By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | July 30, 2021 |
By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | July 30, 2021 |
This post contains very mild spoilers for Jungle Cruise.
With Jungle Cruise, Disney is not only aiming to capitalize on the popularity of Dwayne Johnson and spin another theme park ride into a Pirates of the Caribbean-style franchise, but also trying to peddle us the “first gay Disney character” narrative. Again.
Jungle Cruise follows the intrepid Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) as she seeks passage through the Amazon to find a mythical magical tree with incredible healing powers. Accompanying her on this quest is Skipper Frank (Dwayne Johnson), with whom she has negative sexual chemistry, and her foppish brother MacGregor (British comedian Jack Whitehall), who is cowardly, ill-prepared for the journey, changes clothes at inappropriate moments, and is generally kind of a drag. He is a foil to Lily, a feisty scientist who wears trousers — gasp — and is full of that quality known as gumption. She’s capable and unafraid whereas MacGregor squirms and complains about wanting to go home. And he’s gay. Shockingly, his coming-out scene is not all that bad. MacGregor explains to Frank that his refusal to marry a woman because his ‘interests lie elsewhere’ saw him ostracized from his family with the exception of his loving sister. All in all, it’s nicely handled, kind of sweet, and could have been a hell of a lot worse. Frankly, we expect the worst.
Really, it’s one of the better moments of LGBTQ+ representation in a Disney blockbuster, and isn’t that kind of sad?
MacGregor isn’t much of a character. He’s the stock comic relief figure, the one who the audience is meant to laugh at because he’s so inept and out of his comfort zone. While Lily is canny and ready to fly through the air to escape a troupe of bad guys, MacGregor is aghast that he can’t bring his tennis rackets into the middle of the Amazon. He’s never all that helpful or driven to help others. Compared to the bison-man that is The Rock and Emily Blunt in full colonial Lara Croft mode, MacGregor is clearly intended to be the wimp. He’s fussy. He likes to change his outfits. He’s dedicated to his skincare regime. On more than one occasion he is contrasted against Skipper Frank, a man of such astounding and heroic masculinity that MacGregor’s mere presence begins to feel like a punchline.
The coding of MacGregor as the ‘sissy’ makes for some of the more awkward moments of the film. There are gay panic jokes. For instance, Frank is injured and MacGregor asks him if he’d like to bite down on his stick for the pain. Frank sharply says no. This moment feels incongruent with that coming out scene, wherein Frank reacts positively and toasts to MacGregor’s choice to decline marriage to a woman. I doubt the jokes were intended to be cruel. Still, it highlights how lazy the depiction of MacGregor is. His sexuality is fodder for gags at his expense, not a means to explore his own motivations.
Jack Whitehall is probably an unknown to most American viewers but he’s certainly a familiar face to Brits thanks to his many years on the comedy scene. A huge part of his shtick is that he’s posh and that with that comes a certain degree of camp. A lot of his jokes rely on pointing out how out-of-touch he is and how ‘unmanly’ he can be. He’s certainly not been called upon to stretch himself as an actor with Jungle Cruise. Essentially, he’s playing a non-sweary version of Jack Whitehall. Knowing this about him, I struggled with his performance. You can see the moments where the script calls upon him to be, for lack of a better term, stereotypically camp, but he’s not doing much beyond being himself. This lack of context to viewers unfamiliar with Whitehall may lead to different interpretations of MacGregor and the performance. It’s concerning that like Josh Gad as LeFou, Disney cast a straight actor to play a gay man as camp.
The bar was set spectacularly low by Disney when they spent all those months hyping up LeFou in the live-action Beauty and The Beast as the cinematic version of Harvey Milk. In an interview with Attitude, the film’s director Bill Condon revealed that they would explore LeFou’s sexuality in what he described as ‘a nice, exclusively gay moment.’ The phrase itself was obviously ridiculous but Condon’s earnestness here had fans eager for far more than Disney seemed willing to deliver. Condon offered a far more detailed description of LeFou’s sexuality than anything that ended up on-screen. His queerness was shown in a half-second of ambiguous glancing at another man during a dance scene one minute before the film was over. It was the embodiment of corporate faux-allyship, wherein the companies with the most power and resources do next to nothing then hold out their hands for a rainbow cookie.
