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SAMPLE ESSAY: Queerness, Marvel, and the MCU

(This essay was originally written, in part, for DePaul University course MCS 275 with Professor Blair Davis)

A bill is currently sitting on the desk of Florida governor Ron DeSantis that is coloquially titled “Don’t Say Gay”. According to the New York Times, if passed, the bill would “ban classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade; lessons on those topics in other grades would be prohibited unless they are ‘age appropriate or developmentally appropriate,’ a vague threshold. And parents would be allowed to sue over violations”. Public outcry in support of the LGBTQ+ community demanded that The Walt Disney Company and it’s CEO Bob Chapek speak out against this bill as the company is a massive employer and contributor to the Florida economy. After the bill passed both the Florida house and senate, Chapek wrote an internal message to Disney employees saying “he believes one of the best ways for Disney ‘to bring about lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce’”. However, this statement led employees and the public alike to question what “inspiring content” Chapek was referring to. Perhaps it was the “first gay Disney character” who seems to be announced every three months? The blink and you’ll miss it queer kiss in Star Wars? Or maybe the first explicitly queer character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - Loki - who was introduced in 2011 and only confirmed queer ten years later in 2021? If this is the “inspiring content” Chapek was speaking of, the public as well as Disney employees are right to respond dubiously. In a letter from LGBTQ+ Pixar employees to Disney executives, it states that “we at Pixar have personally witnessed beautiful stories, full of diverse characters, come back from Disney corporate reviews shaved down to crumbs of what they once were. 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”. If original stories from Pixar are being censored by Disney executives, how are adapted stories by Marvel Studios treated? Is Disney the reason Loki’s sexuality took ten years to confirm? How does a company publish queer stories in its comics but not translate those comics to the screen?

What some may not realize is that Disney is not only the parent company of Marvel Studios, responsible for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also the entirety of Marvel Entertainment. Marvel Comics operates under Marvel Entertainment which means Disney owns Marvel Comics. Marvel Unlimited, Marvel’s digital comic subscription service, can be linked to a Disney+ streaming account. The two companies are so intrinsically linked they cannot be separated. Marvel is Disney and Disney is Marvel. Therefore, the question becomes, why do the representations of queer characters vary so heavily in Marvel films compared to Marvel Comics? Which pots does Disney have it’s hands in?

According to a “Pride History” article on the official Marvel website (Disney loves to say ‘pride’ instead of LGBTQ+ or queer), the first queer character to appear in the Marvel Comics was Northstar who came out as gay in 1992. Since then several characters of diverse sexualities and gender expressions have been included. Black Panther: World of Wakanda #1 (2016) written by Roxanne Gay, Yona Harvery, and Ta-Nehesi Coates introduced the Midnight Angels; former Dora Milaje couple Ayo and Aneka. Telling the story of a queer couple of color, Gay and Harvery mark the first Black women to write for Marvel. In a 2016 interview with Curve Magazine, Gay was quoted saying “Marvel, with their recent initiatives, seem to finally be stepping up to do what should have long been done; allow everyone to see something of themselves in comics”. As one of the “Big Two” comics distributors, Marvel, along with DC, commands nearly 70 percent of the comics industry. However, under The Walt Disney Company since 2006, Marvel Entertainment extends beyond comics publishing to merchandise sales and film and television production. The brand is building a media monopoly.

Along with this growing monopoly comes money making decisions at the cost of representation. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) continues to expand and adapt Marvel comics on screen, concessions, presumably by Disney, have been made. Looking at Black Panther in particular, the queer story of Ayo and Aneka was noticibly absent from the film adaptation. Ayo was reduced to a minor role and Aneka was not present at all. In the article “Elisions & Illusions of Queerness: What Sacrifices Are Made in Appeals to a Mass Audience?”, author Frances Tuoriniemi builds on a claim by DeVega and Fawaza that comic-to-film adaptations result in “films being more conservative than comics, whose ‘open endedness allows for such an expansive, progressive view of the world’”. Given that comics have the freedom to be more creative in their world view, it is telling that Black Panther: World of Wakanda was canceled due to an apparent indication in sales that readers did not want “more” diversity. Tuoriniemi rightly points out that the use of the word “more” implies that there is a finite amount of diversity readers will tolerate.

Black Panther: World of Wakanda was canceled days after the trailer for the Black Panther film premiered. “This is a counterintuitive choice to make in the lead-up to

the film, especially when considering how central the comic book roots have been for the comic film genre”. By discontinuing World of Wakanda, Marvel and Disney implied that the story of Ayo and Aneka was not relevant to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and would not be explored on screen. However, in April of 2017, a leaked scene was published by Vanity Fair in which Ayo and Dora Milaje general Okoye share what was interpreted as a flirty exchange. This led audiences to believe that Ayo’s sexuality would be honored in the film yet when the film was released, the scene was not included. Fans took to social media in public outcry using the hashtag #LetAyoHaveAGirlfriend, one person writing: “fans have waited about 1,000 years for Marvel Studios to deliver LGBT representation on the big screen…we’re drowning in an ocean of white, heterosexual men played by actors named Chris”. Author of the article “Black Panther, Queer Erasure, and Intersectional Representation in Popular Culture”, Michaela D. E. Meyer wrote “while I certainly do not wish to take away from the film’s accomplishments, I was also struck by what was absent in this cinematic retelling of the comic book series—the lesbian relationship between women warriors Ayo and Aneka”. Many fans, critics, and academics alike felt as though Marvel and Disney portrayed Black Panther as an explicitly Black film - which it is - and yet the representation within that story must operate on a hierarchical scale, therefore, if it is going to be explicitly Black, it cannot also be explicitly queer. And furthermore, “By erasing lesbianism from Black Panther, and queer sexuality from the MCU more broadly, Disney continues to relegate queer sexualities to Otherness—queer audiences are not part of that which is “super” in these narratives”.

Since the release of Black Panther in 2018, Marvel and Disney have been slowly, tepidly introducing queer characters to the MCU. In 2021, Loki became the first character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to explicitly reference nonheteronormative attraction. Although it was a single reference and the character ends up in a heterosexual presenting relationship, it was an explicit reference nonetheless. However, Loki has been explicitly queer in the comics for decades and has been present in the MCU for ten years before it was ever mentioned. As the MCU expands and continues to adapt diverse Marvel Comics storylines with queer characters including Valkyrie, America Chavez, and Wiccan, fans remain weary as to how these stories will be represented on screen. Furthermore as Adam B. Vary write for Variety, “both Kevin Feige and “Guardians of the Galaxy'' director James Gunn have suggested that there are already LGBTQIA characters in the MCU, we just don’t know it yet — which is pretty much the opposite of what representation is supposed to accomplish” (2021). Perhaps these are the inspiring stories Bob Chapek was speaking about.

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