Out and Animated – Why Queer Representation in Cartoons Matter and What It Means For The Future

It’s once again Pride Month, where members of the LGBTQ community and their allies take part in celebrating the freedom of expressing ones self the world and honoring the hardship it has taken to bring a better world for those brave enough to show the world who they are.  It’s a relatively new phenomenon, the widespread acceptance of the LGBTQ community, which had long been forced to remain unseen in the public eye.  But, with landmark accomplishments like the overturning of sodomy laws and repealing the ban on same-sex marriage that had long made life dangerous and difficult for the queer community here in America, the stigma of being gay, lesbian, bi or trans has lifted and not only are members of the community now granted rights they should have always had but society at large are now finding ways to show they are more accepting of this once oppressed community.  At least, that what most people want to see.  Most polls show that a majority of Americans today are in favor of rights and protections for the LGBTQ community, but there are those who still are strongly opposed to equality.  A very vocal minority more recently has started a fierce, and sadly in many cases, violent backlash to the gaining representation of the Queer community in all aspects of society; most especially in pop culture.  This backlash is most commonly known as the Culture War, a ridiculous campaign against cultural representations of not just the Queer community, but of people of color too in areas where they had not been represented before.  Before, it was called a fight against “Political Correctness,” now it’s called a fight against “Wokeism,” but it’s still they same disingenuous game of holding back progress as a way of preserving the status quo, which favors a power structure that is decidedly self interested in holding up a hierarchy that places straight white men on the top.  And sadly, it’s a group that despite being fewer in numbers now is still potent in their ability to make their own hateful words heard.

At the moment right now, the trans community is receiving much of harshest backlash.  Any sudden acknowledgment of the rights of the trans community to exist within the pop culture are immediately met with often violent rhetoric, that includes several people making symbolic gestures that includes destroying any product associated with a company that expressed support for the trans community.  It’s often a ridiculous spectacle (destroying a product from a company doesn’t hurt them in the least, because you’ve already bought what they are selling and thereby have already given them your money), but the viral nature of people showing their hatred online adds to the unfortunate effect of amplifying their hateful voices.  And sadly that in the long run can hurt the LGBTQ community, because if companies feel that it is in their best interest to stay out of the conversation, then they are giving these hateful clowns a victory, and the LGBTQ community as a result has less protection in the larger conversation.  And it’s clear what the hateful “anti-woke” forces are aiming at with their relentless attacks on the trans community.  They want to roll the clock back on rights for the whole LGBTQ community, and the tactic is to attack the one part of that community that is still the least understood.  The term “groomer” has been misappropriated by the anti-LGBTQ forces, using it to slander trans people as sexual deviants who are preying on children and trying to convert them over by making them, as they put it, confused about their gender identity.  No proof is ever given how a person going through gender transition publicly is in any way a pedophile predator, nor of transgender representation having a corrupting influence on children, but the same claims are still relentlessly made and amplified.  And the goal in the end is to turn support for the trans community toxic, which will of course spill over into the rest of the Queer community, thereby undoing years of hard won fights to gain fair representation in the culture.  Overall, the most aggressive and potent argument made against the LGBTQ community is that they are “going after the children,” which is a gross mischaracterization of what the fight for Queer rights has been.  And the aim of the “culture warrior’s” attacks particularly has sought to shake the resolve of the part of culture that has the furthest reach with younger audiences; animation.

Queer representation has been a particularly long gestating progression in the pop culture.  Because queer identity has in the past carried this “sexual deviant” stain on it for most of the history of animation, animators have been reluctant to showcase queer identity in their work, even if they themselves are either a part of that community or are supporters of it.  Animation has been a medium primarily for young audiences, and for the longest time, things like homosexuality or gender dysphoria were just too taboo of subjects to take on.  Earlier animation could only go as far as to have a cartoon character dress in drag on occasion, which Bugs Bunny often did in many of his cartoons, but it had to be played off as a joke.  Any express support of anything that went against the heteronormative status quo was strictly forbidden in animation; at least from the mainstream.  That, however, didn’t stop the queer community for declaring icons of their own in their favorite animated films.  You’ll find that animation has a particularly large fanbase across the LGBTQ spectrum, and despite not getting the initial public support from the animation studios in return, the queer community still found some places where they felt represented if not explicitly at least in subtext.  These included characters such as the aforementioned Bugs Bunny, or Velma Dinkley from the Scooby-Doo cartoons, or Peppermint Patty from the Charlie Brown shorts, and of course so many of the Disney Villains.  Though Disney Villains were not exactly ideal role models, the Queer community still adored the flamboyant nature of these characters and valued them for the campiness they represented.  As time progressed, Disney would even throw a little nod to the LGBTQ community in this aspect, as when The Little Mermaid (1989) was made and the film’s Villain, Ursula, had her appearance based on famed drag queen Divine.

