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Can Dialogue Save the World?

Yesterday I was listening to an NPR interview with Trish Bendix, founder of the website “After Ellen” and she was advocating for the sequel to Disney’s megahit “Frozen” to include a special female friend for Elsa, one of the characters who ended up alone at the end of the original film. Apparently there is  Twitter campaign to “#giveelsaagirlfriend” with messages such as “make Elsa a lesbian princess. Imagine how iconic that would be.” A similar campaign has begun to “#givecaptainAmericaaboyfriend.” The gist of the NPR interview was that many in the LBGT community feel that presenting an audience (mostly of pre-teens) with a model of a female-female relationship will help normalize such relationships for growing children, some of whom might either live with two same-sex parents, or who, as they later discover their own sexuality, would feel it was more acceptable. Ms. Bendix suggested that the relationship need not be overtly sexual (for a Disney animated film, this would be limited to hand holding and kissing), to convey the intended message.

As I was listening to the interview, my first thought was how such a film would be received in the wider world beyond the United States, particularly in Middle East, African and some Asian countries where same sex relationships are still taboo. “Frozen,” the top-grossing animated film of all time, earned more in the international market than domestically, and a large part of this market included Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Elsa and Anna dolls were sold in China, Vietnam, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Dubai added a “Frozen” themepark within one of its shopping malls. Apparently, what is interpreted as a film that expresses “girl power,” was acceptable even in Muslim countries.

So how would a lesbian message, even if only implicit, be received in most Middle Eastern and some Asian countries? Probably not well. This is probably enough to insure that Disney won’t succumb to the “give Elsa a girlfriend” campaign. But the needs of capitalism aren’t the most important issue. What matters is the question raised by the idea of making a mainstream, megapopular film, one with a substantial following among girls, women and families, that violates a large part of the world’s religious and moral values. Of course it would also be a film that many would say provided legitimacy to lesbian girls and women and to same-sex relationships—a blow for acceptance of sexual orientation as a trait and behavior patterns that obey natural and not societally prescribed laws.

In one sense, those who are advocating for Elsa’s girlfriend are myopic. In their view, the values of those who want to erase discrimination based upon sexual orientation are superior to the values of those who believe that homosexuality violates God-given laws about human behavior. Why is this myopic? Because it refuses to see the world from other than one’s own point of view. Anti-homosexual themes are present in Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy texts and traditions (although mostly not in Buddhist or Hindu texts and traditions, where it has sometimes even been celebrated). Many people in the world have learned that homosexuality is evil since they were young children. They consider it their duty to teach the same message to their own children. The anti-homosexual themes, when they occur in religions and in cultures, are not trivial. They are deeply held values. Even in America, fundamentalist Christians and many mainstream Muslims consider homosexuality a sin. From the reaction to the “give Elsa a girlfriend” Twitter campaign, even many  Americans who don’t condemn homosexuality do not feel that it is appropriate for it to be portrayed in a children’s film (even when it is portrayed without any suggestion of overt sex).

In the United States and in most Western countries, views on homosexuality have changed. The most dramatic changes in these views have occurred in the last three or four decades and especially in the last two. Homosexuality is not considered a choice by many people nowadays. It is biologically determined. Forcing a homosexual person to conceal his or her sexual orientation or to deny it, is psychologically harmful, sometimes catastrophically so. One of the most sensitive periods in learning to incorporate a healthy homosexual orientation into one’s identity is during the formative years of late pre-teen and adolescence, when other aspects of identify are formed. From the point of view of the majority of people in most Western countries, as well as some Asian countries such as Japan, discrimination against homosexuals is cruel and unjustified, and being allowed to affirm one’s gay or lesbian identity is healthy.

