Quick, name as many gay male Disney characters as you can.
Don't think too hard, because it's a trick question: The answer depends on how you define "gay." If by gay, you mean a guy that is sexually and/or romantically attracted to other guys, then there have been zero gay guys in Disney animated films. (Honourable mention goes to Oaken from Frozen, whose wonderfully nonchalant coming-out scene was so downplayed that many people argue it wasn't real.)
But if by "gay" you mean mincing, sibilant, underhanded villains with a penchant for extravagant hats, there have been many to choose from, like King Candy (Wreck-It Ralph), Jafar (Aladdin), Governor Ratcliffe (Pocahontas), Hades (Hercules), Scar (The Lion King ), or Shere Khan (The Jungle Book). In the 90s, so many films in the "Disney Renaissance" featured gay villains, it felt like they'd hired Anita Bryant as a creative consultant.
It's easy to take potshots at Disney since it's the biggest target in the field. But the truth is, when it comes to mainstream animated kids' movies, the crypto-homo villain has been a stalwart for decades. In his new documentary Do I Sound Gay? author, filmmaker, and gay-sounding American David Thorpe includes a super-cut of some of the many homicidal sissies in animated films, Disney and otherwise. For those of you who haven't recently revisited these movies, it might be a little surprising to see so many forgotten villains – like Professor Ratigan, from The Great Mouse Detective –vamp and swish devilishly across the screen.
"Films need villains," Thorpe said in a phone interview, "and for a very long time, the effete, aristocratic, effeminate man was the villain."
Animated films didn't invent this trope, Thorpe makes clear in DISG? Rather, they drew it directly from Hollywood villains like Laura's Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb) and All About Eve's Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). Sanders, in fact, would go on to voice Shere Khan, perhaps the first such gay-ish villain in animated film. Interestingly enough, although Webb was most likely a closeted homosexual, Sanders was a fairly promiscuous straight guy who was at one point married to sex bomb Zsa Zsa Gabor.
So what makes both of their voices "sound gay?" This is one of the central questions in DISG? According to Ron Smyth, professor emeritus of psychology and linguistics at the University of Toronto, the answer isn't as straightforward as you might expect. In 1999, Smyth and two colleagues began studying the gay voice, by recording gay and straight men talking, and then having listeners guess the sexuality of the speakers. The biggest result? Gaydar hardly exists. Listeners guessed correctly in only 62 percent of cases, which just barely touched statistical significance. Gays were no more likely than straights to guess correctly, but all listeners were more likely to correctly identify straight men by their voices than gay men.
Other surprising findings included the fact that pitch "showed no correlation whatsoever with who is gay or who sounds gay." Rather, listeners were paying attention to learned linguistic features like sibilant S's, clear articulation, breathy voices, and upspeaking at the end of sentences, showing that the vocal features we associate with gayness are not inborn, but instead learned at a very early age, probably right as we acquire language. Smyth theorised that "boys who have these less stereotypically masculine personalities are attending more to female speech, which ends up being considered as sounding gay, even if they're not."
Rarely do we see of these kinds of "sissy boys" as being dangerous (though I assure you, we are), so how did we become such boogeymen in film? "The central subject of a lot of movies is the marriage plot," explained Thorpe. "Gay men stand outside that agenda – or at least they did until last week." Gay people were seen as a "threat to the moral order," and that symbolic danger was presented in countless films.
This is not to say there hasn't been progress over the last few decades, even in animated movies for kids. In all fairness, King Candy from Wreck-It Ralph is somewhat of an anachronism, the last sissy sociopath standing if you will. These days, the "gay" character is more often the stalwart best friend, the goofy comic relief, or part of an entourage of various stereotypes that play backup to the lead character's journey of self-discovery and heterosexual romance.
In fact right now, gay vague is in vogue. Thorpe points to King Julian, the light-in-the-loafers lemur from Madagascar, as being emblematic of this kind of character. These comic "pansies" go back all the way to early silent films, where they helped establish the leading man's masculinity with their ridiculous poofery. But "after the Hays code [a conservative set of industry standards for filmmakers] comes in in the 1930s," Thorpe said, Hollywood became "much more conservative." Now, it wasn't enough to gently mock non-normative sexuality or drug use, it had to be treated as evil and the characters themselves eventually punished, usually by death.
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Thankfully, almost a century later, we've finally made it back to being as progressive as the 1920s. Yet even as actual kids are coming out earlier and earlier, their on-screen counterparts, role models, heroes, and villains have remained resolutely closeted, existing only in suggestion, innuendo, and stereotype. (At least, this is the case in America. Anime has a long tradition of gay characters, and even couples, in programming intended for kids.)
Recently, however, this last barrier has begun to break, in large part thanks to one company: Laika Studios. In 2012's Paranorman, they featured a gay jock named Mitch, and in The Box Trolls, their narrator specifically mentions all kinds of families, including ones with two fathers or two mothers. In an interview in 2013, Laika CEO Travis Knight explained, "The kinds of films we make have to be consistent with our values... Sometimes that means putting yourselves out there a little bit."
Personally, I hope we see more gay villains – just ones who are gay gay. Gay heroes as well, and sidekicks and straight men and bit parts, too. I hope the pansy doesn't disappear just because he's a stereotype, but I hope he's allowed to be more than just a stereotype. And I hope gay men get to be more than just pansies. But it will take brave, conscience-driven filmmakers and studios to get us there.
Do I Sound Gay? is now screening at the IFC Centre in New York and on cable-on-demand. It opens in select theatres in the US on July 17.
Hugh Ryan is on Twitter.