Lightyear: Pixar’s Handling of Gay Contents

Pixar’s ‘Lightyear’ after Staff Uproar Over ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill

Lightyear Hawthorne Uzo Aduba
Courtesy of Pixar

On March 9, LGBTQ employees at Pixar Animation sent statement to Disney leadership claiming that Disney executives had actively censored “overtly gay affection” in its feature films. The stunning allegation — made as part of a larger protest over the company’s lack of public response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill — did not include which Pixar films had weathered the censorship, nor which specific creative decisions were cut or altered.

Lightyear

Pixar’s next feature, Lightyear, starring Chris Evans as the real-life inspiration for the “Toy Story” character Buzz Lightyear, features a female character, Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba), who is in meaningful relationship with another woman.

The nature of that relationship was never in question, but a kiss between the characters had been cut from the film.

After the uproar surrounding the Pixar employees’ statement and Disney CEO Chapek’s handling of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, however, the kiss was reinstated into the movie last week.

The decision marks a possible turning point for LGBTQ representation not just in Pixar, but in feature animation, which has remained steadfastly circumspect about depicting same-sex affection in meaningful light.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

There are examples of forthright LGBTQ representation in feature animation created for adult audience, including in 1999’s “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” 2007’s “Persepolis,” 2016’s “Sausage Party,” and 2021’s “Flee.”

But in G or PG-rated animated movie, the pervasive approach has been to tell, not show — and only barely at that. Arguably the most high-profile LGBTQ character in an animated studio feature to date — Katie (Abbi Jacobson), the teenage lead of “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” produced by Sony Pictures Animation and released by Netflix — is the exception that proves the rule: This explicit fact of Katie’s identity is only fully revealed in the final moments of the film when her mother makes a passing reference to her girlfriend.

In Pixar’s 27-year history, there have been just a few unambiguous LGBTQ characters of any kind.

In 2020’s “Onward,” a one-eyed cop (Lena Waithe) mentions her girlfriend.

In 2019’s “Toy Story 4,” two moms hug their child goodbye at kindergarten.

And 2016’s “Finding Dory” features a shot of lesbian couple, though the movie’s filmmakers were coy about defining them that way at the time.

But according to multiple former Pixar employees who spoke with Variety on the condition of anonymity, creatives within the studio have tried for years to incorporate LGBTQ identity into its storytelling in ways big and small, only to have those efforts consistently thwarted. (A spokesperson for Disney declined to comment for this story.)

In Pixar’s 2021 release, “Luca,” two young sea monsters who appear human when on land, Luca (Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), build a profound friendship with each other that some viewed as coming out allegory.

The film’s director, Enrico Casarosa, even said The Wrap that he “talked about” the potential of Luca and Alberto’s friendship being romantic in nature. But he quickly added that “we didn’t talk about it as much” because the film focuses “on friendship” and is “pre-romance.”

“Some people seem to get mad that I’m not saying yes or no, but I feel like, well, this is a movie about being open to any difference,” Casarosa added.

According to two sources, the “Luca” filmmakers also discussed whether the human girl who befriends Luca and Alberto, Giulia (Emma Berman), should be queer. But the creative team appeared to be stymied by how to do it without also creating a girlfriend for the character.

“We very often came up against the question of, ‘How do we do this without giving them a love interest?’” says one source who worked at the studio. “That comes up very often at Pixar.”

It’s unclear why a studio that has imbued multi-dimensional life into everything from plastic toys to the concepts of sadness and joy would be stumped by how to create an LGBTQ character without a love interest. But it also appears Pixar has had difficulty incorporating queer representation even as part of the background. Multiple sources said that efforts to include signifiers of LGBTQ identity in the set design of films located in specific American cities known for sizable LGBTQ populations — namely, 2020’s “Soul” (in New York) and 2015’s “Inside Out” (in San Francisco) — were shot down. A rainbow sticker placed in the window of a shop was removed because it was deemed too “distracting.”

Other sources said same-sex couples were removed from the background from these films, though a studio insider insists they do appear in Soul.

What is troubling is how this censorship manifested at the studio. The March 9 statement by Pixar employees states that “Disney corporate reviews” were responsible for the diminution of LGBTQ representation at Pixar — which include the tenure of Chapek’s predecessor as CEO, Robert Iger.

It’s why Pixar employees found Chapek’s assertion on March 7 that the “biggest impact” Disney can make “is through the inspiring content we produce” so galling.

“Nearly every moment of overtly gay affection is cut at Disney’s behest, regardless of when there is protest from both the creative teams and executive leadership at Pixar,” the statement says. “Even if creating LGBTQIA+ content was the answer to fixing the discriminatory legislation in the world, we are being barred from creating it.”

But none of the sources could cite first-hand knowledge of Disney executives directly cutting LGBTQ content from specific Pixar features. Instead, the examples from “Luca,” “Soul” and “Inside Out” were purportedly driven either by the individual movie’s filmmaking team or by the studio’s own leadership. Effectively, Pixar engaged in self-censorship, say these sources, out of an abiding belief that LGBTQ content wouldn’t get past Disney review because Disney has needed the films to play in markets traditionally hostile to LGBTQ people: namely China, Russia, much of West Asia and in the American South.

The inclusion of a one-eyed lesbian cop in “Onward was enough to ban the film in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia; and the version released in Russia swapped the word “girlfriend” with the word “partner.”

All of which makes the decision to restore the same-sex kiss in “Lightyear” — the first Pixar film due to open in movie theaters rather than on Disney Plus since 2019 — that much more meaningful for the studio and its employees, especially the ones who risked breaching Pixar’s decades-long near impenetrable silence about internal matters in their March 9 statement.

Short Film: Out by Steven Hunter

For Steven Hunter, the director of the short film “Out,” that effort was important. While he is no longer at Pixar and couldn’t speak to any censorship there, he said it was still “nerve-wracking” speaking out about the company. But with LGBTQ equal rights under threat by sudden raft of state-level legislation, the importance of visibility in storytelling was too great for him to stay silent.

“I stand by my colleagues,” Hunter said. “I’m really proud of those folks for speaking up. We need that. We need Mr. Chapek to understand that we need to be speaking up. We can’t assume that these laws that they’re trying to put in place aren’t hurtful and bigoted and, frankly, evil. We are not going away. We’re not going back in the closet.”