Trump majority an opening to rethink public accommodations law. Currently, 45 states have laws that prohibit discrimination by businesses offering public accommodations: loosely, those offering goods or services to the general public. (The federal government claims some scope for jurisdiction under the interstate commerce clause.) These laws have always been controversial.  Most recently, evangelical Christians have been arguing that these laws are too broad. The court has a chance to narrow the scope of public accommodation laws: prohibiting discrimination only in more narrowly defined range of essential accommodations.

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Masculinity Across Sports

When conjuring up the perfect image of masculinity in your mind, most people imagine the typical high school jock. He plays football, basketball, ice hockey, or a similar hypermasculine activity. Rarely does a runner, swimmer, or this sort of “second tier” of masculinity in sports arise. By assigning masculinized predispositions to certain sports, could the conversation surrounding masculinity become skewed from a young age? If so, this would certainly create a problematic discourse around certain sports and limit a conversation for LGBTQ+ communities to have a voice within this realm.

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Same-Sex Marriage: A Libertarian Perspective

The dust is just now beginning to settle on same-sex marriage in the United States, since the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges established the unconstitutionality of state-level bans on such marriages. Though the law of the land has been established, all the legal and sociocultural effects remain to be seen (for example, can elected officials receive a religious exemption from performing certain job-related duties).
Is same-sex marriage a victory for freedom? It’s hard to say, and depends on who you ask. The ability to marry a partner of the same sex at the same time both expands the life possibilities for many citizens, while also bringing them into the fold of semi-coercive social norms regarding what a proper long-term romantic relationship and family look like. The Supreme Court let “love win,” but that love is now an increasingly institutionalized one.
To those who we could call “rule of law” libertarians, the most important consideration is fairness and impartiality under the law. This perspective comes down in favor of same-sex marriage for obvious reasons having to do with fairness and equal protection. End-the-state libertarians, on the other hand, strongly disapprove of government in marriage to begin with (on the grounds that it invites and normalizes the meddling of government in private affairs), and object to its expansion (even to same-sex couples) as more of a bad thing. Some in the LGBTQ community (who may or may not be libertarians or anarchists) share this concern, believing that marriage is a kind of well-meaning but ultimately pernicious encouragement towards the conventional domesticated lives they don’t actually want.
No principled libertarian objects to gay marriage for specifically moral reasons, having to do with “marriage” being reserved for the permanent bond between a man and a woman, for instance. Whether it is un-libertarian to have reservations about progressive views regarding the malleability of sexuality and family is a trickier question (certainly progressive, libertine, and conservative libertarians have basically always co-existed in libertarianism’s big tent).
Libertarians do reasonably worry that same-sex marriage will lead to the abridgment of other liberties, namely freedom of religion and freedoms of association, especially through commerce (see, for example, the fight over whether religious bakers must bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple). However it is certainly nothing new in principle that some values in a plural society would necessarily become pitted against others. And it does not seem to be the goal of same-sex marriage proponents to use that position strategically for the purpose of dismantling other liberties, though the possibility is real and conspiracy theories abound.
Could there be other libertarianism-consistent reasons to oppose same-sex marriage? Not really. Allowing only straight marriage in order to “strengthen the nuclear family” runs afoul of the libertarian goal of making minimalist policy that is as value-neutral as possible. Even if same-sex marriage and parenting somehow did in fact weaken family life overall (it’s complicated, and family stability may matter more than gender), that would be a less important consideration for even most socially conservative libertarians than establishing state neutrality in marriage. In any case, there are relatively hands-off ways for the government to fight childhood poverty and provide opportunity to families, like properly-structured earned income tax credits and basic food support, that do not necessarily require discriminating on the basis of the biological or adoptive parents’ sexuality.
Similarly, slippery slope arguments against same-sex marriage don’t seem to be consistent with libertarianism. The threat of a slippery slope from same-sex marriage to multiple partner marriage (polygamy) is real. However, that move only seems like a pernicious slippery slope if one assumes that legally-sanctioned marriages must be between one man and one woman in the first place. Rule-of-law libertarians would likely reject that assumption.
In the end, it is not really up for debate – from a libertarian perspective – whether people of the same gender should be allowed to marry conditional on the fact that government is in the marriage business in the first place. Since marriage, in the civil-legal light, is about distributing the benefits and burdens of a particular form of citizenship, that form of citizenship should be in some strong sense available to all.
It’s a separate issue as to whether the government should require private businesses that cater to heterosexual weddings also to cater to same-sex weddings. The primary values at stake here are economic freedom versus non-discrimination, but the situation is much more narrow than the marriage question in general (which necessarily has broad and far-reaching consequences over many citizens’ whole lives). Whether a libertarian, or anyone, should trade some economic freedom in the attempted pursuit of non-discrimination is, however, a topic for another time.