It seems that Captain Jack Sparrow — the eccentric swashbuckling ruffian who Johnny Depp brought to big-screen life in Pirates of the Caribbean — had Disney’s knickers in knots just prior to the film’s 2003 release.
Why? The quirks with which Depp enlivened Sparrow — that mildly sotted slur and rummy swagger, those erratic gesticulations, that squinty eye, the madcap scurrying “lizard run” — elicited a bout of homo panic. (Because in the pockets of straight suits, excess of any sort is a queer wrench? Ahem.)
As Depp explains in the January issue of Vanity Fair (on sale now):
“I think it was Michael Eisner, the head of Disney at the time, who was quoted as saying, ‘He’s ruining the movie.’ It was that extreme — memos, and paper trails, and madness, and phone calls, and agents, and lawyers, and people screaming, and me getting phone calls direct from, you know, upper-echelon Disney-ites, going, ‘What’s wrong with him? Is he, you know, like some kind of weird simpleton? Is he drunk? By the way, is he gay? Is he this? Is he that?’ And so I actually told this woman who was the Disney-ite that called me about all that stuff, and asked me the questions, I said to her, ‘But didn’t you know that all my characters are gay?’ Which really made her nervous.”
Executives, of course, shouldn’t have expected anything different. While Depp — whose turn as Sparrow proved Disney wrong, romancing audiences and critics alike — isn’t known for playing gay, he’s known for animating his characters via a wildly unorthodox approach to masculinity.
Disney, however, has a much more complicated relationship to the “unconventional.”
The company’s founding patriarch, Walt — who ran the show from 1923 until his 1966 death — was an alleged homophobe and anti-Semite (see: his rumoured refusal to employ queers; his membership in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an anti-Semitic and anti-communist association).
In 1978, gay activists “zapped” Anaheim’s Disneyland (witness as 15,000 queers invade the park; by the time Disney realized the “private party” was, in fact, a homo invasion, it was too late to quash the event — as detailed in Rethinking Disney, edited by Mike Budd and Max H Kirsch).
And throughout the ’80s, Disney experienced its share of lawsuits, as queers attempted to fight Disney’s prohibition of homo “touch dancing.” (In 1984, Andrew Exler won his case; this win, however, was not precedent-setting, as Disney continued to oust touch-dancing homos from its parks as late as 1987.)
In 1991, however, the homophobic climate of Disney began to shift. A formal policy outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was implemented, and Gay Day — an annual celebration that invites queers to queer both Disneyland and Orlando’s Walt Disney World — took root.
And in 1996, Disney finally followed in the footsteps of industry behemoths Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, Sony and Universal and began offering same-sex health benefits. Good thing, given Eisner’s much-discussed mid-’90s estimation that roughly 40 percent of Disney’s 63,000 personnel was queer. Of course, the decision was a no-brainer given that Disney was in the process of acquiring ABC — a company that already boasted same-sex coverage.
These homo-friendly decisions incited rightwing ire, and in 1997 — after Ellen DeGeneres and her ABC sitcom character came barrelling out of the closet — the Southern Baptist Convention and homophobic bedfellows American Family Association and Focus on the Family enacted their infamous eight-year Disney boycott.
In 2007, Disney began extending its Fairy Tale wedding ceremony packages to queers. Celebrations run $8,000 to $50,000. Pony-drawn Cinderella carriage? Check.
“We want everyone who comes to celebrate a special occasion at Disney to feel welcome and respected,” said Disney rep Donn Walker.
Of course, the 2009 Adam Lambert scandal suggests otherwise. Remember? In the wake of Lambert’s “racy” American Music Awards stage-show — which featured boy-boy lip-mashing and briefly intimated a blowjob — ABC censored its AMA West Coast feed, and went on to cancel its three scheduled Lambert gigs (Good Morning America; Jimmy Kimmel Live; and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve).
Disney’s homo-friendly engagements, then, are not about supporting queer expression, but about policing it for palatability. At its heart, Disney’s gay landscape has little room for sexual desire; instead, emphasis is on the “family-friendly” homo with money to burn.
Take Gay Day. It’s not an official Disney event; it’s a privately organized affair that Disney merely witnesses once a year. Historically, in fact, Disney has gone out of its way to ensure the comfort of heterosexuals who accidentally attend Gay Day (think: vouchers/transportation to other theme parks). As Disney president Robert Iger told Fox News’ Stuart Varney in 2004: “We don’t sponsor ‘Gay Days.’ You know, we are a company that lets anyone who is willing to pay through our gates.”
In the hands of Disney, “gay for pay” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.
Mouthpiece appears in every second issue of Xtra.