Disney needs to put up or shut up when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation

Marvel’s new trans character is good news, but tokenism won’t fly this time

Written by
Cathy Brennan

It’s good news that Disney is promising to enter a new frontier by introducing a transgender female character into the MCU. But, writes trans writer Cathy Brennan, it’s time to drop the lip service and start delivering meaningful characters

Back in 2019, it was reported that Marvel was planning to introduce the first trans female character into its vast universe of films and TV shows. At the time, there was speculation whether she would appear in Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings or Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It turns out that the character will be a Black, Latina or Afro-Latina transgender woman between the ages of 18 and 22, and that she will make her debut in the Disney+ series Ironheart. Little is known about the series, which will star Dominique Thorne as genius inventor Riri Williams. This Iron Man-like character will be making her own debut in the much-anticipated sequel to Black Panther.

The MCU is the most profitable franchise in Hollywood history, and enjoys popularity across the globe; a crown jewel in the Disney media empire. In a simpler world, the introduction of the first trans woman in this massive cast of characters would be cause for celebration among the LGBTQ+ community. However, the current state of LGBTQ+ politics in the US, Disney’s place in it, and indeed Disney’s own recent history, gives pause.

Disney’s promise of representation has become a tiresome performance in which LGBTQ+ audiences are set up for disappointment

Every year, the giant studio seems to make a ‘historic’ step towards increasing LGBTQ+ diversity with its output. I was barely out of my teens when people were talking about a minor, one-scene character in Frozen being gay because of a single blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. At approaching 30, the constant promise of representation has become a tiresome performance in which LGBTQ+ audiences are set up for disappointment. There was the teasing of an ‘exclusively gay moment’ in the run-up to 2017’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, and the gay man snapped by Thanos in Avengers: Endgame and his grieving lover played by co-director Joe Russo in 2019. 

That year also saw the first lesbian kiss in a Star Wars film: a moment whose superfluousness became food for snarky memes. Last year, we had to go over the same routine again with Cruella. And I hadn’t even clocked that 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home (albeit co-produced with another studio, Sony) had featured the first openly trans actor, Zach Barack, in the MCU. What purpose does this merry-go-round serve – and for whose benefit? 

Last Jedi
Photograph: Disney‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’s much-memed kiss

As one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, Disney obviously seeks to maximise its profits by appealing to as many people as possible simultaneously. Are the above examples of representation being deployed cynically to entice LGBTQ+ audiences, while still being superficial enough that they don’t alienate the phobes? It often feels that way.

In the US, Disney has historically donated millions to both sides of the political spectrum in order to remain cosy with everybody. It’s a delicate balancing act that has recently come under more intense
scrutiny as a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation has been pushed across the country: from the threat of  criminalising parents in Texas for supporting their their trans kids to the homophobic ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida. An open letter published by Pixar staff last month claims that Disney executives cut ‘nearly every moment of overtly gay affection’ in their films. Disney responded by hastily reinserting a gay kiss in the upcoming Buzz Lightyear, but the damage was done.

Disney tolerates LGBTQ+ representation in its films and TV shows so long as it isn’t too in your face and doesn’t threaten their bottom line. It could be that Ironheart breaks this pattern by introducing a well-developed trans character to the world. However, a single character cannot quell criticisms of Disney’s approach to LGBTQ+ representation up to this point. The House of Mouse must take a stronger stand, and just as importantly, maintain it.

Ironheart goes into production this year and will stream on Disney+.

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