Opinion: Disney Fails to Slay the Dragon of Inequality When Casting Latest Queen

The studio casts straight actor to play gay “camp” role in “Jungle Cruise”

For a company that made its fortune off of queens, fairies, and handsome princes, Disney sure missed the chance to slay the big, powerful dragon of inequality with the casting of their latest live-action feature, Jungle Cruise.

It was announced on August 13 that the entertainment giant has cast comedian Jack Whitehall, a straight actor, to portray their first openly gay character—who just happens to be “hugely effete” (euphemism for a very-stereotyped, effeminate, over-the-top gay man).

As a lifelong Disney fanatic, who relentlessly scoured every shop in Walt Disney World this past summer (in 98-degree heat with 1000% humidity, no less!) for those oh-so coveted rainbow pride Mickey ears, I was encouraged to learn that Disney sold out of them almost immediately, and could not keep up with the demand for the limited-time items. Yet today, I found myself really disappointed in the news that Disney was selling out in a very different way.

Over the years, Disney has shown a real backbone when it comes to support for the LGBTQ community. By 2017, Disney had maintained a perfect score for 12 consecutive years on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, and even against attacks from the religious right, they stood firm in their support of equality, inclusiveness and representation. So what went wrong with Jungle Cruise?

This is not the first time that the movie production arm of Disney has stumbled in this area. In 2017, openly gay Academy Award winner Bill Condon, who directed the enormously successful live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, unintentionally set off a firestorm of reactions (and overreactions) when he gave an interview to Attitude, a British gay magazine. In the interview, Codon alluded to the fact that LeFou, the goofy but lovable sidekick to villainous Gaston, a poster boy for toxic masculinity, would experience his own moment of exploring his sexuality. Condon also teased that the film would have a “nice, exclusively gay moment” at the end. Quicker than you can say “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” there were boycotts from religious groups, movie theaters and even an entire country! There were also celebratory headlines from LGBTQ (and very mainstream) media worldwide announcing Disney’s “first ever gay character in a film.” There was also a lot of delicate tapdancing from Disney execs who didn’t want to confirm or deny the existence of a gay character. The live-action adaptation of the animated classic was a $300 million dollar gamble for the company, and they didn’t want this to cause any hiccups. Condon admitted days later that all of these reactions were overblown, as LeFou’s moment was was a tiny one that seems to happen organically, but he nevertheless did not back down from his claims about the character’s significance. Despite the outrage, the movie grossed over a $1 billion worldwide. So maybe that gay moment wasn’t such a bad hiccup after all?

C Flanigan/Getty Images
Director Bill Condon and actors Josh Gad and Emma Watson, of the movie Beauty and the Beast in 2017 in Los Angeles.

The entertainment industry has always struggled with inclusiveness. Organizations like GLAAD have worked tirelessly over the years to educate movie and television studios on the power and importance of including minorities in their stories, in casts, and on creative teams.

Imagine a magical land where minority actors, as well as other industry professionals, are always given equal opportunities to develop skills and obtain jobs; we’d have an industry in which everyone would be considered without prejudice, and only by their talents and ability.

Sadly, we live in the world in which movie studios nervously wager millions of dollars on a project in the hopes that it will show huge returns. That nervousness usually leads studio heads, producers and casting directors to seek out lists of “name” actors who have huge box office appeal.

Openly gay actors rarely ever appear on these lists. It’s a catch 22: How can a queer actor prove their box office appeal if they are never given a job to test their box office appeal? By excluding LGBTQ actors, and forcing many to stay in the closet at work, the industry has slammed the door shut on total inclusiveness. We all understand that it’s called show business for a reason, but in 2018, this is no longer a valid excuse to ignore the power of the underrepresented minority groups on screen.

Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
Actor Jack Whitehall

Disney loves (to make money off of) kids! Representation can have lasting effects on children. Studies have shown that kids who see characters who look like them in movies, or on TV, are more likely to have a stronger sense of self-esteem and self worth. The same can be said for minority groups. When we see ourselves represented on the screen, not only do we spend our money to support that project, we begin to feel more welcome and accepted.

Over the past decade another giant, corporate America, has started to wake up to the power and profitability of inclusion and diversity. Several large corporations started hiring, promoting and investing in members of minority groups, and saw huge returns on those investments. Many people cite the MicKinsey & Company “Delivering Through Diversity” study for hard proof of such success, albeit, in a slow moving process.

Disney may have inadvertently angered and alienated a group that it has gone out of its way to support and stand with in the past. With their first gay character, Disney had the opportunity to throw out the time-honored Hollywood playbook of discrimination and exclusion and cast an openly-gay actor to represent an openly-gay character. Sadly they missed the opportunity.

You can—and should—do better, Disney! Whitehalling, I mean, whitewashing our actors out of your films while also saying that you support us when we spend our money in your parks and on your products, is no longer an acceptable balancing act.

And Disney, if you decide to recast this role and need suggestions of openly gay actors who could play that part, I can send you a list of about 72 insanely talented and funny ones right off the top of my head. Trust me, they will be adored by your audiences, once given the chance to be seen, and our community would undoubtedly be thrilled to finally feel included in the Disney movie family.

Scott Nevins is an award-winning TV personality and host, comedian, political/news contributor, LGBTQ and HIV awareness activist, and godfather.