Author Mark Twain once said, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations”. Twain’s words, first recorded in the nineteenth century, ring especially true in the current age of reboots, remakes, and retellings. Disney, in particular, has made a name for itself following Twain’s words to the letter. It has earned a fortune retelling not only classic fairytale stories but reboots and rewrites of its own retellings that few people need. It has even cashed in on reboot-remix fever through a series of Disney Channel Original Movies: the Descendants trilogy (2015-2019), which revolves around the children of all the famous Disney heroes and villains, who inexplicably live in a world much like our own.
I am not going to pretend that Descendants makes sense. The trilogy’s metaphors for American politics is clumsy at best. Yet, my love for these movies is r-i-d-i-c-u-l-o-u-s. It has been almost four months since the final Descendants movie first aired, and despite my short attention span, I still find myself thinking about this franchise. I am not alone. There is so much more (and better) media discuss in this day and age, yet I can still find people on Twitter talking about the end of Descendants 3 like it just came out yesterday. Many of these people are in their late teens or even older–definitely not the target audience for a Disney Channel movie. Furthermore, it’s not as if Descendants is a new classic like the High School Musical (HSM) trilogy (2006-2008); it’s too much of a cash grab based on intellectual property rights to even compare to the innocent sweetness of HSM. There has to be a reason why we’re all still so obsessed with these movies.
Maybe–just maybe–it’s because we’re not straight.
Despite being as clean-cut and heteronormative as every other Disney Channel movie, the Descendants trilogy has acquired a vocal LGBTQ fandom. Perhaps this is best shown through the statistics for Descendants fanfiction on Archive of Our Own. At time of writing, the two most popular ships were Mal/Evie and Jay/Carlos, both non-canon and non-heterosexual pairings. The main canon heterosexual pairing for the franchise, Ben/Mal, only comes in third place. If you look through the Tumblr tags for the Descendants movies, you’re more likely to see fan content made for Mal (Dove Cameron) and Evie (Sofia Carson) together than for Mal and her canonical boyfriend Ben (Mitchell Hope) or Evie and her canonical boyfriend Doug (Zachary Gibson).
I’ve seen this happen once before, with another fairy tale remix franchise: Once Upon a Time (2011-2018). Back in the show’s heyday, fans of “Swan Queen”, the pairing of Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) and Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla) were some of the show’s most vocal supporters (and later, critics). At time of writing, there were more fanfics about Swan Queen on Archive of Our Own than about any other ship. The pairing was part of almost 2000 more fanfics than the show’s second most popular pairing on the site, the canon heterosexual relationship of “Captain Swan”, between Emma Swan and Killian Jones (Colin O’Donoghue). Even someone like me, who likes neither Swan Queen nor Captain Swan, can acknowledge the significant difference in fan work.
The cause for these discrepancies is simple: anywhere there exists gay fan content, there exist gay fans. Fairytale retellings and remixes are broadly popular, but why are LGBTQ fans so vocal about them?
At first, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Fairytales, in general, are heteronormative, and most of the reboots/retellings that currently exist are heteronormative as well. What makes these certain fairytale-based productions matter to LGBTQ fandom, in spite of their blatant heterosexuality, is their subversion of classic fairy tale tropes.
For example, much of the discourse around Disney’s Frozen (2013) revolves around whether or not Elsa (Idina Menzel) is a lesbian. Much of this is because her narrative is written in a way that subverts our expectations for what a typical Disney story is.
For starters, Elsa’s narrative does not revolve around romance. She ends the original Frozen without a canonical love interest. Her storyline in the first Frozen film is more typical of a Disney villain than a Disney heroine. She has powers she cannot control, plunges her kingdom into an eternal winter, and nearly kills her sister with her magic. It would have been easy to follow typical Disney form and write Elsa as a villain (like in the original Snow Queen fairytale). Indeed, in the early stages of Frozen‘s development, Elsa was the villain. However, because she ended the film as a hero regardless, she is inherently a subversive character. That, combined with her lack of canonical love interest, makes her ripe for interpretation as gay. LGBTQ fans see Elsa and they think, “She breaks the mold, like us. Therefore, she has to be one of us.”