Despite the little bits of things that the LGBTQ community had clung onto in all their favorite cartoons growing up, once the fight for equal rights had intensified as they grew older and more open about their identity, the desire grew to have that subtext in so many of their favorite cartoons become text.  Now that things have become more acceptable over time and queer representation is more commonplace in the large society, it was now time for that same progress to be reflected in the culture at large.  Like most other things, cinema takes it’s time to actually catch up with progressive cultural movements, as most mainstream studios are reluctant to antagonize any social group in fear of losing out on certain audiences.  But, as more and more of the LGBTQ community is found represented in most areas of the culture at large, it becomes ridiculous trying to ignore them any longer.  Animation of course is an even harder area to shake the status quo, because of the conception that it’s meant just for kids.  Still, as more and more people see that the queer community is not a threat to young people, that too helps the animated market to change.  One big difference now is that there are a lot of families today that have children raised by two parents of the same sex, and many more children will probably be aware of a family member who is gay or transgender.  Most of these modern day children don’t see the queer community today as an oddity like past generations, but rather as a normal thing that they grow up around, and nothing at all a threat to them.  But, that’s a change that is largely just representative of our own culture.  Animation is still a multi-national artform, and what may be fine here will not be accepted in other parts of the world.  This is an issue that affects animation a bit more compared to live action filmmaking, because of the high costs of producing animation involved.  So, to get animation closer towards fully embracing queer representation is a bit of a harder sell in general.

Like most other big movements in the culture, it takes one first big step forward to get the ball rolling.  Surprisingly, it’s wasn’t one of the big names in animation that made the first step in presenting an openly gay character in the movies.  Laika Animation, the Portland, OR based stop motion animation studio that put themselves on the map with the beloved Coraline (2008) delivered a rather surprising twist in their second film Paranorman (2012).  In the film, the older brother of the main character’s best friend is this goofy, thick-headed jock named Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck).  Throughout the movie, the main character Norman’s sister has been lusting after Mitch, so in the film’s finale she finally makes her move only for Mitch to reveal that he has had a boyfriend this whole time.  Sure, the moment is meant to be a punchline, but it’s also significant because it’s the first ever acknowledgment in a mainstream animated movie that one of it’s characters is openly gay.  Now Laika is a smaller studio with more progressive social views and far less to lose than the bigger studios, but the example they made showed that a queer character could exist openly in an animated movie and that it wouldn’t be a very big deal in the end.  It was still difficult for a while for the bigger studios to jump on board still, given that international market.  Where you did see more progress made in animation, surprisingly, was in cartoons made for television.  Animated shows, even ones made for young kids, like Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Arthur and many more have gone out of their way to show same sex relationships and gender transition as perfectly normal things that shouldn’t be condemned but rather celebrated.  This is where a lot of the hatred coming from the Culture War is aimed, attacking these shows as attempts to indoctrinate children.  Watching any of these shows shows that they don’t center at all on any of these issues, but rather treat them as common sense lessons on tolerance and understanding; something that children of all kinds can take with them to become more accepting of people who are different from them.  While a lot of attacks have come at the makers of these shows, they nevertheless have shown a lot of backbone in remaining supportive of queer representation in their cartoon worlds.

