The much-discussed, potentially lesbian couple in Finding Dory is only onscreen for a moment. There are no clues about their sexual identity, not even a subtle Pixar-style wink for the adults who will dutifully accompany their children to this latest computer-animated fish fest. For a few seconds, we see two women with slightly differing hair lengths walking together in a park, and then they’re gone.
We’ll apparently never know if they were Disney’s first same-sex couple or not. When USA Today pressed the film’s co-director Andrew Stanton for a clear answer on Wednesday, he coyly replied: “They can be whatever you want them to be. There’s no right or wrong answer.” A producer added, “We never asked them.”
It’s ironic but also sadly fitting that their appearance in the film ended up being brief and ambiguous after so much internet speculation. This entire affair—from the progressive, #GiveElsaAGirlfriend-inspired call for LGBT characters in a Disney film to the predictable conservative parade-raining that followed—has been a master class in femme lesbian invisibility.
The truth is when you’re a woman in a relationship with another woman and neither of you present in a particularly butch way, recognition is rare and fleeting. No one really knows whether you’re gay or not, much like the hotly-contested Finding Dory duo. As a woman in such a couple, I can’t honestly say that I was looking to a Finding Nemo sequel for personal recognition, but it’s disappointing nonetheless that Pixar won’t just come out and say they’re partners. And it borders on insulting to hear the filmmakers use the ambiguity of relationships like mine, however unwittingly, as a way to avoid controversy.Stanton’s “whatever you want them to be” comment is the safest possible response, and a somewhat cowardly one in the year 2016. Essentially, he’s leaving room open for progressive viewers to label the couple as lesbian while also giving permission to everyone else to see them the same way my partner and I are so often perceived: as a couple of “gal pals” out for a stroll. The characters are truly Schrödinger’s lesbians, gay and straight at once, all things to all viewers.
That’s a lot like how my partner and I are seen depending on the social context. When my partner of three years had short hair, restaurant servers would instinctively bring us one check a lot more frequently than they do now that she has grown it out. A stranger in a grocery store once asked us if we were “sisters” when he spotted us holding hands and, after we said “no,” he logically deduced that we must be “best friends.” Some people we interact with still refer to us as “roommates” even after we explicitly tell them that we are partners—not business partners, full-on sleeping-with-each-other partners. Sometimes it feels like we could make out in a crowded elevator and people would still think we’re just BFFs.Generally speaking, we are friends until proven lovers, in the same way that the fleeting Finding Dory couple will probably be perceived as platonic unless the filmmakers can fess up to some authorial intent.
The Finding Dory creators could have just said, “Yes, they’re gay,” or “No, they’re not,” and dealt with the internet’s inevitable outrage in either event. We would all drown in a deluge of thinkpieces and/or Facebook posts from our homophobic relatives, sure, but at least this drawn-out-controversy about four seconds of film would finally be over.Instead, by trying so fastidiously to offend no one and please everyone, Stanton and crew relying on the uncertainty that surrounds femme-femme relationships to leave themselves some plausible deniability. It’s an artful dodge in the form of an appeal to viewer interpretation: They’re only gay if you want them to be gay! Lesbianism is in the eye of the beholder!In so doing, the Finding Dory team also gets to recuse themselves from commenting publicly on Disney’s disappointing lack of LGBT representation. GLAAD recently gave the studio a “failing” grade for having zero LGBT characters across all 11 of their 2015 films. Those low marks preceded particularly loud calls for gay characters in Star Wars, for a steamy Captain America and Bucky Barnes romance, and, of course, for Frozen’s Elsa to fall for another lady. Disney has a long history of subtly coding its villains as queer, but an obvious, out same-sex couple in a Disney Pixar film—even one that appears for just a few seconds—would still be groundbreaking.If it seems silly to care about the sexual orientation of two computer-generated characters that are onscreen for the duration of a sneeze, it’s not. It only speaks to how starved LGBT people have been for representation by a company that is at the heart of American pop culture, and to how invested we are in Disney in spite of it all.
As The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon wrote in connection to the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend campaign, “When you grow up gay, or wondering if you might be gay, you search for yourself in any way you can in these tenets of pop culture that become integral parts of your childhood.”
Disney’s LGBT fans, as Fallon observed, have a long history of seeing reflections of themselves in the studio’s protagonists and its villains: the deliciously perverse Ursula, the big-eared outcast Dumbo, the might-as-well-be-gay-married Timon and Pumbaa. I grew up with that generation of Disney characters. Now, it doesn’t matter that much to me on a personal level whether or not my partner and I see a reflection of our femme-femme relationship in a movie about cartoon fish looking for each other.
But the next wave of young Disney fans, as efforts like #GiveElsaAGirlfriend and #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend prove, is not going to be content hunting for representational scraps in movies without overtly LGBT characters. For them, it doesn’t bode well that the Finding Dory director can’t even confirm whether or not a couple is lesbian and is essentially asking LGBT viewers to, once again, see themselves where they are not openly acknowledged.“They can be whatever you want them to be” might work this time, but not for long.