On March 9, LGBTQ employees and allies at Pixar Animation Studios sent a joint statement to The Walt Disney Company’s leadership, alleging that Disney executives had actively censored “apparent gay affections” in their feature films. The startling allegation, made as part of a larger protest against the company’s lack of public response to Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law, did not include which Pixar films survived censorship, nor what specific creative decisions were cut or cut was changed.
But in at least one case, the statement seems to have made a significant difference.
According to a source close to the production, Pixar’s next feature film Lightyear – starring Chris Evans as the alleged real-life inspiration for Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear – will feature a major female character, Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba), who is in a significant relationship with another woman. While the fact that the relationship was never questioned in the studio, a kiss between the characters had been cut from the film. However, the kiss was reinstated in the film last week following uproar over testimony from Pixar employees and Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s handling of the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
The decision marks what could be a major turning point for LGBTQ representation not only in Pixar films but in feature film animation in general, which is steadfastly concerned with portraying same-sex affection in a meaningful light.
Certainly there are several examples of overt LGBTQ portrayal in game animations created for adult audiences, including 1999’s “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut”, 2007’s “Persepolis”, 2016’s “Sausage Party” and ” Flee” from 2021.” But in a G- or PG-rated animated film, the ubiquitous approach was to narrate, not show — and just barely. Arguably the now high-profile LGBTQ character in a studio animated film—Katie (Abbi Jacobson), the teenage lead of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, produced by Sony Pictures Animation and published by Netflix—is the exception that proves the rule: This explicit fact of Katie’s identity is not fully revealed until the film’s final moments, when her mother makes a cursory reference to her friend.
In Pixar’s 27-year history, there have only been a small handful of explicit LGBTQ characters of any kind. In 2020’s Onward, a one-eyed police officer (Lena Waithe) who appears in a few scenes mentions her friend. In 2019’s Toy Story 4, two mothers hug their child’s farewell at kindergarten. And 2016’s Finding Dory features a brief shot of what appears to be a lesbian couple, though the film’s filmmakers were shy about defining them that way at the time. The most overt LGBTQ project in Pixar’s canon is a 2020 short, Out, about a gay man struggling to come out to his parents – which the studio is making available as part of its SparkShorts program on Disney Plus published.
But according to several former Pixar employees who spoke to diversity For years, on condition of anonymity, creatives within the studio have attempted to incorporate LGBTQ identity into their storytelling in ways big and small, only to have those efforts consistently thwarted. (A Disney spokesperson declined to comment on this story.)
In Pixar’s 2021 release Luca, two young sea monsters who appear human on land, Luca (Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), form a deep friendship that many interpreted as a coming-out allegory – The New York Times review of the film was headlined “Calamari by Your Name.” The film’s director, Enrico Casarosa, even told The Wrap that he had “talked about” that Luca and Alberto’s friendship could be romantic in nature. But he was quick to add that “we haven’t talked about it that much” because the film focuses on “friendship” and is “pre-romance.”
“Some people seem pissed that I’m not saying yes or no, but I feel like, well, this is a movie about being open to difference,” added Casarosa.
According to two sources who spoke to me diversityHowever, the “Luca” filmmakers also debated whether the human girl who befriends Luca and Alberto, Giulia (Emma Berman), should be queer. But the creative team seemed to have balked at doing it without also creating a girlfriend for the character.
“We ran into the question very often, ‘How do we do that without giving them a love interest?'” Says a source who works at the studio. “That happens a lot at Pixar.”
It’s unclear why a studio that has infused everything from plastic toys to concepts of sadness and joy with multidimensional life would be at a loss as to how to create an LGBTQ character with no love interest. But it also seems that Pixar struggled to incorporate queer imagery itself as part of the background. Several sources told diversity that efforts to incorporate signifiers of LGBTQ identity into the sets of films set in certain American cities known for having a sizable LGBTQ population — namely, 2020’s “Soul” (in New York City) and “Inside Out” of 2015 (in San Francisco) – were gunned down. A source said a rainbow sticker posted in a store’s window was removed because it was deemed too “distracting”.
Other sources said the same-sex couples have also been removed from the background of these films, although a studio insider insists they appear in Soul. (A review of the film by diversity noted some instances of two women sitting or standing in close proximity to each other in takes lasting less than a second, but the nature of their relationship is ambiguous.)
What is worrying now how This censorship apparently manifested itself in the studio. The March 9 statement by Pixar employees said that “Disney company ratings” were responsible for the reduction in LGBTQ representation at Pixar — which would include the tenure of Chapek’s predecessor as CEO, Robert Iger. That’s why Pixar employees say they were so upset by Chapek’s claim in a company-wide memo dated March 7 that Disney’s “biggest impact” is “through the inspirational content we produce.”
“Almost every moment of overt gay affection will be cut at Disney’s behest, regardless of when both the creative teams and Pixar management protest,” the statement said. “Even though creating LGBTQIA+ content was the answer to fixing discriminatory legislation in the world, we are banned from creating it.”
But none of the sources who spoke to diversity could cite firsthand stories of Disney executives clipping LGBTQ content directly from certain Pixar features. Instead, the examples from “Luca,” “Soul,” and “Inside Out” were reportedly driven by either the film’s filmmaking team or the studio’s own leadership. In fact, Pixar censored itself, these sources say, out of a firm belief that LGBTQ content would not get past Disney’s vetting because Disney needed the films to play in markets traditionally hostile to LGBTQ people : namely China, Russia, much of western Asia and the American South.
In fact, the inclusion of a one-eyed lesbian police officer in Onward was enough to get the film banned in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia; and the version released in Russia swapped the word “girlfriend” for the word “partner”.
All of this makes the decision to recreate the same-sex kiss in Lightyear — the first Pixar film to hit theaters instead of Disney Plus since 2019 — all the more meaningful for the studio and its staff, especially those who risked it , breaking Pixar’s decades-long near-impervious silence on internal affairs in its March 9 statement.
For Steven Hunter, the director of the short film Out, this effort was particularly important. Though he’s no longer at Pixar and hasn’t been able to speak to any specific censorship bodies there, he said it’s still “nerve-wracking” to even talk about the company. But with LGBTQ equality under the threat of a sudden spate of state-level legislation, the importance of visibility in storytelling was too great to remain silent.
“I stand by my colleagues,” added Hunter diversity. “I’m really proud of these people for speaking out. We need that. We need Mr. Chapek to understand that we need to speak up. We cannot assume that these laws they are trying to enact are not hurtful and bigoted and frankly evil. We’re not leaving. We’re not going back in the closet.”