It somehow got even worse with Avengers: Endgame, when the Russos tried to spin a nameless, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gay character into meaningful representation. This is what people should feel grateful for? A two-minute scene with a character we never hear from again that has no impact on the story and could be cut without changing an iota of the narrative? These moments are so small, so obviously insignificant to the wider narrative, that LGBTQ+ viewers cannot help but feel slighted. It’s always one scene and nothing else, no other moments of organic development for these queer characters or even acknowledgment of who they are. And sometimes even these scraps are cut, as they have been in Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther.
The goodwill that MacGregor’s scene might earn is dampened by the possibility that this small, quiet but no less direct moment will probably be cut for certain international territory releases. Disney will adhere to the homophobia of the markets it desperately tries to appease, or at the very least, this will be their excuse for such paltry offerings. Isn’t anyone else sick of hearing the phrase ‘but they have to do it because of China’? Remove MacGregor’s coming-out scene and all we get are cheap innuendo and a scene where he’s shot in the backside with a blow-dart. We just get another straight guy camping it up for easy jokes. Progress? No.
Disney owns a staggering share of the box office, and their ever-growing media monopoly has given them the kind of power that would have once been unthinkable in the entertainment world. Not only that but they command devotion from hundreds of millions of fans across generations and locations, some of whom have molded significant parts of their identity around this corporate behemoth. Nobody in media will ever have the financial, creative, and cultural safety net that Disney possesses. They have the ability to do more when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation. They should be held to a higher standard than less than the bare minimum. CEOs keep talking about how it isn’t time yet, whether it’s got queer characters or a majority Black ensemble or for a woman superhero to stand front and center. That such things are deemed ‘risky’ by the conglomerate powers that be is its own brand of tedious.
Disney certainly had a lot of freedom with Jungle Cruise to explore these issues. Aside from one side character, none of the ensemble is rooted in the theme park ride source material. The story isn’t directly taken from the attraction. Essentially, they could create anybody they wanted to, craft whatever narrative they desired, and be truly bold. It’s not like MacGregor as a character is beholden to someone or thing in the Jungle Cruise itself. He was made just for the film, and this was the direction they chose. The writers and vast creative team behind the film made the choice to have a gay character and to depict him in this way: still heavily dictated by stereotypes and created for the straight gaze.
Such characters are never shown being attracted to anyone or being attractive to others. Like LeFou before him, MacGregor is oddly stripped of desire, and not just in the Disney ways (Johnson and Blunt are shockingly bereft of sexual chemistry, which hinders much of the film’s intent with its leads.) I didn’t expect them to give MacGregor an on-screen boyfriend, as refreshing as that would have been, but the curious denial of his sexuality having any kind of sensuality is disappointing. This is a depressingly familiar tactic with LGBTQ+ characters, from the pre-Code days of the sissy stereotypes and the ’90s rom-com gay BFFs. In 2021, audiences are far more used to seeing queer characters who get to be romantic and sexual (hello, The Old Guard), so Jungle Cruise takes a step backward in this regard.
When companies like Disney demand praise for these crumbs of representation, what it says is that they want the money of marginalized viewers but not to tell their stories. Thus, marginalized people don’t get to be heroes, or even especially complicated figures in film. Their queerness becomes an aside, something to be mentioned once, never repeated, and easily omitted should the threat of homophobic censorship rear its ugly head. There’s nothing about this that feels fair or truthful or organic to how living as an LGBTQ+ person actually works.
That one scene in Jungle Cruise may be a sign of improvement but it’s maddeningly incremental and, to put it bluntly, not good enough. With the near-strangle hold they have on cinema’s biggest IPs, Disney should be held to the absolute highest of standards and not coddled as though they are some scrappy underdog fighting against The Man. Acting as though millions of people have to ‘wait for their turn’ to be the hero is cheap. We’ll know progress has been made when we see an LGBTQ+ hero front and center whose identity isn’t reduced to fodder for the cutting room floor.
Jungle Cruise is now in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access.