Why is it so difficult for mainstream media to depict LGBTQIA+ people living their actual lives? In this article, Catherine Mullner explores the contested medium of children’s cartoons in the battleground to represent LGBTQIA+ stories
The smell of pancakes and orange juice is in the air as you wander downstairs on a Saturday morning. The sun has finally peeked through the skyline and risen this early morning, and in your footie pajamas you drag your favourite blanket down to the kitchen. The TV enters your sight as you sit at the kitchen table but, like a moth drawn to a flame, you wander up closer to the TV set and plop down in front of it. Saturday morning cartoons fill the quiet March day that would have been without them, and your giggles ring against the sound of sizzling pancakes against the griddle.
Suddenly, you feel a kiss on your forehead and the aroma of home and flour coats you in a hug. “Come on dear, your breakfast is going to get cold. And don’t sit that close baby, too much TV is bad for you.”
Maybe the best way to start your day is to not sit so close to the TV that your hair and Dora Pajamas circa 2006 gain static. However, the ritual of enjoying Saturday morning cartoons is something sacred to the imagination of modern childhood. Of course, when we were children we were still watching cartoon classics like “Looney Tunes” or “Scooby-Doo” as kids did thirty to forty years ago, laughing at the Road Runner sprinting through the same desert, or Scooby-Doo searching for the fumbling villain (and a snack).
But with the turn of the twenty-first century and the rise of mainstream social activism and awareness, new cartoons made post-2000 featured something that had not been given due credit on the main screen: LGBTQIA+ characters, storylines, and lives.
Differing from LGBTQIA+ representation in live-action film and television, it is in cartoons -- specifically kids cartoons-- that LGBTQIA+ characters were featured to children as just normal people, living their normal lives. This is, of course, distinctly different from mainstream film and television from the mid 20th century to even now, where LGBTQIA+ main storylines are only concerned with either hiding their sexual orientation or coming out to other characters.
So, my question is simple: why is it through the medium of children’s cartoons that LGBTQIA+ representation has been enabled more than ever (specifically in the last five years), and why is it such a contested medium for such storytelling?
It’s Time to Adventure into LGBTQIA+ Representation
Between the three titans of children’s television networks, (Disney, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network) it is on Cartoon Network that one can find the longest history of LGBTQIA+ representation. Today, audiences look towards shows as Adventure Time and Steven Universe for examples of LGBTQIA+ characters that are living their lives, represented in the stories of the shows’ plotlines as a whole.
One of the earliest on-screen representations of an LGBTQIA+ character on Cartoon Network actually occurred in 2002 in one of the last episodes of Courage the Cowardly Dog titled “The Mask”. It is one of only two double-length features in the series’ history and features discussion of themes such as misogyny, misandry, and domestic violence. In this episode, Kitty shows up at Courage’s house and beats him up because he is a dog; Courage’s parents Muriel and Eustace think Kitty is just one of Courage’s friends and invite her to stay. This is when Courage learns that Kitty is trying to save her best friend Bunny from her boyfriend, the abusive and controlling “Mad Dog”. Courage helps Bunny to escape so Kitty would leave his house, and the episode closes with Kitty pulling Bunny up on a train romantically, implying they are in fact not best friends, but romantically involved. This episode aired in the last season of Courage the Cowardly Dog and is thought to have actually been the reason for the show to be cancelled, specifically for its depiction of a lesbian relationship.
Flashing forward eight years, the next show that overtly has LGBTQIA+ representation on Cartoon Network is Adventure Time, created by Pendelton Ward in 2010. Adventure Time is, I would argue, the turning point of when cartoon shows went from the rule of “implied” LGBTQIA+ representation to showing LGBTQIA+ lives and stories in their cartoons, specifically on Cartoon Network. The best remembered and represented LGBTQIA+ characters in Adventure Time are Marceline the Vampire Queen and Princess Bonnibel Bubblegum, who are implied to have had a romantic relationship in their past. What is so important about the representation found within Marceline and Bonnibel is the evolution of the openness of their past relationship, and their presence as strong, female leads in the Adventure Time universe.
This relationship was first hinted at in Season 3, Episode 10, “What Was Missing”, which aired on 26th September 2011. In order to open a door to gain back their favourite possessions from the Door Lord, Finn, Jake, Marceline, BMO, and Princess Bubblegum must work together to create a song. As Rebecca Sugar, one of the storyboard artists on “What Was Missing” and a main proponent of “Bubbeline'' said: “It might seem like this episode is about friendship, but I wanted it to be about honesty! Marceline almost gets the door open because she drops her guard and tells the truth for a second while she sings this song.” The most important movement we see in this episode is the decentring of Finn’s heteronormative crush on Princess Bubblegum to focus on a queer relationship and the complex history of Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen.
However, this is not to say that Cartoon Network as a corporation was completely behind storyboard artists like Rebecca Sugar, who would go on to later create Steven Universe in 2013. With the release of “What Was Missing”, came a behind the scenes video recap by Frederator Studios called the “Mathematical” recap where the writing staff actively implied that there were romantic relations between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline. Fred Seibert, of Frederator Studios fame, ended up taking the video recap and Youtube channel down in 2011, saying that the audience’s involvement and their “spicy fanart” went too far.
