Queer cinema

The debate over whether Elsa from ‘Frozen’ is gay is far more complex than we realise

The campaign to introduce queer characters in Disney films is a microcosm of the greater churn convulsing Hollywood.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has released its annual Studio Responsibility Index, which reports on LGBT visibility in the movies during the previous year. While none of the major studios, including Lionsgate, Sony and Universal, did particularly well, Disney was among the few that received the lowest rating, Failing, on LGBT inclusion.

This is not surprising. For a production company that churns out one hit fairy tale after another, it makes sense not to rock the boat with alternative readings that go beyond the storybook magic most children (and parents) associate with the studio. But things came to a head for Disney. Apart from the GLAAD reprimand, Twitter was awash in the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend. Started by women’s rights activist Alexis Isabel, the hashtag asked Disney honchos to give the princess from the hit movie Frozen an explicitly queer identity in the sequel, which is in production.

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The ‘Let It Go’ song from ‘Frozen’.

For too long, the fairy tale genre has had a fixed template: a struggle between good and evil that can only be won when the protagonist undertakes an impossible task. In the stories of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the damsel in distress is rescued by a Prince Charming, and the couple proceeds to live happily ever after. The story is set in a suitably distant past, captured in that evocative, if clichéd, phrase “Once upon a time...”

Yet, for all the surface straightforwardness, Disney movies and characters have had a long history of queer interpretations envisioned by eager fans. Writing in the Guardian, Nico Lang draws attention to the standard over-the-top Disney villain who hews to a certain stylised, effeminate representation that, if not gay, is most definitely queer. Lang mentions such classic Disney villains as Ursula from The Little Mermaid and Scar from The Lion King to make his point.

But why blame only Disney? Hollywood’s representation of homosexuality has gone through many hoops to arrive at the current situation, where films like The Kids Are All Right showcase stable gay families whose queerness is often apolitical. The premise of The Kids Are All Right was the normality of homosexuality, a welcome departure from its close precedent, Brokeback Mountain, which meticulously tracks the tragedy of alternative sexuality.

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A clip from ‘The Kids Are All Right’.

With all the new LGBT-friendly narratives now seen on television and in the movies, Disney remains one of the last walls to be breached. The studio continues to extend copyright on its famed properties, because of which we only have the company to rely on to give us more egalitarian representations of its classic characters. Disney’s history of lobbying to get its way is demonstrated in the protracted extensions it has engineered in the copyright law to ensure that Mickey Mouse, its most valuable property, stays out of bounds of others.

Even so, the company must look to give its stories a makeover, if for no other reason than to beat the competition. Disney’s lineup of innocuous girls waiting to be rescued is in immense contrast to the aggressive women of, say, Star Wars and Game of Thrones. The studio seems to inhabit a quaint universe divorced from the larger churn within the narrative space. Even its television show, Once Upon A Time, which brings myriad Disney characters under one roof, plumbs for classic fairy tale tropes rather than subversion, a pity since television is perhaps the most exciting medium for LGBT storylines today.

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The ‘Got to be the Queen’ music video from ‘Once Upon a Time’.
The tricky question of enforcing queer narratives on beloved films is perhaps best broached via Elsa, as popular a princess from recent Disney history as any. To be sure, there are risks galore in drowning characters in alternative politics in later phases of production. For evidence, look no further than Merida from Disney’s Brave, whose stridently feminist tone seemed an afterthought strapped to the film’s narrative scope. Unless the character is organically imagined as queer or feminist, there is the danger that the studio will yield a product that fails creatively.
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The trailer of ‘Brave’.

Elsa, at least, is better imagined than Merida. Critics have already dubbed the Frozen heroine as a feminist icon because of her ardent desire to reunite with her sister, which is a marked departure for fictive princesses whose trials and tribulations are usually driven by the need for romantic consummation.

That Elsa must learn to control her magical powers has been read as a distinctly queer subtext about the slipperiness of coming out as LGBT. The superhit track “Let It Go” has been appropriated as a queer anthem. Some critics have wondered if the character of Oaken, as suggested by the scene in the lodge, is gay, though opinion remains divided on whether his partner, caught for the briefest moment inside the sauna, is a man or a mannish woman.

Does Oaken have a wife or a husband?
Does Oaken have a wife or a husband?

Frozen can rightly be called a slyly gay film. But should the film’s producers make this connection explicit? Applying queer theory to classic fairy tales raises hackles because it gets tied up with conservative criticism of pushing a “gay agenda”. On the one hand, there is something to be said for introducing kids to queer identities and love stories at an earlier age. With gay marriage now a nationwide reality in America, and with LGBT kids coming out earlier, there is little reason why the real world should not find reflection in fantasy land.

On the other hand, there is the question of the market served by Disney. The success of Disney productions relies on their ability to recreate an intimate space that can be shared across generations. It is moot how conducive such a setting is to queer themes that deviate significantly from traditional fairy tale tropes.

There is also the question of what representation of queer themes should aim for. Queer identity, by its very nature, is so fluid and vast that perhaps it is better served by keeping things unsettled. Why must Elsa have a girlfriend? Why not take her feminism a notch further and have her revel in her single status? The debate over having Elsa come out in Frozen 2 omits to look at a heroine beyond the constraints of romantic love, whatever its hue. Are we keen to label Elsa as gay because she, like Merida, is not girly enough? Isn’t such thinking problematic too, since it is also beholden to labels, although of a different kind? If queer politics is about alternative romance, surely it should also be about alternative lifestyles?

Finally, there is the issue of how diversity in film must be pursued. There is, for instance, an entire galaxy of material in the Arabian Nights stories waiting to be reconsidered, but all we seem focused on are Grimm’s tales. This question goes beyond Disney and is mixed up with other diversity markers, such as race. One of the criticisms hurled by GLAAD in its study is the poor representation of non-white queer characters in Hollywood films. Most LGBT-themed films of the last year, such as Carol and The Danish Girl, had all-white casts. The outlier was Tangerine, a genre-bending film about two transgender black women that was eagerly lapped up on the indie circuit.

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A clip from ‘Tangerine’.

The debate about queer Disney is a microcosm of the greater churn convulsing Hollywood. Responding to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Chris Rock, the host of this year’s Academy Awards, explained why the lack of black nominations is such a major deal when black actors have been routinely overlooked for Oscar nominations in the past. “You know, when your grandmother is swinging from the tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short,” Rock joked.

The demand for a gay Elsa should be seen in this light. In an America of marriage equality and greater acceptance, demands for leading characters to be gay will only rise. There was a time when no leading man would want to play gay onscreen. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal tore down that wall in Brokeback Mountain. The wall looks set to be breached again, this time in animation.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.