‘Onward’ Is Latest Major Studio Film With a Blink-and-You’ll-Miss-It LGBTQ Character (Commentary)

Characters like the lesbian cop in “Onward” are a step in the right direction, but don’t be fooled: It’s a baby step

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Within minutes of retrieving my phone from Disney security following the premiere of “Onward,” I saw a tweet celebrating Pixar’s first LGBTQ character.

And my immediate thought was, “Where?”

Apparently, I must have coughed, or blinked, or been eating popcorn during the one line uttered by a female police officer (voiced by lesbian actor Lena Waithe) that indicates that the character has a girlfriend.

Well, blinking is not allowed if you want pick up on queer representation in mainstream Disney movies, or you might miss such hallowed community icons as “gay guy in a support group” (“Avengers: Endgame”), “two women pushing one stroller” (“Finding Dory”), “women kissing with New Year’s Eve energy during a climactic celebration” (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”) or “foppish henchman who briefly dances with another dude” (the live-action “Beauty and the Beast”).

Don’t get me wrong: Better these representations than none at all. American cinema has a rather sorry history of erasing LGBTQ characters altogether (during the Production Code era) or portraying members of that community as punchlines or as threats to society. And specifically, in family-friendly media, LGBTQ visibility offers an increased level of pearl-clutching from bigots who want to hide their small-mindedness behind “But…the children!”

At the same time, for many queer viewers, these blips of inclusivity are not cause for a pride parade. These characters are steps in the right direction, to be sure, but they are baby steps, ones that can easily be snipped or dubbed over in foreign territories. (Popbuzz.com has reported that Russian moviegoers have tweeted that the lesbian cop’s dialogue in “Onward” has been altered to erase any mention of her sexuality.)

And to be fair, Disney isn’t alone in this sort of timidity — how many viewers picked up on the fact that Demián Bichir and Nathaniel Dean were playing a gay couple in “Alien: Covenant”? Or Brent Spiner and John Storey in “Independence Day: Resurgence”? It’s not like sci-fi audiences can’t handle LGBTQ characters; John Cho’s Sulu in “Star Trek: Beyond” was portrayed as having a husband and child, and it didn’t destroy the Federation.

The 21st century puts entertainment conglomerates like Disney in, admittedly, a tricky situation. There are foreign markets that will alter movies that contain a dollop of queerness, while banning outright films with LGBTQ lead characters: China, Malaysia and the UAE, for example, all barred “Brokeback Mountain” from screening in their respective countries in 2006. At the same time, there is a growing global audience — including new generations of younger viewers, who tend to be much more informed and progressive about the vagaries of gender and sexuality — who want to see characters that reflect their lives and those of their friends and loved ones.

These half-measures aren’t making anyone happy. Queer viewers see these blips as cheap pandering, excuses for companies to pat themselves on the back for inclusivity without risking anything or moving the conversation forward in the slightest. Viewers who are offended by anything and everything LGBTQ, meanwhile, complain over even the slightest bit of diversity.

Perhaps the ultimate solution is to, as the kids say, ignore the haters. Studios are never going to win over, or even have a rational conversation with, the kind of audience that gripes on social media when Hallmark Channel airs TV commercials with lesbian brides or movies that end with a montage of romantic couples, one of whom is two men looking at each other with affection (while not even touching). And if that means risking profitability in some deeply homophobic international markets, then that’s an achievement that merits some actual back-patting.

The Marvel movie “Eternals,” coming this November, promises to be a test case for a bolder brand of representation: We’re promised a gay superhero (played by Brian Tyree Henry) with a husband (played by Haaz Sleiman) and even (gasp!) a kiss between them. Let’s hope the studio doesn’t blink.