Strangely enough, a lot of the attacks against queer representation in animation have been leveled at a studio that for the longest time has remained pretty silent when it came to LGBTQ issues.  Disney right now is in a firestorm of attacks from the anti-woke mob, primarily due to their vocal condemnation of the State of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.  If you listen to the hateful rhetoric from that side, you would think that Disney is Enemy #1 and the biggest propagator of what they consider the “gay agenda.”  In reality, Disney has been reluctant to step into the “culture war.”  To be fair, they have been supportive of LGBTQ staff that work for their company in all departments; granting equal benefits decades ago to same-sex partners long before most of the corporate world did.  But, when it came to queer representation on screen, Disney has often been accused of merely paying lip service.  One thing that they had been consistently mocked for in the past is their habit of making a big deal that an upcoming movie was going to have Disney’s first openly gay character in it, only for that character to be a blink and you’ll miss them background character that doesn’t matter a whole lot.  Eventually Disney did introduce an openly gay main character in their latest animated film, Strange World (2022), but sadly a lackluster ad campaign caused the film to flounder at the box office.  This gave the false impression that the anti-woke mob had gained a victory over the LGBTQ community since the movie was a box office bomb, ignoring all the other factors that led up to the result, and that the movie failed because it leaned into queer representation.  The aim of the Culture War is to deter big corporations from embracing the LGBTQ community by saying that doing so will lose them business.  But, that only happens if the corporations see it as so.  Disney saw the failure of Strange World not as a result of their embrace of the queer community, but rather as mismanagement that occurred under their past regime headed by former CEO Bob Chapek.  Bob Iger, on the other hand, is far more embracing of the queer community as part of the Disney fan base, and this is evidenced with the way he’s handled the fall out from the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida.  Instead of reversing course, Iger has punched back at the homophobic leaders who passed the bill, mainly because they were attacking Disney’s economic interests in the state.  In response, Iger has cancelled a nearly billion dollar investment in corporate offices in Florida.  In the state of Florida, they are realizing their homophobic backlash is backfiring on them, and that in general it’s a big loss for them instead, because they’ve only emboldened Disney’s commitment to the LGBTQ community.  And when you lose Disney, the largest media giant of all, you lose a major chunk of the cultural collective as a whole.

So, what does that mean for the future of queer representation in animation?  If anything, I think that there will be a lot more representation in the years ahead thanks to the shift made at a big studio like Disney.  The company has gone through bigger losses before than what they went through with Strange World, and they’ve bounced back stronger.  Thankfully, they are not blaming their struggles on the LGBTQ community like the anti-woke crowd wants them to.  One hopes that they try again to bring more upfront queer representation into their upcoming movies.  One thing that would really silence the critics is if that representation came in one of their already successful properties; with Frozen being the most likely place for that to happen.  One of the things that frustrated LGBTQ Disney fans was that there was some strong hints about the sexuality of the character Elsa sprinkled in to the first two Frozen movies, but it was never fully fleshed out.  This was especially frustrating in Frozen II (2019) as the movie gave some strong hints that this is where they were going with the character, only for the plot point to be dropped towards the end with nothing getting resolved.  The recent announcement of a Frozen III gives LGBTQ Disney fans the hope that Elsa will finally get that girlfriend that we’ve been teased with and that the subtext about the character will finally become text, in a franchise that is honestly too big to be ignored.  At the same time, if Disney can prove that they can achieve success with an openly gay primary character in their animated film, then all the other studios like Dreamworks and Illumination will follow suit.  Hey, some may even jump ahead and try to beat Disney to it, like Sony Animation which had a lesbian main character in The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) and all of the pro-LGBTQ messaging sprinkled throughout the Spider-Verse movies.  Overall, the signs are encouraging that none of the backlash is deterring the animation studios from embracing the idea of queer representation in cartoons.

It’s just difficult sometimes to see how queer representation can take hold in media when the voices opposed to it are so loud and even worse amplified by powerful people.  Sadly, social media values negativity because it causes the most discourse online and as a result generates more traffic.  You would think with all of the anti-woke think pieces that clutter the internet atmosphere that the backlash towards the LGBTQ community is strong, but in reality, the progress towards representation is still what remains strong.  The thing is, the anti-LGBTQ forces represent an ever shrinking demographic that is growing older and dying out, while younger audiences, the consumers of tomorrow, are far more accepting of the LGBTQ community and that is what the corporations are recognizing more now.  Sure, we would love to see them do more than just post a rainbow flag across their social media pages during pride month (like, I don’t know, stop donating to the campaigns of homophobic politicians), but big business rightly recognizes that antagonizing a generation that is more embracing of diversity and inclusion is not good for their long term success.  So, as fierce as the bullying from the anti-LGBTQ crowd may be, they can not stop the arc of progress.  And one of the most useful places for ensuring that future generations will be open minded about their LGBTQ brothers and sisters is through representation in the cartoons that they view when they are kids.  There is no sexualization of children if they see two members of the same sex either holding hands or giving a small loving kiss in their cartoons.  It’s something that they likely see as normal from their parents or another family member who never is a threat to them at all, and watching it in a cartoon will be both affirming of the reality that they themselves know.  Even better, if that child then grows up realizing that they are part of the LGBTQ community, they’ll have the added benefit of affirmation from the cartoons that helped them to see it as a perfectly normal human condition.  We in the LGBTQ community have always adored the cartoons that we grew up with.  It’s just now heartening to see that those same cartoons are starting to love us back.