No, Riley isn’t explicitly a lesbian in Inside Out 2 – Disney Pixar seems too scared to go that far

It’s time for sapphic detectives to put away their magnifying glasses – it’s been confirmed that Inside Out 2‘s teenage protagonist Riley isn’t queer. 

Ever since a sequel to Disney Pixar’s animated smash Inside Out was announced in 2022, a small but vocal group of online queers have expressed their hope that lead character Riley (now voiced by Kensington Tallman) would realise she is part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Those hopes became theories earlier this year, following the release of the film’s trailer. In it, we’re re-introduced to Riley and her core emotions – joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust – with the addition of a few new ones, marking the transition to her teenage years.

As she struggles to get to grips with her newfound feelings, anxiety, embarrassment, envy and ennui, Riley is confronted with the possibility of being friends with the cool girls, including the captain of the high school hockey team.

Riley seems taken with her new friend, something not missed by the sapphics of the internet. “New emotion unlocked: gay panic,” wrote one X/Twitter user. Another joked: “She’s got a crush on a hockey player? Every gay girl’s awakening.”

The rumour mill immediately kicked into action. Some queer social media users even picked up on the fact that a bridge in Sydney, which was being used to promote Inside Out 2 earlier this year, was lit up with the colours of the lesbian Pride flag. In short, the queer women of the world had expectations for the sequel.

But those hopes have now been dashed. The film opens in cinemas on Friday (14 June), and reviewers have shared their verdicts. Riley, it seems, is straight.

In fact, there’s hardly any mention of that teenage dream-type love or attraction at all. “We find that Riley’s inner imaginative landscape actually features a huge ‘Mount Crushmore’ with four indistinct faces. But that’s as far as this goes,” writes The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw

Riley (L) has a new friend in Inside Out 2. (Disney)

IGN’s Siddhant Adlakha laments the fact Inside Out 2 is built around the premise of Riley beginning puberty, “but the movie rarely gets intimate or visceral enough to confront the actual reasons that ‘puberty is messy’.”

Queer fans aren’t necessarily totally wrong. As Vulture film critic Alison Willmore suggests, Riley has a “vault” full of her deepest secrets.

“In quick succession, she ditches her friends in favour of the older girls,” Willmore writes, “among them team captain Val Ortiz, who she fixates on with a fervour that makes you wonder if one of the confidential things kept in her vault involves her sexuality.”

Disney and Pixar have increased their LGBTQ+ on screen representation in recent years, but this has come more in moderate shuffles than great strides.

After years of representation amounting to “potential lesbian mums” in Finding Dory and a “lesbian cop” in Tom Holland’s Onward, the past few years have seen an improvement. Gay teen Ethan Clade (voiced by Only Murders in the Building star Jaboukie Young-White) in Strange World was an impressive move despite the film being a box office flop, and TV shows such as Raven’s Home and Willow have provided more enhanced queer and trans characters.

The pinnacle of Disney Pixar’s LGBTQ+ representation remains Officer Spector in Onward. (Disney/Pixar)

But it still feels as if these media giants are afraid to take a huge character, in a huge franchise, and let them be LGBTQ+. Strange World and Willow are OK to make queer: these are new offerings, with little expectations. Raven’s Home’s trans character Nikki is acceptable because her role is small. Artie in Cruella? This is a film about fashion!

Although it wouldn’t be impossible for a teen character to be discovering their sexuality – a substantial proportion of LGBTQ+ people realise in their early teens – making Riley queer in Inside Out 2 must have felt too risky.

Families got to know the character close to 10 years ago. Bigoted declarations that LGBTQ+ people are trying to indoctrinate children are only getting louder. The screams of “woke” would have drowned out any other discussions about the film. Plus, the movie is one of the highest-grossing animations of the century. Pixar were never going to put profit from the sequel on the line. 

Guardian critic Bradshaw puts it best. “Could it be that the film is squeamish about the reality of teen experience,” he asks, “or didn’t want to get involved in any identity debate?”

Inside Out 2 opens in cinemas from Friday (14 June).

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