Disney hasn’t done an incredible job of marketing Strange World. Of all the friends and family I spoke to after the media screening this weekend, about 90 percent of them hadn’t heard of it – 90 percent of my friends are gay and love animation, so this shouldn’t be a blind spot. Social media coverage has been slight, and reviews are only just coming out of the woodwork ahead of its November 23 release. For what it’s worth, it’s pretty good. I’d expect nothing less from the creative talent behind Moana, Big Hero 6, and Raya and the Last Dragon. However, one of its strongest elements has already become a bad joke.
Ethan Clade is one of the film’s main characters, a queer teenager raised by a family who isn’t afraid to embrace his sexuality and encourage him to be who he wants to be. The film could have so easily made this LGBTQ+ identity and its associated acceptance a core plot point, but instead it’s unexpectedly normal. Ethan’s crush and his associated feelings are given ample screen time, so much so that it becomes a defining part of his character but without feeling like it’s being pushed for diversity points. Yet Disney has once again described him as its ‘first openly gay character’ ever, which just isn’t true, and thus the internet has turned the film into a mean-spirited but fully deserved meme.
Disney often falters when it comes to cinematic queer representation. Shows like The Owl House and Amphibia continue to carve a path forward in television animation, but so many motion pictures are relegated to brief pecks on the cheek or background details which are hastily edited out or censored to appease less tolerant international audiences. Rise of the Skywalker, Avengers Endgame, Onward, Wakanda Forever, and Lightyear are just a few small examples, all of which were praised as taking big steps forward, but in reality felt like cheap marketing stunts for minority groups who could be brushed aside whenever their inclusion was inconvenient. As a consequence, Strange World and the strength of Ethan Clade’s story is being treated with derision, and Disney only has itself to blame for landing in such a place.
How is an audience supposed to take your progressive ideas seriously when so many of your previous attempts have been so shallow and obvious with their intentions? We have come to distrust corporations when it comes to telling queer stories without compromise, so when a rare exception comes along, and you approach it with the same old song and dance of course we are going to laugh it up, turning an otherwise well-meaning piece of character writing into a laughing stock before the film is even out.
Strange World deserves better given how it tells a teenage love story with realistic dynamics and inclusive chemistry, yet so many won’t get to see it because the die has already been cast. Who are we to trust Disney when they’ve hurt us so many times before, so often opting for sanitised queerness in fear that its precious box office numbers might get hurt in the crossfire? Television was able to subvert these expectations thanks to a smaller creative landscape and individual talent being given the freedom to chase their passions, but cinema is so wrought with focus testing and corporate meddling that doing the same thing is impossible. Strange World questions that status quo in the best way possible, but it can’t capitalise on it due to the footsteps it follows in.
Ethan Clade’s homosexuality is one of the first things we learn about him. He is tending the fields as his group of friends pull up in a futuristic pick-up truck. They all say hello, and he appears pretty confident, then his crush appears and our protagonist turns into an adorable mess of blushes and smiles. He doesn’t quite know what to say, a condition worsened as his father shows up and starts teasing him about the cute boy he clearly has the hots for. For a Disney film, this normalcy is rare and welcomed, positioned as a central narrative tentpole instead of representation to be hidden away when necessary.
The two end up together, but we see Ethan’s objective of winning him over cemented in his desire to become a brave adventurer, drawing from his family’s legacy while simultaneously piecing together his own identity. It’s representation that will mean so much to young people seeing a queer romance unfold for the first time, and Disney is right to put it front and centre like this, but calling Ethan Disney’s first openly-gay character when we already have so many shows how much the company is playing into its own ridicule.
I should really look beyond the online echochamber to see the bigger impact Strange World will have, and it remains an understandable shame that we’re throwing its queer potential under the bus before it even has a chance to prove itself. But Disney helped perpetuate this climate in the first place so what can we do except roll with the punches? It’s both important to support blockbuster films like this that hope to further LGBTQ+ stories in the mainstream, but it’s equally vital to never remain complacent and expect them, since it’s been proven time and time again how easily they can be taken away. Strange World is an exception to a stagnant trend, but it might already be too late to change how we perceive it.
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