A closer look into the changing narrative landscape of cartoons involving the lgbtq+ community, and the evolution towards a more inclusive society.
By Sahana Srinivasan & Rajinee Buquing
Queer readings of cartoons along with more overt representations of lgbtq+ characters/themes are important, powerful devices to work against internalized homophobia amongst the youth. These applications actively redefine the binary of female/male representations that is strict and persistent in the media. Looking at the progression of cartoons over the years, there is a noticeable shift away from performative masculinity and femininity by the opposite gender as the butt of a joke, towards more fluid creations of characters and stories.
“Bugs Bunny” in The Bugs Bunny Show (1960-1975) exemplifying trans tropes.
In earlier cartoons, trans characters were either included for the purpose of eliciting laughs, or to convey some kind of plot twist. In class we discussed five trans tropes in media, one of which was “trans as trickery.” Such a plot twist usually involves shaming the character who was trans or who partook in cross-dressing. In the Bugs Bunny short “What’s Opera Doc” (1957) Bugs adorns a dress, heels, and makeup and goes by the name “Brunnhilde”. Elmer Fudd, a character who usually seeks out to hunt Bugs Bunny falls in love with Brunhilde, but upon realizing Brunnhilde’s “foil,” he tries to kill the rabbit. Trans comedian Riley Silverman describes watching the short and recognizing that the humor came more from the lyrics of the song rather than Brunnhilde’s femininity (Silverman). Yet, this no doubt stereotyped trans women as existing to deceive straight men (Silverman). Although in the end, Fudd feels sorry and regretful for causing Bugs’ death, we discover that Bugs fakes his death too; this only reistitutes the negative “trans as trickery” trope.
“Smithers” from The Simpsons (1989-Present) ‘coming out’.
The Simpsons (1989-Present) has been a popular animated sitcom which satirizes American domestic life. One of the characters, Waylon Smithers, maintained what seemed to be a close, more than friendly relationship with his boss Mr. Burns; the show portrayed Smithers as a stereotypical closeted gay man, with references to his questionable sexuality as the butt of the joke. Matthew A. Henry, professor of English and Cultural Studies at Richland College, describes in his article “The Simpsons, Satire, and American Culture,” how Smither’s sexuality was originally private and apolitical, but shifted to the opposite end once the episode aired in which Smithers openly announces his homosexuality (Henry, 123). Viewers religiously followed the characters from The Simpsons; Smithers’s coming out made national news. ABC news mentioned after the episode that Smithers’s character was inspired by one of the writer’s own struggle with embracing his sexuality. Alfred L. Martin highlights in his article “Scripting black Gayness” the idea that a writer’s “own gayness” increases the “authenticity and credibility” of the script which presents a gay character (Martin, 652). Although this is true, since Smithers is a cartoon character in a comedic sitcom, the script satirizes and mocks his homosexuality to ensure laughs; this can be counterintuitive to the idea of maintaining the aforementioned authenticity and credibility.
“Him” from The Powerpuff Girls (1998-2005) coding trans people as ‘Evil’.
The Powerpuff Girls presents three unsuspecting little girls as supernatural heros that save Townsville from everyday crime. This is progressive in the sense that girls are capable, powerful, and have complete agency. Reminiscent of our discussions of Ronda Rousey and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, these girls as a collective are still able to maintain their sense of femininity, despite their powerful presence (that contests ideas of emphasized femininity and subordination). Rousey affirms in Charlene Weavings’ article, “Cage Fighting Like a Girl”, that women don’t necessarily have to replace their femininity for their athleticism. However, we’ll digress and begin talking about the apparent problems with this show, not to mention their reboot that houses even more issues regarding lgbtq+ representation (specifically trans representation). Let’s talk about ‘Him’. Him is an androgynous figure sporting a dress, a widow’s peak, sharp facial features, a beard and lobster-like hands, and is the ultimate villain of the show. This character design lends to Julia Serrano’s claim in the book, “Whipping Girl” explains that whether real or fictional, there is an “impression that the trans woman’s femaleness is an artificial mask or costume” (Serrano, 41). In Him’s first appearance, he is described as “a villain so evil, so sinister, so horribly vile that even the utterance of his name strike fear into the hearts of men. The only safe way to refer to this king of darkness is…HIM.” (Powerpuff Girls wikia). Him’s presence in the show reinforces the narrative that “repeatedly queer-coded characters in animation are dangerous, evil, or at the very least, frivolous.” He even appears in more satanic transfigurations and hellish environments, where he exemplifies his manipulative, psychological powers. This can allude to the real-life othering of trans people, with the claim that they are confused and even have a mental illness. In many ways, with the reading of Him as trans and/or genderqueer, it becomes complicated.
The Legend of Korra (2012-2014) and Bisexual visibility.
The ending scene in the final episode of Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra explored the possibility of a romantic relationship between two female characters, Korra and Asami. The two ultimately decide to go on a personal vacation together and enter a new magical realm, interlocking fingers and looking affectionately into each other’s eyes. In “The Discursive Implications of Sexuality in the Final Scene of The Legend of Korra,” Professor of Communication Greg Langner analyzes the scene as a “series of actions” that “serve to alter the perceptions” of those who watch it (Langner, 31). In this sense the scene is rhetorical, and is ultimately up to the audience to interpret symbols such as hand-holding as an indication of romantic tension between Korra and Asami. As mentioned in class, although inclusivity of the LGBQT community is rare but slowly improving in American media, bisexuality visibility specifically is very low. Shows like The Legend of Korra could serve as a positive representation of bisexuality as it is seamlessly incorporated instead of used as a plot device or joke.
