Written by Iona Wagg
On November 12th 2021, TikTok announced that they would be collaborating with Disney to enhance the platform’s text-to-speech function. However, what they did not announce were the problems that came with the conjunction of two mega-corporations.
Whilst the initial announcement was met with excitement from fans and creators, it wasn’t long until audiences truly saw what the update was capable of. This new update allowed audiences to create videos and use the voices of their beloved characters as the text-to-speech narrator – with recognisable voices such as C3PO from Star Wars, Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy, and Stitch from Lilo & Stitch.
A lot of TikTok users immediately took to this new update to share gags and poke fun using these new voice updates, although it wasn’t long until some users discovered the inherent homophobic undertone that came with the update.
One user, kbwild_, discovered that the update didn’t allow creators to use words such as “gay,” “lesbian,” and “queer” in the update – with the text-to-speech function simply avoiding these words. However, these voices were able to say words such as “homophobic” and (allegedly) the usage of racial slurs. Whilst this may seem like the corporations’ attempt to try and stop any negative usage of their new feature, it was later discovered that the feature also didn’t allow users to make the text-to-speech function say curse words.
What was interesting about this update was how Disney played a role in it. When TikTok originally announced their text-to-speech function in April 2021 (in a bid to make the app more accessible), users were allowed to use the previously stated words with no issues. With the added bonus of Disney voices, these words were suddenly blacklisted. In addition to this, users thought that this was a new feature within TikTok’s text-to-speech function; when users discovered that the standard voices used in this function still worked how they did prior to the addition of the Disney voices, it led to many raised eyebrows on Disney’s end of the deal.
One could argue that this extreme is to protect Disney’s image within this collaboration so that they aren’t attached to any controversies surrounding this new update. However, it is in this author’s opinion that Disney’s inclusion of LGBTQ+ centric language only exemplifies their deep rooted homophobia.
What is truly interesting about this whole situation is that neither company has had a good reputation when it comes to social issues such as homophobia or racism. Just last year, during the Black Lives Matter protests, TikTok was accused of shadow-banning and supressing content from black creators, as well as those advocating for the movement. Additionally, TikTok’s suppression of the Intersex tag, which was used for activism and informatisation, led to the company landing again in hot water.
Now, Disney? That’s a whole other story.
With a company that has been around since 1923, there is no surprise that Disney has had their fair share of scandals and problematic behaviour. With most notably, all of their villains from their films (since around 1938) being queer-coded in some way, shape, or form – there is no surprise that Disney are still moderately set in their ways. The most significant of these queer-codings can be seen through the characters of Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1990), inspired by the late drag queen Divine and her infamous role in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos in 1972.
What is most concerning about this whole scandal is the impact on TikTok’s young fanbase, many of whom use the app as an outlet to connect and socialise with other members of their chosen communities. Supressing this language demonises the concept of homosexuality and may lead to severe damage if undetected. In addition to this, many families in a modern age consist of LGBTQ+ members, and seeing this discrimination prevalent on one of the world’s largest social media platforms can potentially have an adverse effect on, notably, LGBTQ+ youth.
As of this time, neither company has yet to make a statement on the matter, and the usage of LGBTQ+ language is still prohibited on the app whilst using the text-to-speech voices. It is my hope that one day, either company will choose to acknowledge this faux-pas, as there is no place for this style of censorship in 2021.
Image: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg.
Iona Wagg is a MA Media, Culture & Society student, and a Media & Communications graduate interested in film, television, music, and the arts. You can find her her on LinkedIn or over on Twitter @ionawagg