A Character in Disney’s Jungle Cruise Is Gay, or So We’re Told
Another day, another Disney character who we’re told is queer but only demonstrates this in the vaguest terms possible. At this point I feel like we should have a boilerplate article pre-written to fill in as needed: “Disney character X is gay as evidenced in one blink-and-you miss it scene/reference/throwaway line that can be easily excised for international markets.”
This time around, the character is British actor Jack Whitehall’s McGregor in Jungle Cruise, a movie I assume involves some sailing through the forest primeval. McGregor is the brother of Emily Blunt’s lead character Dr. Lily Houghton, and the film also stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Frank, the skipper of said jungle-bound boat.
When Whitehall was cast as McGregor Houghton in 2018, it was announced with fanfare that McGregor would be Disney’s “first gay character,” a title a dozen other characters have been given before and since with vanishing returns. Many also took issue with Whitehall’s casting at the time and the description of the character as “very camp.”
Jungle Cruise, based on an existing Disneyland ride, looks like Indiana Jones birthed a child with Pirates of the Caribbean (another ride), but it seems like it could be pretty fun if you’re into that sort of thing or have kids who need distraction. I love that Dr. Houghton is in the role of the Indiana Jones figure here, and the actors seem like they’re having fun. The trailer also gives me strong The Mummy formula vibes, with a brainy, no-nonsense woman, a kindly tough guy, and the woman’s posh, more risible brother. And there are parrots!
Disney’s ongoing nonsense when it comes to letting queer characters actually be queer isn’t the fault of Jungle Cruise or Jack Whitehall, who told Variety that he’s “proud” of his character’s “coming-out” scene. The problem is the scene as Variety describes it, and the fact that there’s apparently a single scene about McGregor’s sexuality:
In the Jaume Collet-Serra-directed film, inspired by the iconic Disneyland ride of the same name, McGregor comes out to the skipper, Frank, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. While he doesn’t use the word “gay,” he says he broke off three engagements with women because his “interests happily lay elsewhere.” He goes on to say that he would do anything for his sister Lily (Emily Blunt), because she was the only one who “stood by” him while he was shunned by family and friends because of who he “loved.”
Frank then raises a drink to toast “elsewhere.”
On the surface, this seems like a nice scene—especially if it had been part of a more robust storyline. I appreciate Frank’s supportive toast after learning about McGregor’s interests “elsewhere,” as well as Emily’s steadfast love for her brother. The problem is that everything still appears to be left vague enough that audiences who aren’t looking for a queer character through a microscope may miss the reference. And it seems like this could be an easy part to cut out for foreign markets that might protest even those vague allusions to McGregor’s “elsewhere.”
Disney execs are ‘Proud’ of how it can be removed from the film for foreign audiences without affecting the film https://t.co/zlq1o1bjAb
— Pokémon Snapped (@csmith03) July 26, 2021
Further, the dialogue here is indistinct enough to go over the heads of many children watching, as though it isn’t vital to make McGregor’s disclosure and Frank and Emily’s support clear for younger viewers. News flash: if the kids can learn about heterosexual romance, which many a Disney feature presentation revolves around, they can hear and see queer romance.
I’ll be curious for further reports on how the scene is played and whether there are any other sensitive moments given to McGregor in this regard. I’m not too hopeful, considering that when Whitehall was cast back in 2018 reports said his character was “hugely effete, very camp and very funny” figure who “makes clear he has no interest in women.” If this is indeed how McGregor is depicted, he feels like a character from another era of cinema entirely, one that we should have long evolved past.
From what I’ve read, when they’re not brokering in stereotypes, this feels like Disney once again trying to win points and push back against criticism of its failures where LGBTQ+ characters are concerned—while doing the least amount possible. If this were Bridgerton, McGregor could be describing broken engagements and a forbidden love that cost him friends and family and simply be talking about a woman of a different rank in society. The issue here is the lack of specificity and how it is confined to a single passing reference.
It’s not strange that McGregor wouldn’t say “gay”—the movie is set in the early 20th century, and that word didn’t emerge as a definition embraced by gay men until the 1960s. This is also a movie where there are supernatural events afoot and it’s based on a theme-park ride, however, so we don’t exactly have to abide by strict historicity. But time-period aside, McGregor could just say that his “interests happily lay with men” or “my own sex” or “my interests happily lay with Lord Frederick” or something. If he’s already “coming out” to the supportive Frank, there’s no reason he couldn’t be more on the nose about it.
Once again, actors who are not in charge of any of this are left on their lonesome to carry the torch for representation. Reporters seem keen to talk to them about their “groundbreaking” role until the inevitable backlash turns up once audiences have actually seen the movie. Per Variety:
“I think it was a really well-written scene, and one that we certainly thought about and talked about,” Whitehall said.
When we talked before the premiere, Whitehall still hadn’t seen a final cut of the film, but said, “I hope that it’s a scene that audiences enjoy … I certainly felt at the time that I was proud of the work that we’d done.”
As our Briana Lawrence wrote in her brilliant article back in May, “Congratulations to Disney’s 7th Openly Gay Character“(we were talking about Cruella then), so often the press blitz around the apparent inclusion of queer characters is “a chance for the bare minimum to get a pat on the back.”
Once again the same old story is happening with Whitehall’s McGregor, with Slashfilm’s headline reading, “‘Jungle Cruise’ Star Jack Whitehall on Playing Disney’s First Major Gay Character” while Pink News is tired of the spin and their headline is “Disney slammed for falling short yet again with Jack Whitehall’s gay Jungle Cruise character.” Differences in framing aside, both articles address how badly Disney has done in the past in terms of representation and that there’s still a long, long way to go.
Rather than hearing all about how characters are queer from the actors or creatives, they deserve to have enough content and references that this aspect of their lives can’t be left on the cutting room floor or open to interpretation. Give queer characters love interests. Give them specific words to name what they are. Give them a rich backstory and a bright future. Briana summed it up:
Just let the story speak for itself, unless, of course, you have to speak for the story because what you’re trying to sell me can be easily missed.
(via Variety, image: Disney)
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