Why The Openly Gay Character In 'Onward' Matters So Much To Me

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
Lena Waithe and her character from Disney Pixar's Onward
DIsney Pixar and Leon Bennett/Getty

Disney Pixar’s new film, Onward, takes place in a world where mythical creatures are the norm. The main characters are elves, and the mom dates a centaur. But it’s not those characters that people are talking about. It’s a minor character: Officer Specter, a cyclops voiced by Lena Waithe. Officer Specter is a big deal because she is the first out, queer female character in a Disney animated feature. And, the character is voiced by an out, black lesbian. As a black queer woman and a mom, this means a lot to me.

The appearance of Waithe’s character is so brief it almost doesn’t register. As I sat watching the film, I was already so invested in the characters and focused on the story. But then I heard her say, “my girlfriend,” and something in me froze. “Did she just say girlfriend?” I ask myself. Surely I’m hearing things. No way in the world did a female character in a Disney movie actually use the word girlfriend. But she did. It was a moment of solidarity I couldn’t have anticipated.

Officer Specter being an out and proud queer woman is a huge deal. But the fact that Lena Waithe does her voice is even bigger. Her unapologetic blackness matches her unapologetic queerness. As an out and proud lesbian, she’s done so much for black queer visibility in the last few years. Not only is it wonderful to see Disney’s Pixar making more of an effort to bring in actors of color — but making sure a lesbian actress voices a lesbian character is important. It would have been very easy to use a straight voice actor. But Disney knew that this is going to be a big deal. So it makes sense that they’re covering their bases.

Disney prides themselves as the foremost purveyor of fine family programming. And they most certainly are just that. But you have to acknowledge that they pretty much always promote the same kind of family. White, heterosexual families dominate their content. I’m a single parent and I would kill for a Disney movie that looks like our family. Not because one is more important, but because one is more socially acceptable.

Being an openly queer parent is super hard. Especially when it comes to representation in popular children’s media. Queer parents really don’t exist in most kid’s shows, movies, etc. Even though we’re very clearly out in the world and a part of our kids lives. Some people simply can’t see past their own prejudices. And unfortunately Disney often plays into those prejudices by keeping their stories so heteronormative. It’s nice to see that in Onward, they’re making an effort, even if it’s only for about a minute. It shouldn’t have been hard, but I know what Disney is facing by doing so.

Back in 2019, ultra conservative group One Million Moms lost their shit over the release of Toy Story 4. In a literal throwaway scene where Bonnie gets picked up from kindergarten, one of her classmates is picked up by two moms. You barely even see these women’s faces, and none of the kids acknowledge it. But those million moms had some seriously big feelings about it. “So many families probably plan on seeing this movie if they haven’t already and will be blindsided by this subtle but obvious promotion of the LGBTQ lifestyle,” they say in the petition.

That’s why the brief scene in Onward is so impactful. This time they’re not hiding anything. Explicitly stating that not only is this character openly queer, but in a happy successful relationship with someone of the same sex is incredibly impactful. Unlike the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in Toy Story 4, this conversation is deliberate. By offering advice about how to handle stepchildren, she is offering perspective to the character and showing other queer parents that she sees them. Even if it’s just for a couple minutes, we feel seen.

Having an openly gay character in Onward is just as big as it feels. Honestly, it would have been very easy to queer code this film since it’s primarily for children. Queer coding is not a new concept — it’s basically hinting at a character’s sexuality without explicitly taking a stance. Fans are able to pick up on subtle cues indicating a character may be queer. This isn’t a new phenomenon with Disney movies. Look at Elsa in Frozen. Even though Disney will never explicitly say so, she gives off majorly queer vibes. That’s why everyone wants her to get a girlfriend.

I only have one issue with Officer Specter in Onward. Seriously, I don’t love that she’s a cop. In the context of the movie, it absolutely makes sense. But as a person, I really wish there was another way. Cops have a well-documented history of perpetuating violence against queer people and black people in this country. So to have their first openly queer character be a cop makes it feel a little bittersweet. People are going to disagree with me on this, but as a black woman I can’t pretend it didn’t happen. You can be happy about something and still acknowledge the harm that it does.

Even though Officer Specter and her gayness isn’t a plot in Onward, it makes a real difference. It’s a film about family, and mentioning a queer family dynamic is important. Hopefully this leads Disney Pixar to not only including more queer characters in the future, but ones with bigger storylines. For now, this queer momma is very pleased.

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