Disney Films Need to Stop Emulating Ideas of Sexuality from 19th-Century Novels
The year is 1992. Bill Clinton has become President, Disney has opened a theme park in France, and Christian Bale is two years away from his peak attractiveness in Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women. The baby-faced future Batman bursts out singing and dancing in the live-action Disney musical Newsies. Despite music by Alan Menken, direction by Kenny Ortega (who will later define a generation with the High School Musical franchise), and drawing on the not-yet-existent star power of Bill Pullman, Newsies flopped so badly that theaters only played the movie for two weeks. Fast forward to 2018 and Newsies has exploded into a worldwide Broadway musical phenomenon and a cult classic for all Christian Bale nerds who get a kick out of the Dark Knight awkwardly dancing down the streets of 1899 New York in a cowboy hat.
On the other hand, very few folks in 2018 America have ever heard of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Lady Audley’s Secret. A knockout when the serialization first hit the shelves in 1861, Lady Audley’s Secret was considered one of the 100 best novels of the nineteenth-century according to the Daily Telegraph in 1899, coincidentally the same year in which Newsies is set. However, the popular appeal of Braddon’s novel has dropped and doesn’t seem likely to rise anytime soon. So, what connects these seemingly dissimilar works of entertainment that are on opposite trajectories of popular appeal? The similar homosexual coverup plotline featured in both Newsies and Lady Audley’s Secret which provides a cautionary tale for Disney about keeping up with the times.
Many fans consider the relationship between Jack Kelly and Davey Jacobs in the box-office-flop-turned-cult-classic version of Newsies to be one of the earliest, albeit unacknowledged, LGBTQ+ representations in the Disney canon. Sarah Marshall refers to this relationship as a “friendship that verges into the territory of romance” in her article “The Afterlife of Newsies.” This is supported by the many intensely private moments between Jack and Davey: the penetrating eye contact, the seeming forgetfulness of personal space, and the constant physicality of shaking hands, grabbing, pushing, and just touching one another in general. As Marshall implies, this could be a case where the relationship is what the Disney marketing team advertised, one of incredibly close friendship. However, the placement and character development of Davey’s sister, Sarah, as Jack’s romantic interest indicates that things may not be that simple.
Sarah Jacobs is not a terrible character per se, she’s just a boring one. She pops up in random scenes to provide Jack with opportunities to showcase traditional masculinity contrasted with her traditional femininity. Their very first meeting involves Jack, Davey, and her other brother, Les, running into the apartment exhilarated after escaping the police and visiting the theatre. Sarah is demurely sewing in the corner and gently smiles when Davey introduces Jack. This introduction to Sarah’s character wouldn’t be a problem except that her personality does not evolve past this point of a gentle female façade. It seems clear that Sarah Jacobs was only created to be a woman for Jack to kiss at the end of the movie to prove he isn’t gay. Marshall rightly calls this “one of the most thankless roles of the nineties…all but wearing a sandwich board that says ‘CONSIDER…GIRLS.’” Let’s be clear, having a female love interest is not the problem here; the problem is creating a female love interest with no developed personality simply to (poorly) draw attention away from the homosexual chemistry between your two male leads.
Interestingly, the authoress extraordinaire Mary Elizabeth Braddon develops the exact same plotline in her novel written well over a century earlier. Braddon’s main character, Robert Audley, has a very close friendship with George Talboys. They are such good friends that they live together after George’s wife dies, and, when George disappears one day, Robert launches a mystery solving expedition worthy of Sherlock Holmes to find his missing friend. There is nothing inherently romantic about either of these facts, but the dedication Robert bears to George showcases stronger emotions than mere friendship. Robert observes that his “chambers…had seemed dreary to him ever since the disappearance of George Talboys,” a description of distress and, dare I say, pining that surpasses a general loss of a friend. He also describes George as “the companion who had been dear to me,” laments that he had not “died in my arms,” and “uttered a wild cry, and fell down upon his knees” before praising God for “Thy wondrous mercies” upon discovering that “George Talboys is alive!” Robert’s inability to continue his regular life without his friend and his description of their relationship in passionate and deep phrases leads inexorably to the conclusion that Robert harbors some form of romantic feelings for George. This depth of emotion only really becomes apparent, however, when juxtaposed with the forced romantic subplot Robert shares with George’s sister.
The amount of sexual chemistry between the two main male characters would have been ill-suited for a proper nineteenth-century novel, so Braddon places a somewhat lifeless female character in the way of Robert for him to ostensibly fall in love with and marry. This feminine substitute comes in the form of George’s sister, Clara Talboys. Sound familiar? Unlike Newsies, however, Braddon is more explicit in her purpose by highlighting the physical similarities between Clara and George. Robert’s first observation of Clara is that “She had brown eyes, like George’s.” Another time he says, “I recognise [sic] a feminine resemblance to poor George’s hand” and refers to Clara as interchangeable with George when he is lonely: “If poor George were sitting opposite to me, or — or even George’s sister — she’s very like him.” Robert is constantly referring to Clara as a substitute for George both in physical appearance and as a form of company. This substitution plays a huge role in the ending of the novel.
By the end of Lady Audley’s Secret, Robert has married Clara and George comes to live with them. Robert ultimately seems to have the best of both worlds: a wife to please society and his best friend to please himself. This triad marriage allows Robert to have his cake and eat it too. It is socially unacceptable for him to have a romantic relationship with George, so he must settle for a romantic relationship with Clara, the feminine representation of his friend. This ending is startlingly similar to the finale of Newsies when Jack kisses Sarah and cements his socially acceptable romantic relationship with her while also maintaining his blurred relationship with her brother Davey. It was impossible for Jack and Davey to kiss at the end of the 1992 film, particularly when one considers that Disney didn’t even acknowledge a gay character within a film until 2017’s live-action Beauty and the Beast remake. Even in the Broadway musical version of Newsies, which premiered in 2011, the sexual tension between the two male leads is put aside for a kiss between Jack and Katherine, the replacement Sarah Jacobs who is much more interesting as a character, but still serves to perpetuate heteronormativity in children’s entertainment. So, Jack must accept a one-dimensional version of a female love interest connected to the object of his true desire — his friendship/romance with Davey.
Recently, there has been an explosion of LGBTQ+ representation in media, but that doesn’t mean the temptation to replace a homosexual relationship with a seemingly more socially acceptable heterosexual romance no longer exists. Disney movies inspire audiences everywhere, yet they continue to sustain conservative and traditional viewpoints within their narratives. The acceptability of this approach within their fan base is changing, however. Consider the recent backlash caused by the removal of Li Shang, a character many fans view as bisexual, from the upcoming live-action remake of Mulan. Fans are no longer satisfied by a storyline that veils the romantic interest of leading male characters in another man by providing a shallow female substitute as his acceptable love interest. In fact, they weren’t entirely happy with that nineteenth-century approach in 1992. The times are changing Disney; you had better keep up.