People have been clamouring for a Disney princess that embodies LGBT traits for some time, but the latest #GiveElsaAGirlfriend campaign is misdirected, misguided and will ultimately fail to accomplish the very outcome it desires. Why is this so, and why do fans tend to believe otherwise? The answer is troubling and undermines all efforts aimed at increasing representation in the media.
When Frozen was first released, there was a sizeable chunk of the audience who attributed a theme of homosexual repression and revelation to the main antagonist Elsa. Although such a theme was not made explicit within the film, fans nonetheless ran with it and used it as a rallying point for the representation of LGBT characters in mainstream media.
While such desires have noble origins and intended outcomes, this latest effort is troubling on a number of fronts, and is an example of contemporary discord between creators and fans.
There are three clearly defined issues, and they are as follows:
- The desires and demands of fans
- The ability of a studio to accommodate demands
- The impact of the intended outcome
The maelstrom that is art, entertainment, economics, culture, representation, fandoms, and emotional connections is filled with problems without easy answers. Given the current state of affairs though, it’s necessary to understand why some of the relationships are broken and need to be repaired.
The Desires and Demands of Fans
Fans have always held an opinion on their chosen form of entertainment. Indeed, entire industries have grown up around fan discussion and debate regarding all forms of culture. Such activities are nothing new and serve a useful and necessary purpose; namely providing an output for emotions and a focal point around which to meet similarly-minded individuals. The influence of fans has always been a messy subject for creators to have to deal with. The cancellation of TV series has often been met with a severe backlash from fans, and any person who has been tasked with the continuity of an existing property knows all to well the fine line they must walk.
The traditional distance between creators and fans (both physical and otherwise) served as a natural barrier that insulated both sides from the sharpest opinions. Yet that distance has shrunk considerably, and practically disappeared in some cases. While the bond between properties and fans has grown stronger (and more profitable) as a result, the nature of the relationship has also changed; morphing from one where there was mutual respect on each for the other into one where neither side can do no wrong.
A few articles in recent times have made light of this deterioration in the relationship. Jesse Hassenger forms a persuasive argument in his piece for the A.V. Club and also makes an incredibly important point:
More broadly, though, the idea that hashtags, even progressive and non-sexist ones, might determine plot points of movies is a little chilling.
Similarly, Devon Faraci does a good job of outlining why fandom in general has become ever more vocal and demanding in recent times with a lot of credit being given to the internet for facilitating the change. Instilled along with both of these are wider cultural shifts in attitudes and expectations.The desire for instant gratification has become ever more potent, and the broad degree to which western consumers insulate themselves from the world around them have fed into the eagerness of fans to influence that part of the world does have an impact on their daily lives.
As such, with the facilitation of the internet, social media, and the closeness of the powers that be, it is inevitable that the demands of fans would become ever more potent. Add into the mix the general way that the internet tends to exaggerate everything, and you end up with people being spurred into acting in a manner that would be frowned upon in real-life.
How this complex mix of elements feeds into #GiveElsaAGirlfriend is more regrettable than expected. Taken from its original context, the notion of Elsa being a lesbian quickly passes through the warped lens of the internet, and emerges as a fully-formed campaign to influence the artistic direction of a feature film. The fact that it is a mere request is lost on its propagators who, insulated from balanced discussion and debate, come to see it as a psychological stand against oppression.
Such attitudes actively ignore and block out erstwhile facts and lead to articles with titles such as ’10 Pixar Characters We Decided are gay’. Topic of the article aside, such proclamations are self-fulfilling prophecies insofar that fans are unlikely to consider their inherent bias, but will readily desire to incorporate them into their opinions.
The Ability of a Studio to Accommodate Demands
The often-ignored aspect of fan demands is the ability of a studio to accommodate them. Long a problem, it stems from fans not being sufficiently knowledgeable of markets, broadcasting, industry economics, and most importantly, the needs of other consumers.
Fans provide a degree of support to entertainment properties but this can sometimes warp their perceived influence and status. Hassenger implies that some creators are more than happy to oblige fans and in doing so help fuel their sense of entitlement. While this may be true for small, or independent creators, the reality is very different for large studios such as Disney. For them, fans play an important role, but they are far from a necessity. Casual viewers and other members of the general public contribute an immensely larger share of revenues, and as a result, are given equal if not greater influence in the artistic direction of a property.
