Disney wants its streaming service to be “family-friendly,” but doesn’t know what that means

A TV series based on “Love, Simon” is moving from Disney+ to Hulu.
A TV series based on “Love, Simon” is moving from Disney+ to Hulu.
Image: 20th Century Fox
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Love, Victor, an upcoming spinoff TV series of the queer-themed 2018 teen movie Love, Simon, will move from the Disney+ streaming service to Hulu, Disney announced yesterday.

“All of us at Disney+ are incredibly proud of Love, Victor and know the series will be a perfect addition to Hulu’s strong slate of young adult programming,” Ricky Strauss, head of content and marketing at Disney+, said in a press release. (Disney has majority ownership and full control of Hulu.)

According to several outlets citing unnamed sources, Disney was worried about how some of the show’s “adult themes”—including alcohol use, marital issues, and sexual exploration—would be perceived on its flagship streaming service, so the company decided to move it to the more adult-oriented Hulu.

“If they want adult content, they can subscribe to Hulu, and if they want family, there’s Disney(+),” Disney CEO Bob Iger told investors ahead of the launch of Disney+. During an earnings call last year, Iger said the company wanted to segregate “family” content from “general entertainment.” He has, on several occasions, called the service “family-friendly.”

There is no mistaking Disney intends its nascent streaming service, which has nearly 30 million global subscribers and is rapidly growing, to be family-friendly. It just isn’t very clear what Disney thinks that means.

Love, Simon was the first film produced by a major Hollywood studio to feature a gay teenage romance. But fans of the movie know that it was a rather tame rom-com, with only fleeting references to partying or sex. The upcoming spinoff series follows a new student at the same fictional American high school “on his own journey of self-discovery, facing challenges at home, adjusting to a new city, and struggling with his sexual orientation.”

Becky Albertalli, the author of the book on which Love, Simon is based, insisted on Twitter that Disney’s decision to move the show from Disney+ to Hulu had nothing to do with its queer themes. “There’s been speculation as for the cause of the platform switch. For what it’s worth, it’s not based on the show featuring a gay teen love story,” she said. “Disney knew what it was when they got it. There are mature themes such as teen drinking, etc. that led to the switch.” She acknowledged that phrases like “adult themes” are often used as homophobic dog whistles, but asked that Disney receive the benefit of the doubt in this instance.

That’s certainly plausible. After decades of ignoring gay characters, Disney is finally starting to include them, albeit in a limited way. The 2017 live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast featured the company’s first-ever gay main character. The upcoming Pixar film Onward will feature the first openly gay character in a Disney-Pixar film. And there is content already on the Disney+ service that includes gay characters and themes, including the Disney Channel series Andi Mack, which features a plot line in which a middle school student comes out to his friends. Disney is also fairly progressive on LGBTQ issues as an employer, earning a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign last year for LGBTQ workplace equality.

But the idea that Disney wants to keep all mature content away from Disney+ does not hold up to scrutiny. Its two foundational franchises, Star Wars and Marvel, are, of course, violent. In fact, the first scene of the first episode of the service’s showcase series, The Mandalorian, is a bar fight that results in one creature’s body being cut in half by a closing door.

Disney+ also has a number of older movies in its library with content parents might find inappropriate for young children. Pirates of the Caribbean is full of violence, scary imagery, and sexual innuendo. The most glaring example, however, is the teen rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You, which includes far more references to sex, drugs, and alcohol than Love, Simon does. It does not, however, feature a main character struggling with his sexual orientation.

A scene from Love, Victor
Image: Disney

There is no world in which 10 Things I Hate About You is family-friendly, but a Love, Simon series is not (unless the show turns out to be drastically raunchier than the film on which it was based, which seems unlikely, as Disney would not have produced the show in the first place if that were the case). The delineation is preposterous.

Disney’s vision of what constitutes “family-friendly” is confused at best, harmful at worst. Moving the Love, Simon series to Hulu perpetuates the notion that gay stories are somehow more adult—even if that was not the company’s intent. There is nothing about the show that seems any more adult than many films and shows already on Disney+ apart from the mere suggestion of gay sex (more likely than not completely off-screen).

So perhaps what Disney really means by “family-friendly” is not content that simply resonates with families, but rather content that asks nothing of them, content that will not turn away its most narrow-minded viewers.

That Disney wants to focus on content that is appropriate for children is understandable. The Mouse House has spent decades cultivating a brand and earning the trust of parents and kids alike. You’re never going to find anything like Game of Thrones on Disney+. But as the world’s most dominant purveyor of culture, Disney needs to be more clear about what constitutes family-friendly entertainment. And if its definition doesn’t include content like Love, Simon, then that definition probably needs to change.