By Ethan Jiang
Pixar’s “Onward,” a charming film about a pair of adventurous elves, recently topped the box office for the second weekend in a row. However, its first-place finish is somewhat deceiving; ticket sales plummeted that week because of coronavirus fears. Just as one statistic fails to paint a full picture, the whole story of Onward remains hidden as well. The Moscow Times reported last month that the dubbed Russian version of the film changed references to Pixar’s first LGBT+ character. The controversy centered on Officer Specter, a one-eyed police officer who briefly mentions her girlfriend. Russian distributors took offense, scrubbing the lesbian reference and replacing the word “girlfriend” with the gender-neutral “partner.”
It’s no surprise that Russia is making such moves now. After all, the nation has a history of censoring and silencing LGBT+ voices, both on the silver screen and in the streets. With authority granted by a 2013 “gay propaganda” law, the Kremlin cut off access to support services and affirming education. That law, which also provided justification for the change to “Onward,” was specifically targeted at LGBT+ friendly websites and mental health professionals, fostering a culture of discrimination and bias.
A series of interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch documented the shocking results of such an environment, with one 14-year old transgender boy explaining that “hazing, beatings, and undermining of LGBT teens are not taken seriously… Adults can safely mock us, rape us, and undermine us.” Just this month, President Vladimir Putin added fuel to the fire with the proposal of a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Given the severity of Russia’s abuses in real life, minor omissions on the screen seem relatively harmless. But while it may be more subtle, revisionism in film is just as significant, largely because exposure to LGBT+ media can help normalize one’s identity. In fact, Phillip Ayoub, a professor at Occidental College, found in a 2017 study that media portrayals of lesbian and gay people specifically are responsible for much of the liberalization of attitudes seen over the past half century. Moreover, censorship and faithful storytelling are often at odds. Back in 2017, Russia also censored a gay sex scene from the Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” concealing a part of John’s identity in the process.
On a more personal level, the omission is a hurtful one. Lena Waithe, the actress who voiced Officer Specter, is openly lesbian, and she has made it her mission to represent the queer experience. In an interview with Variety, Waithe explained that “it was written as a straight [character]… but I don’t think I sound right saying ‘husband.’”
Russia is no isolated case. Deadline noted last week that four Middle Eastern countries—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar—banned Onward altogether because of its lesbian reference. This extreme move isn’t just an attempt to stop one portrayal. Rather, it serves as a financial warning shot to Pixar and other film companies, discouraging future groundbreaking steps.
Even in the US, groups such as One Million Moms, an anti-LGBTQ+ group affiliated with the American Family Association (and designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group), have spoken out against the film and urged members to speak out against “indoctrination” and “political correctness.”
The reason behind this censorship is crystal clear: many leaders in these nations rely on socially conservative voters to boost their polling. Blocking LGBT+ content is simply a political tool used to appease more traditional, older voting blocs. For instance, all four Middle Eastern nations that banned Onward also criminalize homosexuality, and Russia remains stubbornly homophobic because of the Orthodox church. In short, authorities have weaponized censorship at the box office to gain an advantage at the ballot box.
In the context of Officer Specter’s job as a police officer, Russia’s recent move is somewhat ironic. After all, as “Onward” itself points out, policing can only do so much.