TikTokers has shown that Disney’s text-to-speech TikTok voice, which was supposed to sound like Rocket Raccoon, would refuse to read words like “gay”, “lesbian” or “queer” out loud. This decision seems to have been withdrawn – you can now have the voice read out these words, but it is unclear why it happened. However, the change is very recent – The edge confirmed that the voice would not say the words, but it began to do so in a subsequent test minutes later Monday afternoon. TikTok has not commented on why this happened, but videos posted to highlight the issue still have the words omitted.
Rocket’s voice was introduced to TikTok’s text-to-speech feature as part of a Disney Plus Day campaign last week. Other voices, such as C-3PO and Stitch from Lilo and Stitch, are also supposed to be part of the campaign, but unlike Rocket’s voice, they must be unlocked using secret phrases.
Before the change, Rocket’s voice would skip the words mentioned above (but did not seem to have a problem with words like “transgender” or “bisexual”), though you could easily get the character to say it with phonetically similar spelling mistakes like “qweer.” Trying to get it to read text that contained only one of the forbidden words would result in an error saying that text-to-speech was not supported for the language.TikTok’s own built-in, non-Disney voices would fine read the word “gay”, either alone or in a sentence.
ONE TikTok walks around shows what would happen before the change – Rocket would not say words like “gay” or “queer” but would say “homophobic.”
Disney has never had a good track record when it comes to LGBTQ representation – many of its iconic villains have historically been queer-coded (something one could not say using Rocket’s voice), and its recent efforts for representation have been limited to single scenes or lines that are easy to edit. TikTok also has a history of repeatedly breaking the intersex tag that activists used for activism and education, which the company claimed was a mistake.
Yet direct censorship of queer identities seems like a stronger step than both companies would normally take in 2021. It’s unclear what made them do it in the first place, and why the decision was reversed. Neither Disney nor TikTok responded immediately to repeated requests for comment.
It is always possible that this was implemented for well-meaning, if not misleading purposes – bullies have long used both gays and lesbians in an attempt to offend people who do not identify as such. However, it is hard to imagine a more effective bullying tactic than literally preventing queer people from talking about their identity.
While it’s understandable that Disney does not want their characters’ voices to read things that are not family-friendly, such as serious swear words or inconveniences (though it’s worth noting that Rocket throws phrases like “jackass” and “douchebag” into Guardians of the Galaxy), we are well past the point where it is acceptable to label the identity of LGBTQ + people as opposed to family values.
It should go without saying that many families include queer people, including those who are children of Disney’s target demographics, who may want to use TikTok’s text-to-speech feature to talk about their lives and experiences. While it is good that this decision seems to have been reversed (although it is unclear why or by whom), it is one that should not have been made in the first place.