The same can be said about Disney Channel’s Descendants films. The central thesis of the first Descendants is “We can be different from our parents, and that’s okay”. That can be seen as a mission statement for the franchise as a whole. Descendants is not trying to be like the stories that inspired it. It instead wants to subvert the tropes of its predecessors. Instead of the typical damsel-in-distress, the character that gets cursed/kidnapped/hurt the most in the trilogy is the handsome prince/king, Ben. Instead of the ‘good guys’ being the heroes of the story, the protagonists of the Descendants films are explicitly the outcasts, the freaks, the ‘bad guys’. Subversion of the norm is in the DNA of Descendants, and it’s this subversion that opens the films up to gay readings of its main characters.
One of the things that makes Descendants unique in its efforts to put a new spin on old stories is its perceptions of romance. While traditional fairytales and Disney movies are often all about the love story, the romantic subplot is near-nonexistent after the first Descendants film. In Descendants 2, the emotional duet that anchors the movie is not between its main couple, but between protagonist Mal and her female best friend Evie. Though in context, the song “Space Between” is meant to be about the strong friendship between the two girls, sapphic fans such as myself have found a different reading.
Lyrics such as “You’ll never be alone // No matter where you go” and “Even if we’re worlds apart // You’re still in my heart // It will always be you and me” would be widely read as romantic if they were sung by a man and a woman. As a result, sapphic fans don’t have to make gigantic mental leaps to see Mal and Evie as something other than straight. The subversive nature of Descendants in general basically encourages such a reading.
Love is a major part of most fairytales. Updating the fairytale for the modern era without explicitly updating the fairytale perception of true love is weak storytelling. As a result, recent fairytale-based media suffers without the inclusion of non-heterosexual characters.
I think the reason Once Upon a Time fell out of public consciousness was its failure to continue being creatively subversive throughout its later seasons. The idea of a ‘true love’s kiss’ was a powerful narrative device throughout Once Upon a Time, and with an ensemble cast, it would have made sense for one of the show’s main couples to be comprised of two men or two women. Instead, time and time again, Once Upon a Time continually created heterosexual ‘true love’ couples. When the show did include gay storylines, it ended up writing off its gay characters (Mulan, Ruby, Dorothy) or inserting them as an afterthought (Alice and Robin in the show’s final season, which no one but me watched). The continual focus on heterosexual couple after heterosexual couple made the show boring. The attempts at subversion that did exist in the final few seasons fell flat because the writers seemed uncommitted to the unique, subversive ideas that made the first few seasons entertaining, simply wanting to coast off of Disney intellectual property instead. Including a gay or lesbian couple and trying to write them well would have probably kept the show fresh instead of bland.
At the very least, it would have given me something to remember about the show’s later seasons. I watched every single episode of the show, and yet, when I wrote this article and considered inserting a paragraph or two about the show’s musical episode (because of musical month at Flip Screen), I had to go on Wikipedia to make sure that the show really did have a musical episode and it wasn’t something I just made up. What should have been a momentous event for the show was relegated to a hazy half-hallucination, half-memory in my mind. I was too bored with the show’s heteronormativity (and unrelated-to-heterosexuality bad writing) to care enough to remember.
When it comes to writing the fairytale for the modern age, making characters gay is easy, makes narrative sense, and strengthens the story. Take Frozen‘s Elsa: the first film’s song “Let it Go” is virtually a coming-out anthem. Elsa sings “I don’t care what they’re going to say” and “the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all”. That message would simply resonate so much more if it wasn’t simply about her powers, if the subtext created by her powers being a metaphor became text, if she was canonically gay.
The same can be said of the Descendants movies. If the message is about finding yourself, despite your parents and societal expectations, wouldn’t it make sense for any of the characters to be explicitly and canonically gay? One of the themes of the first movie was that love was unconventional, and that was played out through a bad girl/good boy relationship. At this point, a pairing between a good guy and a bad girl isn’t interesting or unconventional. It’s common.
