On March 9, LGBTQ employees and allies at Pixar Animation Studios sent a joint statement to Walt Disney Company 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.
But in at least one case, the statement appears to have made a significant difference.
According to a source close to the production, Pixar’s next feature film, “Lightyear” — starring Chris Evans as the putative real-life inspiration for the “Toy Story” character Buzz Lightyear — does feature a significant female character, Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba), who is in a meaningful relationship with another woman. While the fact of that relationship was never in question at the studio, a kiss between the characters had been cut from the film. Following the uproar surrounding the Pixar employees’ statement and Disney CEO Bob 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 major turning point for LGBTQ representation not just in Pixar films, but in feature animation in general, which has remained steadfastly circumspect about depicting same-sex affection in any meaningful light.
To be sure, there are several examples of forthright LGBTQ representation in feature animation created for an adult audience, including in 1999’s “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” 2007’s “Persepolis,” 2016’s “Sausage Party,” and 2021’s “Flee.” But in a 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 small handful of unambiguous LGBTQ characters of any kind. In 2020’s “Onward,” a one-eyed cop (Lena Waithe), who appears in a few scenes, mentions her girlfriend. In 2019’s “Toy Story 4,” two moms hug their child goodbye at kindergarten. And 2016’s “Finding Dory” features a brief shot of what appears to be a lesbian couple, though the movie’s filmmakers were coy about defining them that way at the time. The most overtly LGBTQ project in Pixar’s canon is a 2020 short film, “Out,” about a gay man struggling with coming out to his parents — which the studio released on Disney Plus as part of its SparkShorts program.
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 many interpreted as a coming out allegory — the New York Times’ review of the film was headlined “Calamari by Your Name.” The film’s director, Enrico Casarosa, even told 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 who spoke with Variety, however, 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 told Variety 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 City) and 2015’s “Inside Out” (in San Francisco) — were shot down. One source said that 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 also removed from the background from these films, though a studio insider insists they do appear in “Soul.” (A review of the film by Variety noted a few examples of two women sitting or standing in close proximity with each other in shots that last less than a second, but the nature of their relationship is ambiguous.)
What is most troubling is how this censorship apparently 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 would include the tenure of Chapek’s predecessor as CEO, Robert Iger. It’s why Pixar employees say they found Chapek’s assertion in a March 7 company-wide memo 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 who spoke with Variety 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.
Indeed, 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.
For Steven Hunter, the director of the short film “Out,” that effort was particularly important. While he is no longer at Pixar and couldn’t speak to any specific instances of censorship there, he said it was still “nerve-wracking” speaking out about the company at all. But with LGBTQ equal rights under threat by a 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 told Variety. “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.”