In the case of Frozen, this undoubtedly means parents and children and if their needs are not being catered to, there is a high likelihood that the film will be a flop. The desire to see Elsa be given a homosexual orientation would be in direct conflict with the film’s primary intended audience because they either a) don’t care/notice (kids), or b) would take issue with the intrusion of a corporation into their role as an educator (parents.)
Such a desire is also being fed by magnifying effect of the internet to the extent that the slight that is being perceived is being done to a larger segment of the population than is actually being affected. It is a fact that LGBT individuals form a minority of the general population (to what extent is not up for debate) and it should therefore stand to reason that a large corporation like Disney who wish to cater to the entire population will act in a manner that enables them to do so.
Related to this is the international reach of Disney and other large studios. America has long exported its culture, but there are many instance where American cultural exports have been censored or banned altogether due to national preferences or cultural expectations. Such actions have generally been shielded from the American public and this produces the connotation that the American/Western fans behind #GiveElsaAGirlfriend are ignorant to an extent of how well, if at all, such a trait would be accepted in markets other than North America and Europe. The nature of the topic means that if it were implemented, Disney would (not could) lose significant amounts of revenue and likely lose a significant if not total amount of it’s value as a brand.
Such an outcome would be unthinkable for both the company, and its stockholders. They after all, are they ultimate benefactors of Disney’s revenues Cultural benefactors (like viewers and fans) are privileged as to what they receive, but in a cold, hard, legal sense, it is the financial supporters of the artistic endeavour who hold the sole ability and will to influence the art.
The Impact of the Intended Outcome
Lastly, we must consider the impact of any outcome that has been initiated by fans. Would the revelation that Elsa is a lesbian have a significant impact? It would certainly generate feet of column inches and unleash a frenzy of activity on the internet and beyond. Yet would it create any real and meaningful change, and would the action become a prominent point in history?
Discussing this topic explicitly, we could consider the TV series Legend of Korra. Many fans have noted its ground-breaking nature by ending with the revelation that Korra chose a female romantic interest over a male one. Proponents argue that it was a watershed moment for LGBT representation in entertainment in general, let alone one aimed at a younger audience. While this may be true, the reality is that it stimulated millions of male fantasies and provided legitimised fodder for fans to propagate their lewd opinions and creations. Do these sound like positive impacts and results? Unintended consequences perhaps, but they are consequences nonetheless. Furthermore, do they overshadow the legitimate results that were intended?
Can the progression of LGBT rights in the US in recent years be traced in any meaningful way to Korra?
While the series is noteworthy because of it, the extent of its impact has been limited to discussions dealing explicitly with the topic at hand, and only then when referring to kids or animated TV shows. Looking forward, the series is likely to become a footnote in animation history rather than a significant milestone.
Therein lies the paradox inherent to all artistic, entertainment efforts. True progressions have almost always sprung forth unannounced, unsolicited, and unlike what came before. This is true in every sense. Walt Disney’s efforts to progress the art of animation were always amazingly different and always outshone his competitors. Representation in culture is no different and despite the allegations against him today, the Cosby Show is considered a milestone in television for portraying a middle class black American family at a time when such members of society were consistently considered lower class. Likewise the original Star Trek portrayed an interracial kiss on TV at a time when it was culturally taboo. None of these actions were prompted by demands from the audience.
No fan has ever demanded something that benefited somebody other than themselves because that is their primary goal regardless of protestations to the contrary. The real impact of their demands are limited to a similar degree. Giving Elsa girlfriend will accomplish little beyond convincing a minority segment of the general population that their perceived needs and demands are of greater importance than everyone else. Anyone expecting Disney to acquiesce to such demands should look elsewhere for real solutions. LGBT representation in media is an important contemporary issue, but it must be considered in an objective manner that does not prioritise it over the representation needs of other groups within the general population. To do so undermines all efforts at increasing representation and gives credence to the notion that inclusive casts and stories are unprofitable.