What is interesting and plays right into the idea of true love being unconventional is a non-heterosexual relationship. After all, there’s no specific reason why it had to be Mal to date Ben. It could have easily been male characters Jay (Booboo Stewart) or Carlos (Cameron Boyce) dating Ben. Doing this could have been a fun play on the damsel-in-distress trope the Descendants movies already liked to subvert by making Ben its damsel-in-distress. If the damsel-in-distress and the heroic savior were both guys, this would help show that there is a broader spectrum of masculinity than what we normally see.
On the other hand, Descendants also subverted fairytale tropes by putting powerful women at the forefront, both as heroes and as villains. The Ben character, a teenager put in charge of an entire kingdom, could have easily been a girl without changing much of the story. It would have even made the story more subversive and feminist, showing that girls could be strong leaders without being physically (or magically) powerful.
The Descendants trilogy could have probably made any female character gay, and it would have made just as much sense (if not more sense) than any of the trilogy’s straight storylines. Evie’s arc in the first Descendants film is all about her realizing she doesn’t need a man, so wouldn’t it make sense for her to end up with a woman? In Descendants 3, Audrey (Sarah Jeffery) sings about how she’s “tired of pretending” and wishing for her own happy ending in the song “Queen of Mean“; that is remarkably gay. Moreover, making characters like Lonnie (Dianne Doan) or Uma (China Anne McClain) gay would have been a nice nod to historical LGBTQ fandom, which has often viewed character’s like Mulan and Ursula (Lonnie and Uma’s parents, respectively) as queer-coded.
You can say that maybe Descendants doesn’t need to be creative or subversive because it’s for kids. But aren’t kids the ones that need the explicit subversion of heterosexuality the most? Adults can read subtext, but kids growing up insecure about who they are would benefit greatly from seeing two boys or two girls kiss on screen. That could change their lives.
One could attribute Disney’s reluctance to portray gay characters in fairytale media to audience backlash; unwilling to alienate homophobic audience members, Disney instead decides to pretend gay people don’t exist in its fairytales. After all, it cut out a background same-sex kiss from Descendants 2. To higher-ups, including gay characters simply isn’t easy or profitable enough to risk. However, such a decision is creatively limiting. The reason anyone writes a subversive narrative is because they recognize there is more to the story than what is generally told. When modern subversive fairytales are written without members of the LGBTQ community in mind, this implicitly sends the message that LGBTQ individuals don’t deserve to be part of any story.
It would be remiss of me to mention Disney (or Disney-adjacent) works linked to fairytales without mentioning ABC’s short-lived comedy series Galavant (2015), which put its own spin on classic fairytale tropes. Indeed, Galavant has a much smaller fandom than Descendants, Once Upon a Time, or Frozen; hardly anybody I know watched it. However, the people I know who did watch it mostly identify as members of the LGBTQ community, and many of us interpreted the character of Madalena (Mallory Jansen) as lesbian or bisexual in spite of the show’s heteronormativity. The nature of Galavant as a show more dedicated to telling a joke than establishing deep character made it hard for a vocal gay fandom to emerge around the show, but gay people do like the show.
Being members of the LGBTQ community, it’s hard to find media that represents us, so we have to look for scraps. In some cases, this means watching entire shows for two background characters that appear in one season or suffering through hours of heterosexual main characters for one minute of one gay main character’s screen time. However, for fans of sweeping fairytale-esque stories with once upon a time‘s and happily ever after‘s, this isn’t so easy. There isn’t anything here for us yet, so we have to get desperate and creative. We find ourselves drawn to the narratives that break the mold and subtextually tell us that we matter. We don’t have our own fairytales, so we make ones for ourselves out of queer-coded characters and song-lyrics with heavy subtext.
But, we deserve better. We deserve our own happy endings, ones we can see on-screen, not simply in fanfiction and elaborate fan theories. Putting LGBTQ characters on screen isn’t fan service, it’s service to the greater narrative. Once writers realize this, maybe our non-fantasy world can have a few more happily ever after‘s.