Both of these opposing views on homosexuality are culturally based. The Western view has changed dramatically, much more in response to social pressures than to scientific information. The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973, primarily in response to social pressure to do so. Claims that homosexuality is biologically based have scientific credibility, but also ignore historical instances of societies where it was a common practice (e.g. Japanese Buddhist monks, Ancient Greece or Rome) or a practice thought to be appropriate to a certain stage in sexual development (e.g. ancient Greece or  some 20th century New Guinean tribes). Neither the Bible nor the Koran spends much time discussing homosexuality and, when it occurs, particularly in the Bible, it is difficult to disentangle the issue from other issues such as violent sex or idolatry and is mostly about the sexual behavior of two men. Jesus never mentions the topic in the New Testament. The Koran contains several passages, mostly related to the Biblical story of Sodom in which homosexuality is identified as a transgression against Allah. and, again this is mostly as it relates to two men. Also in the Hadiths, the sayings of Mohammed, there are pronouncements against homosexuality, including recommendations to kill the transgressor. However, in Jewish, Christian and Muslim societies, the emphasis upon and interpretation of these various prohibitions has varied over the centuries and the harshest punishments have tended to come from the laws of particular societies, such as those that have adopted fundamentalist aspects of Sharia Law or during the Catholic Inquisition in Europe. Laws against male homosexuality were always more prevalent and harsher than those against female sexuality.

There are two very different views about the wisdom and morality of portraying a character as lesbian or gay in a children’s film. These views are held very deeply on either side of the issue. In their extreme form, such views on sexual orientation have led to protests  against and disparagement of anti-homosexual groups by those who approve of gay or lesbian orientations and have led to violence and murder by those who oppose such sexual orientations. On the other hand, acceptance of homosexual behavior, particularly lesbianism, has varied even within Christian and Islamic cultures over the centuries and has been subject to debate within such cultures.

Both those who accept and want to affirm homosexual behavior and those who vehemently condemn it are in agreement about one thing: acceptance is a Western phenomena and something most Westerners want to spread to other regions of the world. This, of course, is not actually true. In India and many Buddhist societies, homosexuality has had acceptance for more than a thousand years, sometimes more in the past than in the present. Be that as it may, the spread of the acceptance of homosexuality is tied to Western ideas of individual freedom and to Muslim (and sometimes Asian) fears of a loss of traditional values  to Western valuelessness. This places acceptance of homosexuality in the center of a culture war in which both sides view themselves as correct in a universal way: that is, their values deserve to be imposed on others because they are the right values.

So how do people conduct a dialogue about such an issue?

In the first place, each side must make it safe for those who espouse the opposite viewpoint to express themselves in whatever venue a dialogue is situated. Secondly, each side must learn about the traditions, the cultural issues and the scientific facts that shape the other’s opinions on the issue. Both sides must agree to assess how important such factors are to the other. For instance, scientific findings regarding biological sexual inclinations cannot be dismissed because they seem to conflict with someone’s Biblical or Koranical  precepts. Likewise, religious precepts cannot be dismissed as primitive and unscientific by those who favor science. What matters is how important these things are to the participants in the dialogue. Finally, those holding the discussion must agree at the outset that their aim is for a compromise, or at least to gaining understanding of the other’s point of view, not  a victory of one side over the other.

These are the rules for holding a productive dialogue. Whether such a dialogue can bring opposite sides together on an issue as incendiary as homosexuality, much less whether it should be portrayed in a children’s film is unclear. However, the opposite of dialogue is to force one’s point of view on another.  Whether different cultures can come to a mutual agreement that reflects a compromise on the issue is not clear, but a lesser goal is to live and let live… to agree not to force one’s opinion on the other. This can’t be achieved if either side believes there is no justification for the other side’s position. Having a dialogue is to learn what that justification is and to give it some credence for the person who harbors it.

If we can’t do this, we will continue to fight each other… probably until our mutual destruction.


Reader Comments (1)

Some corporations just don't give a shit about their characters enough to treat them as anything other as a source of profit. Time Warner just demonstrated that when it allowed Cartoon Network to revive the Powerpuff Girls without creator Craig McCracken's involvement or consent. I am not at all surprised that Disney would be doing the same thing with Elsa. The decision about her sexuality should be left up to the filmmakers to decide for themselves, not the assholes in marketing or HR. Or the MFs in the board room, either.

May 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Perlmutter

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