Ratatouille’s outsider story is a profound, though imperfect, metaphor for queer cooks
Because the opening of the Ratatouille to ride to Walt Disney World on October 1st is as good a reason as any, here now, a week of exploration the rat infested 2007 Pixar classic, Ratatouille.
On my 18th birthday I was still a work in progress – not released yet, not really sure what my big plan was. But none of this stopped me, or any of my other friends in the midst of their own formative phases, from eagerly making all kinds of mature and adult decisions. By that I mean we got a lot of tattoos. My peers are permanently inking their bodies with graceful butterflies, snakes, crosses, and other random symbols that they will later assign meaning to. And I, too, showed up to my high school graduation beaming from ear to ear with a new tattoo: Remy the Disney-Pixar rat, wrapped around my left calf with a bunch of tiny carrots clutched in its paws.
Why should I decide to permanently sport my one precious body with a cartoon rat? Was it because of a deep passion for Disney, or because I thought rats were so cute? No, I just loved the 2007 movie Ratatouille. Too bad. Of course now, five years later, I admit it’s exactly the kind of tattoo one might regret, or that it might be a beginner’s first red flag Adult disney. But it turns out that the tattoo, and that bizarre blockbuster about a cook rat that inspired it, made more sense than I could fully comprehend at 18, as a still-locked gay baby dreaming of becoming a chef.
For those who are so cut off from reality that they have yet to see this most iconic film, the premise of Ratatouille that’s (roughly) this: Remy, a rat who loves to cook and has a weirdly good sense of taste and smell, is separated from his family when the woman they lived on on the roof tries to destroy their colony. He washes in the sewers of Paris and ends up befriending a young man who can not cook and is sort of desperate for everything else too, but Is have a job in one of the fanciest restaurants in town. Remy and the boy, Linguini, discover that when he is perched on top of Linguini’s head, hidden in his large chef’s hat and holding two tufts of hair, Remy can control Linguini’s limbs like a puppeteer, thus enabling him to cook behind a curtain while Linguini passes talent like his and climbs the ranks. A totally realistic scenario.
I saw the film for the first time when I was 9 years old and I was then, as I am now, both very cheerful and very much in love with the kitchen. But while my passion for food was fully visible throughout my childhood, my homosexuality was a part of me that I wouldn’t be willing to share until years later, when I left for college.
So was Ratatouille actually about a locked up gay boy browsing restaurant kitchens? Probably not. Is that how I interpreted it at the ripe age of 9? Definitely not. But as a young child, something about that movie buried itself and made a cozy little rat nest in my heart and never left.
I was at school when I first started working in kitchens around Oakland, California where I grew up. These restaurants were run for the most part by extremely nice and talented women. But even in these spaces – the ones I still love, owned and operated by bosses I keep in touch with to this day – I was still on my toes, ready for the offhand, slightly homophobic jokes that were then tossed around. , or good-humored questions about why I hadn’t brought a girlfriend over for dinner.
If I had been outside, as I am now, these comments probably wouldn’t have bothered me more than. A rolling of eyes. Do you have nothing better to say? But at the time, all of these questions and remarks seemed like a threat to the paper-thin shell that I had spent years slowly building around my identity. As a result, I was so tense and anxious that I often could hardly remember the steps in a simple cooking process. I’m sure if I had just slammed my knife on my cutting board and screamed I’M GAY, no one would have even had time to look up from their station. But I never did. And while my knife work was solid and I quickly learned recipes and ticked off tasks from my morning to-do list, I had finally compartmentalized my life so well that when it came time to move up the ranks, I was not able to break down the walls I had created.
In the world of Ratatouille, however, things were different. Here, compartmentalization is not something you go to therapy to undo, but something that actually makes you stronger. Linguini didn’t know how to cook, but he was human. And Remy, that sweet little rat, couldn’t imagine being greeted in a kitchen because, you know, he was a rat. I recognize that in this metaphor my sexuality is the rat, which is an imperfect symbol of the glorious experience of homosexuality – something I wouldn’t trade for the world. But in this film, Remy was not portrayed as a dirty vermin. She is a gentle, gentle, and incredibly talented creature. He hides aspects of himself so that he can use his talents and, in turn, Linguini is vulnerable enough to let someone else control his body, as he pretends to be able to cook. No one dreams of hiding from the world, but the couple make it work the best they can.
Tucked away in Linguini’s hat, Rémy could unleash his full potential. He made magic in this bustling kitchen, directing Linguini around the corners like a racing driver and turning heaps of vegetables into velvety sauces and luxurious soups. In this busy world, not being able to share everything about yourself was a challenge, but not an insurmountable barrier. It was just another plot point in a character arc. For rat and man, it was this rambling and weird relationship that allowed the two to at least share rooms of themselves. My life wasn’t much like this movie, and I drank it.
But even in this made-up world where everything ultimately works, hiding such large parts of themselves ultimately took its toll on both characters. As Linguini fell in love with a fellow cook in the restaurant kitchen, he wondered whether or not to tell him that the talent he possessed was not really his. And from his perch above Linguini’s head, Remy watched the young man take credit for a culinary talent that wasn’t really his. Even in this modern fairy tale, relationships were strained as secrets grew bigger and more complicated to maintain. Now when I watch the movie it looks a lot like my experience floating through my high school years, never really living fully in my own life – more so a viewer experiencing the stories I had made up to make it seem like my life (and feel) believable.
Of course, in the film, Remy was not a figment of Linguini’s imagination, nor a portrayal of a part of the young man he couldn’t reckon with. He was just a rat who knew how to cook very well. At the end of the film, their cover is blown away. Instead of ruining the lives of both rat and man, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Together, they open a small bistro. Linguini runs the downstairs restaurant and Remy cooks for his rat friends and family in a cute loft above. Neither have to hide who they are – or no longer are -, and because of that, they thrive in ways they couldn’t do when they were leading a secret life. . In this way, and maybe only in this way, the moral of this story is not that different from mine.
I quit working in the kitchens during my senior year of high school, right before I started dating other men and telling people, “Yeah, there’s no girlfriend coming over for dinner.” But my love of cooking stuck, and eventually I ended up, well, here: a food writer. It wasn’t the dream I had in mind when I was 9 and Ratatouille came out on the big screen, but it’s the one that kept my romantic relationship with food going. It also gave me a platform to be strong and vocal in my homosexuality and in my support of other homosexual people. It was a dream that I didn’t even know I could have when I first watched this animated film about a rat cooking in a French restaurant, or even when I chose to have it permanently drawn on my leg at 18. There was no magical creature sitting on my painfully chemically damaged blonde curls arrived at college, guiding me through the intimidating and bizarre experience of coming out. In the movie, the rat and the boy needed each other. I still remember that feeling, like I wasn’t going to survive without someone – or something – to guide me. Now glancing over my sock, this little rat tattoo is a constant reminder that in fact I was able to do it. All alone.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.