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My Town: the Strange Sexuality of Disney’s Underworld

2012 July 4

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

The Fox in Pinocchio is urbane and camp

An Actor’s Life for Me: The Fox seduces Pinocchio

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).

Cruella de Vil represents an aberrant form of sexless femininity when placed next to the hyper-femme Anita

Cruella de Vil – a withered, aberrant form of sexless femininity – squares up to the hyper-femme homemaker Anita

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.

Dragged Up

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 InnoDBl with her Princess Diana hair.

The villain from The Little Mermaid, Ursula looks like a drag queen.

Dragged up… Ursula from The Little Mermaid

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 InnoDBl – 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.

Hanging on

Le Fou fawns on Gaston and constantly occupies his personal space

Intertwined: the hyper-masculine Gaston and the fawning creature Le Fou

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?

Miss Man

When Mulan's hair is up, she's a man.

The only difference between male and female Mulan is a bit of grooming.

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.


10 Responses leave one →
  1. Miranda permalink*
    July 4, 2012

    I love Ursula and her sumptuous lasciviousness (Marina Warner calls it her “black velvet madam” look!) but I definitely agree we’re meant to see it as terrible in relation to Ariel. I can’t believe Disney have slimmed her down for their villains fashion design range – as though her shape isn’t a deliberate part of her design (and, I think, intended as an indicator of her excessive villainy- I try to ignore this when I watch the film)?!

    Still love her though. She has the BEST song.

  2. July 4, 2012

    Agree with all of this, and for anyone who wants further reading, I love this Lashings post (mostly for all the Scar, who’s my fave Disney villain! Actually, Hades my be my favourite. I can’t choose!

    • Hodge permalink
      July 4, 2012

      that’s a really good post, thank you for sharing!

    • July 6, 2012

      @Jen: Hi! Galatea of Lashings here — thanks so much for the link, glad you enjoyed the post :)

      @Hodge: Seriously excellent post! There are a lot of films here that I hadn’t even considered — this definitely seems to be pointing to a mile-wide streak of queerphobia running right through Disney kids’ films.

  3. Kay&theMerry permalink
    July 4, 2012

    Well, I have always found the Disney villains more interesting than the heroes, so… ;) But honestly, the more I read academical (read: intelligent) articles and analyses on Disney cartoons, the harder I find it to genuinely like them.

    ‘English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States’ by Rosina Lippi-Green has a whole chapter on how Disney’s feature films teach children to discriminate based on accents that deviate from the norm. It’s well worth a read if you are interested in sociolinguistics. (Unsurprisingly, most villains sound either a) foreign, or b) uneducated, whereas all heroes have a perfect standard accent, mostly of the US variety, and the use of AAVE in characters is horribly stereotypical.)

    • Hodge permalink
      July 4, 2012

      That’s interesting – the foreign thing in particular, as there’s an interesting history of Disney’s voice artists: in Dumbo the horribly racist crows (one of whom is actually CALLED Jim Crow) are voiced by white actors doing their best ‘black person’ impression. By the time you get to The Jungle Book, they wanted Louis Armstrong to be King Louis (which is why he’s called King Louis), but Armstrong wouldn’t do it (presumably because he had understandable issues about voicing a monkey singing about how he wants to be ‘like you’). So they got a less famous jazz singer to voice him. Then in the Lion King it’s Whoopi Goldberg voicing one of the hyenas – who are so obviously New York ghetto hoodlums (I think one of the others is Hispanic – it’s a sort of ‘generically foreign’ underworld). Something very disturbing there about how the ideologies become ingrained in what Disney are doing to an extent that they’re almost robbed of any power to shock and they actually manage to get people like Goldberg implicitly on side where they couldn’t get Armstrong (and I assume they wouldn’t even have ALLOWED any non-white actor to voice the crows at that point, even had they wanted to).

      Dunno, it’s not something I really want to comment on too much because I don’t think it’s really my place to do so, but there’s definitely something rather disturbing going on there.

  4. July 4, 2012

    Good piece. Just a quick note –

    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

    – this is actually a common trope in classic Chinese kung-fu flicks, rather than a Disney invention.

    • Hodge permalink
      July 4, 2012

      Interesting! Need to brush up on my kung-fu flicks, obv.

  5. Russell permalink
    July 4, 2012

    Everyone, WAIT! There is no way we can consider this issue properly without also considering the Kingdom Hearts video game series, which is…

    Oh, yeah, that main villain whose primary villainous act is to attempt to “steal the heart” of all the Disney princesses and possess the body of a young boy really doesn’t make things any better, does he? Because Japan I suppose…

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