The Queer Authors Who Created Disney Classics
By Sarah Dunne
Disney has entered an age of remakes and revivals. Animated feature-length films are being recast as live-action productions that often re-create elements of the original film, shot for shot. Despite these films being released to a more modern audience, however, Disney has yet to represent any of its classic characters as openly queer. Even the briefest flickers of queer relationships in Disney’s cinematic releases have brought on intense criticism, especially from conservative groups. Take, for example, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lesbian parents in both Finding Dory and Toy Story 4, or the moment when Le Fou briefly dances with another man in Beauty and The Beast. The latter of these incidents, which was quite frankly oversold as an “exclusively gay moment,” sparked a Christian boycott led by evangelist Franklin Graham, who warned that Disney was “trying to push the LGBT agenda into the hearts and minds of your children—watch out!” This week, Disney squashed persistent rumors that Queen Elsa would be getting a girlfriend in Frozen 2. It seems unlikely that Disney will risk alienating a large swath of consumers by including a queer main character in one of its films. This profit-motivated rationale ignores the fact that queer authors have been responsible for some of Disney’s most financially successful films.
Did you know that Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Little Mermaid” (1837) because he was hopelessly, and unrequitedly, in love with another man? He wrote the short story upon hearing the news that his longtime crush, Edvard Collin, had married. An 1891 published collection of Andersen’s correspondence revealed that he wrote to Collin: “my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.” Despite these blatant declarations, Collin later recalled in his memoir that “I found myself unable to respond to this love, and this caused the author much suffering.” Unrequited love—for both men and women—seems to have been a recurring theme in Andersen’s life and work. Andersen often longed for unattainable partners from a much higher social class than him. Andersen only had access to refined social circles because wealthy patrons who supported his writing.
The challenges that Andersen experienced reveal themselves in “The Little Mermaid.” The protagonist endures great suffering with every step she takes on land. The prince treats her like a pet, rather than a romantic interest, and marries another woman in the end. On the night of the prince’s wedding, the sea witch and the mermaid’s sisters offer her a bargain: if she murders the bride and groom, then she can return to the sea as a mermaid. The little mermaid cannot do it and is rewarded for her goodness. Rather than being dissolved into foam(!), she is placed in limbo and given the chance to one day earn an immortal soul.
In Disney’s 1989 adaptation of The Little Mermaid, Ariel wins her prince and gets a happy ending. The film is an important work of the Disney Renaissance, but the changes to the story ultimately obscure the pain of queer unrequited love that inspired this beautiful fairy tale. Disney has recently shouldered severe racist backlash after casting Halle Bailey as Ariel in the upcoming live action remake of The Little Mermaid. In light of this controversy, it seems unlikely that they would further rock the boat by acknowledging the story’s queer origins.
Like The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins is an important part of the Disney canon and of the untold queer history of Disney films. The story of Mary Poppins comes from a series of children’s books starring the eponymous character by author P.L. Travers. Walt Disney spent fifteen years pursuing the film rights to Travers’ books. Eventually, Disney released the smash-hit musical film, Mary Poppins, in 1964. That year, Julie Andrews won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Poppins, and Emily Blunt recently reprised the role in the 2018 film Mary Poppins Returns. (As a side note, I would argue that Julie Andrews is a gay icon based on her performance in the 1982 film Victor/Victoria alone. It is not a Disney film, but is essential viewing.)
In 2013, Disney Studios released the film Saving Mr. Banks, which purported to tell the story of P.L. Travers’ life and her interactions with Walt Disney. As the story goes, she visited Disney studios in California for two weeks in 1961 to finalize negotiations over the development of the Mary Poppins film. Told from the perspective of a company that has a vested interest in creating a heartwarming story of its own success, the film distorts several historical facts: for example, Travers had already signed over the film rights before visiting in California, and the conversations between her and Disney in the film are very loosely based on written correspondence between the two, not in-person interactions.
From the perspective of queer history, the portrayal of Travers’ personal life is particularly egregious. Saving Mr. Banks depicts Travers (born Helen Lyndon Goff) as a childless spinster, when in fact she had an “intense” relationship with writer Madge Burnard and had an adopted son, Camillus. Although there is no written documentation explicitly confirming a sexual or romantic relationship between Travers and Burnard, the two lived together in London and Sussex for more than a decade. It was in the Sussex cottage that Travers wrote the Mary Poppins novels that Walt Disney was so determined to adapt into a feature-length film. Travers had relationships with both men and women throughout her life. According to Disney historian Jim Korkis, “It has been assumed that Travers was bisexual, but no one really knows for sure.” Apart from Burnard, with whom her connection lasted for at least a decade, she is also linked to bookseller Jessie Orage and editor George Russell. Orage, who caused a stir during her life by wearing trousers and smoking in public, recorded details of her affair in her diary. Travers and Orage were also members of the lesbian writers’ collective, The Rope, whose members were connected to legendary lesbian writer Gertrude Stein.
Andersen and Travers represent only a small fraction of a very rich literary and queer history of Disney. It is our job to continue uncovering more voices like theirs and to acknowledge the roles that queer figures have played in shaping the media that inspires children and adults alike. Disneyland Paris held the first official Disney Magical Pride event in June 2019, but Disney needs to do more than begin selling rainbow Mickey pins in order to correct its longstanding erasure of queer identities in its products.
Sarah Dunne is a History PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She studies gay and lesbian consumer culture in the United States. Disneyland Paris is her favorite Disneyland park, especially the Ratatouille land!
Amy Henderson, “How Did P.L. Travers, the Prickly Author of Mary Poppins Really Fare Against Walt Disney?” Smithsonian.com, December 20, 2013.
Aric Jenkins, “Franklin Graham Wants People to Boycott Beauty and the Beast Over Gay Character,” Time, March 3, 2017.
Gary M. Kramer, “LGBT History Month-P.L. Travers: A Spoonful of Speculation,” Windy City Times, October 7, 2015.
Laura Mandanas, “‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Erases P.L. Travers’ Queer Identity, Misses Amazing Opportunity for Representation,” Autostraddle, January 13, 2014.
Leah Rachel Von Essen, “Queerness, Hans Christian Andersen, and the Little Mermaid,” BookRiot, March 28, 2017.
Rictor Norton, “A Fairy Tale: The Gay Love Letters of Hans Christian Andersen,” excerpted from Hans Christian Andersen’s Correspondence, ed. Frederick Crawford (London: Dean & Son, 1891).
Rose Dommu, “Sorry, Gays, Elsa Won’t Have a Girlfriend in Frozen 2,” Out, August 27, 2019.
Sofia Lotto Persio, “Disneyland Paris is Officially Celebrating Pride for the First Time,” PinkNews, January 31, 2019.