My Town: the Strange Sexuality of Disney’s Underworld
In 1937 Goebbels presented a birthday gift of 18 Mickey Mouse shorts to the Führer. [...Disney] and Hitler [...] shared an overall social vision. They dreamed of a dispersed post-urban society, with a population — kept in line by a strong domestic realm instilling a keen sense of blood loyalty and “family values” — that could be efficiently mobilized to serve either the military needs of the state or the labor needs of industry.
- Matt Roth, The Lion King: a Short History of Disney-Fascism
Everyone knows about Disney’s ongoing racism issues, so to hear that Uncle Walt was an active member of the American Nazi Party during the Thirties may not come as much surprise. But there were pink triangles as well as yellow stars in 1930s Berlin, and I want to know why pretty much all of Disney’s villains seem designed to display some kind of sexual or gender deviance.
An Actor’s Life for Me
It starts with Pinocchio, and the Fox and the Cat. Probably best remembered for their song ‘An Actor’s Life for Me‘, it’s this pair of crooks that first lure young Pinocchio off the straight and narrow. And I mean that literally: they’re Theatre Folk, dapper, urbane and not a little camp. Their bodies are constantly intertwining, grotesque and chaotic. I’m with Matt Roth when he says they’re obviously coded as gay – one of the key minorities Hitler argued, in Mein Kampf, were threatening the health and morality of contemporary European youth.
But this doesn’t end with the fall of Hitler; later Disney films work their way through a succession of sexually deviant or ambiguous villains. The first significant entrant is the terrifying Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty(1959). Like Aladdin‘s Jafar (1992), she is elegant and a bit camp, though fundamentally sexless (witness how unattracted Jafar is to Princess Jasmine, wanting her only for political gains). Maleficent inhabits a strange underworld where orgiastic parties are the norm, and, like so many of her villainous successors, she’s got no-one of her own, but still remains determined to thwart the monogamous, heterosexual union of the noble royals Princess Aurora and Prince Philip (whose name was chosen by Uncle Walt in the 50s, when our Prince Philip was still someone nostalgia-loving Anglophile Americans might feel dewy-eyed about).
Two years later, 101 Dalmatians‘ Cruella De Vil continues the trend. She shares Maleficent’s ill will towards the heteronormative family sphere, and acts as a kind of child-snatching boogyman. Her hyper-femme fashion sense only throws her withered, sexless frame into relief, and unlike the blissful feminine home of her friend Anita – who has settled down and found a nice man to take care of, sorting out Roger’s chaotic life with a Woman’s Touch – Cruella’s decadent mansion is completely falling apart, which we can probably assume also mirrors the state of her biological clock. Cruella’s flamboyant yet barren sexuality focuses itself instead on fetishising the traditional trappings of femininity, including fur coats made from the produce of wombs more fecund than her own – like Perdita, the sexy Dalmatian.
In the 80s, long after Walt’s death, the intentional gender deviance of Disney’s villains becomes more blatant still: this time the Gays are even more obviously in drag, and they’re looking back to the golden Pinocchio age of seducing The Children away from their suburban homes: think of Ursula in The Little Mermaid (1989) and her contrast with the alpha male King Triton, his big beard, and the Barbie-style Arial with her Princess Diana hair.
Ursula is overweight, flamboyant and dragged up; her tentacles, as my pal Matt Roth points out (you really must read this article, seriously), only make her the more sexually ambiguous. Like Maleficent, she lives in an underground other-world, with a ‘garden’ of corrupted young people now condemned to live half-lives as plant-like beings. Her stagey hyper-femininity presents her as a dangerous prospect for the heteronormative, cisnormative Arial – whose voice she steals in order to seduce the also very straight Prince Eric.
Ursula is given a metaphorical kind of new life (after being conquered by, er, the erect prow of Prince Eric’s enormous ship) in the figure of Hades in Hercules (1997). He’s pretty much an exact counterpart to Ursula, black tentacles and all. His cabaret-style song ‘My Town’, from the Hercules TV series, introduces the underworld as a kind of underground New York, with its king a flamboyant, gender-ambiguous leader revelling in its delights:
It’s interesting, of course, that because of the source-text, Hercules must of necessity espouse the Ancient Greek worldview that says the Underworld – and therefore Hades himself – is a crucial part of the order of things; unlike the shady worlds of Pleasure Island and The Theatre in Nazi-era Pinocchio, ‘New Hades’, and the queers and deviants that inhabit it is a potentially corrupting influence that can be tolerated, as long as it’s kept firmly in its place. It’s much the same theory as the ‘Circle of Life’ proposed by Mufasa in The Lion King (1994) - the ghettoised handout-dependent hyenas and their liberal, childless and urbane overlord Scar are fine, as long as they’re kept in their own sphere (that is, the obscure Elephants’ Graveyard). When they take over, the Pridelands fall into ruin and corruption.
There are also a whole host of less significant characters throughout Disney’s oeuvre who are mostly made ridiculous by virtue of their sexual ambiguity and concomitant lack of personhood. First up is the rotund Le Fou in Beauty and the Beast, who fawns, much like the Cat on the Fox, on the hyper-male Gaston (who is in strange contrast to the uber-femme but dragged up Ursula, and seems suspiciously uninterested in the various females laid on for his consumption).
Then there’s Chi Fu, the emperor’s advisor in Mulan. He is primarily ridiculed because he is camp and rather gender-ambiguous – he has bunny slippers and a woman’s scream – in what I’d suggest is a double-whammy of homophobia mixed with Orientalist racism, much like that currently directed against Asian-American basketball player Jeremy Lin (‘Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight‘ was a tweet from Fox sports commentator Jason Witlock on Lin’s recent sporting triumph). Or, to put it in Disney’s own terms, how about the notorious Siamese Cats in Lady and the Tramp, whose own gender is confused to say the least?
It’s interesting to compare these gender-fails with Chi Fu’s own filmic context - Mulan (1998), where the title character is herself cross-dressing. There are two direct references to drag in this film (strange, given that Disney doesn’t in general have much of Dreamworks’ obsessive-compulsive need to shove in over-the-kids’-heads jokes for the parents). The only one in direct reference to Mulan is Mushu (Eddie Murphy)’s Hilarious Ebonics – ‘Miss Man had to take her little drag act on the road’.
Yet, unlike the true weirdos doing it for a sexual thrill (like Ursula), Mulan’s is a noble gender-variance, taken on for the sole purpose of rescuing her ailing father and (ultimately) preparing herself mentally for marriage, which is how the film ends; note too that she has to become male in order to truly triumph in the male sphere, and that once this has been accomplished she can return home to her father and marry the sexy shirtless man (as she was unable to do at the beginning of the story).
It is therefore in keeping that her methodology basically amounts to ‘hair down = female; hair up = male’ – and no-one ever notices it’s all the same person, just with a different hairstyle (note how shocked the Evil Shan Yu is when she dons her ‘disguise‘): her gender-switch is more of a ‘sign’ to the audience indicating which social sphere she’s inhabiting than anything literally transformative. Interesting stuff here.
Hmm. So… From the Fox and the Cat to the villains of the 90s, Disney’s villains have represented a kind of ‘other’ that is almost always couched in terms of gender or sexuality, representing a challenge, and a threat, to the heteronormative worldview of the heroes and heroines – which always conquers, of course. What’s disturbing is that it’s so oft-repeated it almost becomes the whole unspoken tenet on which Disney’s works are based. The fight of good vs. evil is not so much a battle of objective morality as of sexual identity and preference.