By the end of the series in 2018 and the subsequent release of the Adventure Time: Distant Lands series that premiered on HBO Max in 2020, viewers were able to have a direct look into Bubblegum and Marceline’s past relationship without the animators or storyboard artists having to hide it due to censorship. Seibert’s dialogue on “Bubbeline” Fanart as “spicy” reveals a longstanding belief in TV censorship that anything directly depicting LGBTQIA+ relationships or lives is somehow inappropriate for children and audiences. Throughout the years Adventure Time helped to change this dialogue and transformed under it itself.
Steven Universe and A Legacy of Inclusion
But, it’s in shows like Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe that audiences got to see overtly and “unapologetically queer” characters on their screens. Sugar has commented that she wants to move “LGBT stories from the margins into the mainstream” with Steven Universe, which focuses on themes of “bisexuality, same-sex attraction, trauma, grief, and consent” through the adventures of Steven and the Crystal Gems who protect Earth. The Fems are “ageless alien warriors'' who project female forms from the gemstones at the core of their being. Although today Steven Universe is recognised as formidable in its dedication to representing LGBTQIA+ stories and is held as a torch of social equality by Cartoon Network, it was still in 2015 that conflict arose over showing overtly queer themes.
On March 12, 2015 “Jail Break”, the Season 1 Finale for Steven Universe, aired to critical acclaim and retribution. In this episode it is revealed that Garnet is a fusion, meaning that she was created out of the love of two component Gems, this revealed to be Ruby and Sapphire. With this straightforward representation of what Steven Universe writer Joe Johnston has clarified to be a romantic relationship, specifically a romantic relationship between two gay non-binary people, the Steven Universe team was warned that their show would be officially cancelled if countries where homosexuality is illegal picked up on these themes.
Steven Universe challenges the idea that LGBTQIA+ romantic relationships are inherently inappropriate or too mature for children, which is arguably one of the most used reasons to justify networks’ or countries’ homophobic censorship policies as a whole. In fact, in the same year “Jail Break” aired, UK broadcasters actually censored an episode of Steven Universe where Pearl and Rose Quarts were romantically dancing because the “song was too risque”. I argue: was it really the song, or rather the depiction of queer romance? I suspect the latter.
Steven Universe further pushed for LGBTQIA+ representation in its depiction of multiple sexualities and gender identities. In an episode titled “Alone Together” in January 2015 Stevonnie debuted, who is a non-binary and intersex character created as Fusion between Steven and Connie. The finale of Steven Universe that aired in January 2019 featured the representation of a polyamorous relationship, and in 2018 Steven Universe became the first kid’s cartoon to display a lesbian wedding in the United States. Although shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe have ended, their struggle and success in representing LGBTQIA+ stories and relationships have impacted the cartoon industry heavily today.
In 2018 Netflix premiered She-Ra: Princess of Power pushed the envelope with not only its wide range of LGBTQIA+ main and minor characters but its normalisation of their relationships and lives. On 2nd May 2019, the episode “Reunion” came out where audiences meet Bow’s two dads without any drama, painful explanation, or judgement. Other shows like Craig of the Creek, OK K.O! Let’s Be Heroes, Young Justice, and recently Owl House continue to feature LGBTQIA+ storylines and characters, especially in the last 3-5 years.
Cartoon Today, Reality Tomorrow
The point of this article is not for me to sit here and say that kids’ cartoons are inherently revolutionary in their universal depiction of LGBTQIA+ lives and stories. Audiences can see that in such cartoons as Legend of Korra, where Nickelodeon studios barely allowed the series finale end scene of Korra and Asami romantically staring into each other’s eyes to be aired. Only retroactively could Korra be officially confirmed as bisexual, although original showrunners argue her sexuality was canon for most of the series. Disney is especially infamous for its lack of LGBTQIA+ characters, and if executives do confirm a queer character it is frequently retroactive, with said character often being a minor character in minimal scenes of the story. Furthermore, it is repeatedly done in an act of self-preservation, where studios now feel pressure to have some token of LGBTQIA+ representation so they do not seem homophobic to their national audiences.
However, what is important to note about the form of the cartoon -- specifically children’s cartoons- is its adaptability. Perhaps there is such conflict and often damaging portrayal of LGBTQIA+ characters in live-action television and film because audiences live in the same “world” aesthetically and morally as the characters on the screen. There are certain expectations for how the world of a live-action film or television series is going to work, and studios and audiences, therefore, operate within them. Even adult cartoons that operate in a parallel but still realistic world, such as Archer, Family Guy, and American Dad depict LGBTQIA+ characters in a stereotypically damaging way.
In children’s cartoons creators are free to create any world, any moral system, and any society they please that does more than often mirror the society of its viewers. However, it is less about the magical or wonderful realm these cartoonists have created and rather boils down to what any television programme wants to do: tell a story.
Cartoons are afforded the freedom to depict a story that can be about love, grief, family, relationships in its own medium and on its own terms. The medium of cartoons is often severely underestimated in its ability to create social change or tell a dramatic story, that it’s just a “silly cartoon” and doesn’t mean anything. But I think about the days I sat in front of my TV watching Saturday morning cartoons and who I am now (yes, a twenty-year-old woman who still watches Adventure Time).
More importantly, I think about the tens of millions of children watching these shows today, a bowl of cereal in their lap as they hug their parents and hear that it is not about who you choose to love, but the way you love.