'Inside Out 2 is another missed opportunity at queer representation from Pixar'

INSIDE OUT 2, from left: Riley Andersen (voice: Kensington Tallman), Valentina 'Val' Ortiz (voice: Lilimar), 2024. © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection
Inside Out 2 had the potential to see Riley Andersen experience queer love with Valentina 'Val' Ortiz. (Pixar)

With the release of Inside Out 2, Pixar introduced a bunch of new emotions into Riley's world, including Envy, Ennui, Embarrassment, and of course, Anxiety. But back when the first trailer came out, another emotion came to mind above all else; Gay Panic.

It was in this promo where we see Riley (Kensington Tallman) meet a new character called Valentina Ortiz (Lilimar) for the very first time. Cue endless blushing and awkward teen vibes as Riley's infatuation with Val gave what can only be described as fruity energy. Hockey? Check. Red streak in the hair? Double check. Adorable flirty vibes that could lead to Pixar's first queer lead? I sure did hope so.

Riley is one of the only characters whose emotions span more than one gender, after all, which hints at something more fluid, and with puberty now crashing in for the sequel, Gay Panic was certainly a possibility. Think bleached blonde hair and hands holding both sides of their face, à la Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.

But then Inside Out 2 finally arrived and Gay Panic was replaced by a more familiar feeling; Gay Disappointment.

Inside Out 2 (2024) directed by Kelsey Mann and starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith and Lewis Black. Riley reaches her teenage years and encounters some new emotions. Publicity still ***EDITORIAL USE ONLY***. Credit: BFA / Walt Disney Studios
Inside Out 2 had the chance to have a significant exploration of queerness onscreen, but was done in such a way that any hint of it can be explained away. (Pixar)

What seemed like it could be super gay is now just gay subtext. Although Riley is still obsessed with Val in the film, what feels like a crush to some can just as easily be brushed away now as admiration. Riley desperately wants to fit in, especially after finding out that her besties are leaving for another school, and Val is going to be the key to that moving forward.

Even when Riley dyes her hair with the same red streak Val has, you could argue she just wants to be Val, rather than be with her (cue the "Why Not Both?" meme).

None of this is to take away from queer fans who see themselves in Riley's journey. The problem is that subtext can always be refuted, and any concrete evidence of sexuality in the film actually suggests Riley is more likely to be straight than anything else.

None of the emotions in her head pick up on any sparks, and the crushes that are established are all male, including the handsome, pixelated Lance Slashblade, as well as the faces carved out on Riley's inner Mount Crushmore.

INSIDE OUT 2, from left: Riley Andersen (voice: Kensington Tallman), 2024. © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection
Riley's interest in Val seems more like gay subtext and what felt ike a crush to some can just as easily be brushed away as admiration. (Pixar)

And that Deep Dark Secret queer fans picked up on? You know, the big guy locked away in Riley's vault of secrets? It's not what you think it is. A post credits scene at the end simply reveals that Riley is ashamed of the time she burned her mother's carpet and lied about it.

So no, the secret isn't that Riley is queer, although there's nothing stopping Pixar from adding another Deep Dark Secret like that in a third movie.

Read more: Amy Poehler wants to make Inside Out 3 and already has ideas for Riley

You know what would be really refreshing? If Inside Out 3 explored burgeoning queer desire in the same way Turning Red depicts heterosexual love — without trauma. Imagine a sequel where Riley just happens to be gay or even bisexual (if her previous crushes are anything to go by). There's no bullying and there's no struggle. Riley simply is who she is without incident.

ALERTE ROUGE TURNING RED 2022 de Domee Shi COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL © Pixar Animation Studios - Walt Disney Pictures animation; dessin anime; cartoon
2022's Turning Red explored teen infatuations through Mei's obsession with the boy band 4*Town. (Disney/Pixar/Alamy)

For some, this might beg the question, "Why?" Why do we care so much about the identity of a teenage girl, one who's not even technically real? And why is this so important to queer fans especially?

It matters precisely because there are people who think it doesn't matter. That queer kids and adults alike don't deserve to see themselves and their experiences reflected back in the stories they love. In fact, there are many small-minded folk out there who will actively try to block queerness everywhere, and particularly in children's fare like animation.

Unfortunately, some of those people happen to work in positions that control animation studios on a corporate level. Just remember it was only two years ago that LGBTQ+ employees at Pixar accused executives of demanding cuts from “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection" (via Variety).

EPIC QUEST -- In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” brothers Ian and Barley embark on an epic quest in search of a rare Phoenix Gem in an effort to fully conjure their late dad for one magical day. Featuring the voices of Tom Holland and  Chris Pratt as Ian and Barley, “Onward” opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
Onward featured the first queer character through a minor character, not exactly groundbreaking. (Pixar)

And then there are some even working within animation who are afraid of these bigots and how centring queerness in their films could outrage them. Remember when Finding Dory director Andrew Stanton refused to confirm or deny that a same-sex pair spotted in the background of his movie might be queer?

Read more: Will Inside Out 3 happen?

Onward was the first Pixar film to finally address queerness when a minor character made a throwaway comment about her girlfriend. Finally, the gay cyclops police representation we'd been craving!

But when countries like Kuwait, Oman, Qatar or Saudi Arabia subsequently banned Onward thanks to this one scene, you didn't need two eyes to see that Pixar still wasn't entirely comfortable with queerness.

Orange is the New Black actor Uzo Aduba voices Buzz's commanding officer Alisha Hawthorne in Lightyear. (Disney/Pixar)
Lightyear features a queer character, Buzz's commanding officer Alisha Hawthorne, but it's too brief and disappointing to have an impact. (Disney/Pixar)

Still, that didn't stop Pixar from trying to bring a teensy bit more queer representation into their films. Who can forget Elemental's brief inclusion of non-binary character Lake? Or when Buzz's best friend Alisha kissed her wife at lightspeed in Lightyear?

Not exactly the game-changing moment we were hoping for, especially when other couples who happen to be straight are given infinite more screen time (and beyond!).

What's funny is that Luca is far more relatable to queer people than any of these actual LGBTQ+ moments. The central metaphor of transformation and otherness speaks to queer audiences while Luca and Alberto's summertime friendship sure does read like a first crush, just like Riley's did (in the trailer at least) for Inside Out 2.

LUCA 2021 de Enrico Casarosa Prod DB © Pixar Animation Studios - Walt Disney Pictures  dessin anime; animation; cartoon
Luca is far more relatable to queer people than any of these actual LGBTQ+ moments in Pixar history. (Pixar)

Unfortunately, Pixar has denied queer readings of Luca as well, doubling down on the significance of blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments like the one from Lightyear instead.

The one exception to this is Steven Clay Hunter's Out, a gorgeous short film Pixar released back in 2020 to celebrate Pride Month. Yet even with the inclusion of Disney's first same-sex kiss, a project like this is just never going to have the same reach and impact as a film released in cinemas could. You know, like Inside Out 3...

Whether Riley ends up exploring queer feelings one day is still to be decided, although it surely won't be long until another sequel is announced given how well Inside Out 2 has performed. And if so, I really hope one of the new emotions we meet next will end up being Gay Pride or Gay Love instead of Gay Panic and Disappointment.

Inside Out 2 is out now in cinemas.