By: Caroline MacLellan
August 1st, 2023
With the release of the live action “The Little Mermaid” starring Halle Bailey, conversation regarding Disney’s unfortunate pandering to other countries to retain profit has resurfaced. Most recently, it’s been reported that Chinese and South Korean audiences are unhappy with the casting of Bailey, a black woman, as Ariel. Such backlash isn’t uncommon, and in the past, Disney has made decisions to censor parts of their movies to appease governments and audiences abroad.
Disney censors their work most often for China. In multiple instances, Disney has altered their movies to comply with China’s strict censorship laws. For example, because Chinese censorship is incredibly strict when it comes to LGBTQ+ content, Disney has opted to remove scenes alluding to or portraying LGBTQ+ relationships.
China, among other countries as well, is a lucrative market for Disney, accounting for hundreds of millions in revenue. For example, the Chinese release of “Avengers: Endgame” accounted for 22% of box office profits around the world. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney has lost millions of dollars in revenue. While this loss is mostly due to theme park closures, American attitudes towards China since the onset of COVID has also been a factor in Disney’s losses. Because of such losses, it’s possible that Disney is more willing to comply with censorship laws.
One indication of this is the decision to cut an LGBTQ+ kiss scene in 2022 film “Lightyear.” Many suspect that the scene was cut to avoid controversy, especially in markets like China, where the LGBTQ+ community is less accepted. Disney has the ultimate choice whether to cut parts of its movies or not show them in theaters at all, and Choosing to cut scenes rather than simply avoid said markets implies that Disney cares more about profit than morality.
There have been other instances in which Disney has chosen to censor films. For example, the brief moment featuring queer representation in the second “Black Panther” movie was censored in the Chinese and Kuwait versions of the film. An LGBTQ+ kiss in the 2021 film “Eternals” also suffered the same fate; the kiss was edited out in several markets, and in others, the film was completely banned.
Queer representation isn’t the only thing censored by Disney though. Disney has had previous issues with altering their movies for the Chinese market specifically. For example, when the first “Black Panther” movie was released, fans noticed that the one of the Chinese posters was different from the ones used in several other countries, including the United States version. Lead actor Chadwick Boseman’s face was covered by a mask in the Chinese version, while his face was fully displayed on the US one.
In another instance, the Chinese version of a “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” poster noticeably reduced the presence of one of the main characters, Finn, played by John Boyega. The size of Boyega’s character on the American poster is the same as all the other main characters.
Both Boseman and Boyega are black. By diminishing Boyega’s presence and Boseman’s blackness, many felt that Disney was anticipating some sort of racist backlash from Chinese audiences, and thus decided to release different posters in order to assuage such an issue.
As it turns out, “Black Panther” in particular did extremely well in China, and censorship of its actors was unnecessary. Though there were certainly racist reactions towards the film, Disney’s assumptions about Chinese racism in both instances may not have garnered them any extra profits.
In regards to censorship, Disney has also received criticism from its own employees, in particular those at Pixar, who say that executives have made demands to eliminate displays of affection between LGBTQ+ characters and attempted to staunch LGBTQ+ representation in Pixar films as a whole. Pixar employees also responded to news of Disney’s financial support of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, amid his legislation of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Read the full letter from Pixar employees calling out Disney on the topic here.
It seems Disney has taken some steps forward, though. In multiple instances, Disney has abandoned markets that have demanded they censor their movies. For example, though “Lightyear” was censored in some countries, it also was not released in Middle Eastern theaters, as Disney refused to cut scenes from the movie.
The Disney film “Strange World” also faced censorship threats. “Strange World” features an LGBTQ+ character, and rather than censor the movie, Disney chose not to release the movie in areas in which the film may be subjected to censorship laws.
Disney also retracted its support for Ron DeSantis, and then-CEO Bob Chapek criticized the “Don’t Say Gay” bill as well, in support of the aforementioned Pixar employees. Though his criticism has now caused a rift between Disney and Florida, sparking a lawsuit concerning other issues unrelated to the bill.
Disney has also been praised by long-standing LGBTQ+ advocate GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. In their 2022 report on production studios and representation, GLAAD declared that Disney is now a leader in inclusivity.
Disney’s inclusivity isn’t impressive by any means, as they still received an “insufficient” grade from GLAAD. However, according to the New York Times, five Disney films in 2021 alone included “at least one significant LGBTQ character—more than any other film company.” While they’ve certainly started including more diverse characters in their films, GLAAD’s criticism states that most of these characters are flat, lacking character development and dimension.
When compared to other studios though, Disney is making leaps and bounds in progress. Studios like Warner Bros, Paramount, Lionsgate, and more received “poor” and “failing” grades from GLAAD due to a lack of LGBTQ+ representation. In this regard, Disney has risen above the rest.
It’s become clear that Disney is trying at least a little bit harder to support marginalized communities, especially the LGBTQ+ community. By not releasing movies in countries that desire censorship and by supporting its LGBTQ+ employees, perhaps Disney is starting to value progress over profit, even if just a little.
Caroline MacLellan is a senior studying Professional and Public Writing, with a minor in Japanese. In her free time, she loves watching Korean dramas, reading manga and creative writing.