The new Pixar animated film Lightyear has become the latest battleground for LGBTQ+ rights. The movie – which is a prequel to the highly successful Toy Story saga – has been banned from 14 countries for including a same-sex kiss. This means that countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, as well as a handful of Asian nations, will not be screening one of the most anticipated movies of the summer.
The movie features a character called Alisha Hawthorne, who is in a relationship with a woman. In the scene in question, Hawthorne briefly kisses her partner. In 2006, executives at Disney, the parent company of Pixar, asked for this same scene to be cut from the movie. When this decision was revealed in March, it sparked fierce backlash. Hundreds of Disney workers signed a letter calling on the entertainment giant to take a tougher stand in defending LGBTQ+ rights. The workers not only criticized the censorship of the scene, they also demanded that Disney publicly denounce the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida. This measure, which was proposed by Republicans in the state, prohibits class discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity until students are at least nine years old.
“We at Pixar have personally witnessed beautiful stories, full of diverse characters, come back from Disney corporate reviews shaved down to crumbs of what they once were,” the letter sent to Disney CEO Bob Chapek stated. In response, Chapek promised to take a more active role in defending LGBTQ+ rights, and as a sign of this, he ordered the same-sex scene in Lightyear to be put back in the film.
“It’s tough to not be a little frustrated that it even has to be a topic of discussion,” actor Chris Evans, who voices the character of Buzz Lightyear, told Variety magazine. “That it is this kind of ‘news.’ The goal is that we can get to a point where it is the norm, and that this doesn’t have to be some uncharted waters, that eventually this is just the way it is.”
However, it is not the norm in many of the markets where Pixar hoped to release Lightyear. This is the animation studio’s first theatrical release in two years; its previous movies Soul, Luca and Red were released direct-to-streaming on Disney+. The new film in the Toy Story saga, which began 27 years ago, comes at a time when studios are testing whether they can still sell out cinemas after the pandemic. The recent box office success of Top Gun 2 suggests that audiences are keen to return to the cinema.
It is common in Hollywood for studios to go to great lengths to circumvent the censorship systems of different markets around the world in order to secure high box office returns. Pixar did not submit the new version of Lightyear, with the same-sex kiss, to Saudi Arabia’s censors, knowing it would not get the go-ahead. According to Variety, the United Arab Emirates announced in December that it would release the “international version” of the movie, but backtracked after the same-sex scene was reinstated. The country’s Media Regulatory Office stated that Lightyear violated media content standards, but provided no further detail. This office also banned the release of recent Marvel films such as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Eternals.
In total, 14 countries have banned the movie, including Indonesia, Egypt and Lebanon. In many of these countries, same-sex relationships are criminalized. It has not yet been confirmed whether China, one of the largest movie markets, will approve the release of Lightyear. Chinese censors are among the strictest in the world, often demanding that studios cut scenes or change the script to avoid off-limit subjects such as homosexuality, references to Taiwanese independence and criticism of the Chinese government. Studios often give in to these demands, but this is unlikely to be the case for Lightyear.
Galyn Susman, a Lightyear producer, told Reuters that authorities in China had asked for cuts to the movie, which Disney declined to make, and she assumed the movie would not open there either. “We’re not going to cut out anything, especially something as important as the loving and inspirational relationship that shows Buzz what he’s missing by the choices that he’s making, so that’s not getting cut,” Susman told Reuters at the movie’s red-carpet premiere in London.
Given the backlash to Disney’s initial decision to cut the scene, it is unlikely the studio will give in to the Chinese or other local censors. Disney already refused to change Lightyear for Malaysian authorities, which suggested that the space adventure, where a team of pilots and explorers visit planets, violated policies on “homosexual and unnatural sex.” Malaysia banned the Elton John biopic, Rocket Man, for these same reasons.
For now, Pixar is sending a message of calm. Despite the size of the Asian market, the Chinese box office only accounted for 3% of Toy Story 4′s worldwide ticket sales, which grossed more than $1 billion. Movie reviews for Lightyear have so far been lukewarm. But perhaps its most memorable battle will be fought against censorship in several countries around the world.