In a Heartbeat (2017) portraying innocent same-sex love.
In this student-produced animated short, sans-dialogue, a love story proliferates between two young boys. Its pixar-style animation is striking because it tinges the story with innocence, assuming it addresses similar audiences as pixar films. With this assumption, the film inherently begins to normalize homosexuality; it teaches younger audiences to act upon their instincts as opposed to suppressing their true, unexplored feelings. The central plot involves one boy’s heart ‘outing’ his romantic attraction and lust for another boy. One can argue that this has important implications regarding the ‘gay male gaze’, queerbaiting and exploitation, because the boy is more contingent on his romantic emotions; it is just another innocent crush! We don’t often see gay representation between characters of this age, sharing something so pure and genuine. With only a total-run-time of four minutes and six seconds, this is monumental for gay representation because it “is still rarified in animated or children’s cinema.” (Jake Nevins, The Guardian). Co-creator, Beth David elaborates in saying, “It wasn’t until [we] decided to switch it to a same-sex crush that the film started to feel like a personal story that we were invested in. It was the kind of story we wish we had seen as kids.” Co-creator Esteban Bravo also explains that “as leaders of children’s content, it’s really important for [studios] to represent [LGBT characters] because not showing LGBT characters leads to a lot of internalized confusion as kids growing up.”
Shipping “Evelyn” & “Elastigirl” in The Incredibles 2 (2018).
There was a lot of hype surrounding the characters Elastigirl and Evelyn being gay in the new Incredibles 2 (2018) — enough for the twitter world to go crazy. Though neither of these characters explicitly reveal their sexuality or romantic attraction, moments where they have any physical contact or meet each other’s gaze is extrapolated, scrutinized and read as lesbian, as this tweet above by @Punziella confirms. One comment on the tweet identifies a duplicity in Evelyn’s representation (upon realizing she ends up being the villain), noting that if she is interpreted as queer by audiences, then she risks villainous queer-coding. This would then perpetuate the long contested coincidence that queer identities in media are seen as threatening and abnormal, particularly toward the heterosexual, cisgender majority.
“Voyd” as a lesbian fangirl in The Incredibles 2.
According to writer and comedian, Jill Gutowitz, “Pixar is spoon-feeding us a parable for queerness” as we interpret “Voyd [as] a hilarious parody of queer fangirls.” The scene above where Voyd originally expresses her praise is translated into a lesbian meme. She worships her for paving the way for other female superheroes, explaining how “seeing Elastigirl out there fighting crime publicly made her accept who she was, and encouraged her to embrace herself, not what others said.” Being a ‘super’ out in the public means being a part of the minority, one that is mostly hated and bigoted, enough to encourage people to hide their true identities. What an ironic parallel to the idea of ‘coming out of the closet’, as Voyd’s diction is euphemistic of her implied sexuality. With a queer reading of the scene, she implicitly mentions being ‘out and proud’ of who she is, despite the prejudices people may have. Thinking intersectionally, in a more explicit reading of the scene, Elastigirl’s iconism makes women more visible and valued in society. She is a perfect example of how gender roles are shattered by becoming the breadwinner for the family, while her husband serves a domestic life (with the uniquely difficult task of raising the kids).
Steven Universe (2013-Present), queer theory and gender-nonconformity.
Steven Universe, a show on Cartoon Network metaphorically supports non-heteronormative romances and explores the complexity of relationships. Surprisingly, Steven Universe is the first Cartoon Network show created by a woman. In the show, the main character Steven is “human-gem” hybrid in a world protected by gems. The gems have female identities, and are often shown interacting affectionately with each other. Although the gender of the gems is not explicitly implied, the creator of the show, Rebecca Sugar states in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that the “strong female presence is intentional (Sugar).” Sugar explains that she aims to “tear down the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children;” by doing so, she encourages children at a young age to change the pre-existing theories they may subconsciously maintain about girls and to be more socially aware and inclusive. Steven Universe is a great platform for presenting gender-nonconforming identities, agender, and genderqueer, that we don’t often see in the media (Dunn 1). Due to the “genre boundaries of the fantasy cartoon,” there is more freedom to explore gender fluidity using symbols like the gems, however, this can also be limiting because the gender identities could come across as mythical since the world is already so imaginative.
The shift from derogatory connotations of gender fluidity to a more progressive, nuanced portrayal of this range of identities is becoming more integrated in new animated media. The argument that these divergent representations enforce a ‘gay agenda’ onto the youth often comes up, but these representations are important because they encourage children to change their ideas of the gender binary and heteronormative relationships, without necessarily forcing them to assimilate to a certain identity. With this medium in particular, there are no boundaries in creating characters that reflect what society actually looks like. Although we assume that animated shows target younger demographics, older audiences must also be taken into account. Cartoons can be a useful platform for educating complicated themes while presenting them in an entertaining way.