Strange World breaks ground for Disney as the first animated feature to showcase a gay teen romance, and yes, it’s for real this time. For the past few years, the title of the “first gay Disney character” has been passed on across so many different films that it’s turned into a bit of its own controversy. Whereas most of these previous examples were either side characters that were only hinted at being gay or blink-and-you-miss-it characters in the background, Strange World indisputably features Disney’s first openly gay lead character in an animated feature, the adventurous Ethan Clade voiced by the hilarious Jaboukie Young-White.
The First Openly Gay Teen Romance in a Disney Film
Now to be clear, there has been more definitive LGBTQ+ representation seen in Disney films lately, such as the first same-sex kiss seen in Lightyear. However, Ethan Clade in Strange World is a further leap in representation with him not only being a main character but his identity also being expressed clearly to the audience throughout the whole film. Additionally, Ethan is caught in his own romance with his friend Diazo. During the global press conference for Strange World, actor Jaboukie Young-White was able to share how important the role was for him as an openly gay man and how the film captured that experience authentically.
“I think what’s fun about Ethan is that he does kind of play the peacemaker but, also, he’s like the last piece of the destiny being fulfilled,” Jaboukie explains. Born from a lineage of explorers, Ethan Clade finds himself between a rock and a hard place in Strange World. As the son of a noble farmer and the grandson of a legendary explorer, his path in life ultimately comes down to those two options if he’s to make anyone proud. He doesn’t get to make that decision until the whole Clade family is reunited on an unpredictable mission to save their plant energy source of Pando in the Strange World – a subterranean landscape where almost everything can kill you.
An Accepting Family of Explorers
It’s in this deceptive Strange World that Ethan finally gets to carve his own destiny, but not without some family backlash. His father Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) and grandfather Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) may be pulling him in two different directions, however, when it comes to his gay romance with Diazo, they both couldn’t be more accepting. In fact, right from Ethan’s introduction in the film, everybody from his friends to his mother, Meridian Clade (Gabrielle Union), is welcoming of his identity. That’s the thing about Ethan’s journey in Strange World, he’s searching for his calling in life but his homosexuality never comes into question.
Speaking on Ethan’s characterization, Jaboukie Young-White says, “I love Ethan’s character just because there is so much that he’s figuring out at this time, and his identity and so many facets of his identity are all of him at once.” Jaboukie goes on to clarify that Strange World is “not a story about [Ethan] coming out. It’s not a story about him trying to find acceptance for his sexuality. It’s just Ethan coming into himself wholly, fully, and in an environment that is ready to support him.” This is ideally how LGTBQ+ representation can continue to move forward in storytelling, where having a different sexual preference doesn’t always have to be the main plot point and can just be normalized within the characters. Touching on this notion, Jaboukie states, “I think in any medium, that’s really interesting. And in animation, that’s huge.”
A Multicultural Identity
Aside from being openly gay, Ethan Clade in Strange World hits another note close to Jaboukie’s own personal identity, more specifically his multicultural background. Ethan is biracial, with his mom being Black and his father being White, and this also never gets questioned or discussed in scrutiny. Those who’ve been following his promising career know that Jaboukie has been pretty open about his parents and upbringing. The actor-comedian was raised by Jamaican immigrants who both come from multicultural backgrounds. “It would’ve been dope if I could’ve seen this as a kid,” Jaboukie says in relation to Ethan Clade. When pondering on how the gay representation in Strange World can make an impact on audiences today, particularly young teens, Jaboukie reflects with “Knowing that I could be a part of that for somebody else, that’s beautiful. That’s what it’s about.”
Strange World is the 61st feature film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. From director Don Hall and co-director/writer Qui Nguyen, both reuniting after Raya and the Last Dragon, this tale of adventure, family ties, and acceptance (with a hint of environmentalism) is sure to find its audience thanks to loveable characters like Ethan Clade being front and center. As we said in our Strange World review, Jaoukie Young-White injects the film with “a pure lively spirit” and it wouldn’t be the same without his energy driving the legendary Clade family of explorers to the end of their impossible mission. Hopefully, more authentic and honest LGBTQ+ characters like Jaboukie’s Ethan Clade can be seen in Disney films moving forward.