One of the things that I have always loved about animation is its freedom to tell stories without limits. With animation, the only thing holding you back is your own imagination. But when it comes to queer representation, particularly in shows and films predominantly marketed to children, those stories are a rare occurrence.
For those of us that have yearned to see a reflection of ourselves in the media we consume, that fact won’t come as much of shock. It is, after all, one of several arguments used to push back against the inclusion of queer characters: “What about the children?”
The constant othering of queer identities, and insistence that daring to present them as an entirely valid experience is somehow inappropriate, sets a dangerous precedent that they are somehow unnatural, and not fit for consumption.
But, at an age range where we are at our most impressionable, showcasing diversity of sexuality, gender identity, race, religious beliefs, family sets the expectation that everyone’s normal looks different. Intolerance and prejudice is a learned behavior. Fostering acceptance, and providing a life-line for young, queer kids, has never been more important than in the current political climate.
An adherence to the outdated notion of “traditional family values” often attempts to scupper any true progress, but the media landscape is slowly shifting, opening up the potential for other animated shows to follow the precedent set by Legend of Korra, The Loud House, Adventure Time and Steven Universe.
Just gals being pals
Fans of Adventure Time had always been curious about the relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline. The two, though they have a well-documented rivalry on the show, also appeared to once have been close enough to call each other by their first names (and nicknames), as well as for Bubblegum to sleep in a shirt that Marceline gave her.
Nothing was officially confirmed on the show, though it was later stated by Marceline’s voice actress, Olivia Olsen, that Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward had told her the two had previously dated. “You know [Bubblegum and Marceline] dated, right?” Olsen said during a panel at Barnes & Noble in 2014.
That, of course, still left things open to interpretation, as there was no canon material that corroborated the relationship. But, for some fans, Olsen’s word was enough to confirm what they’d always suspected from the show: that there was more to their relationship. It was step in the right direction but, much like J.K. Rowling’s later announcement that Albus Dumbledore was gay, not explicit within the text to be accepted as canon by all fans. It — for general audiences — still fell into the “just gals being pals” category.
A category that, later, Korra and Asami Sato would also have fallen into, if not for the series creators clarifying that the moment shared between the two in the series finale was the beginning of their romantic relationship.
“Korra and Asami fell in love. Were they friends? Yes, and they still are, but they also grew to have romantic feelings for each other,” Konietzko said.
Unlike with Bubblegum and Marceline’s relationship, which remained up for some debate, Korra and Asami’s story continued on in the Legend of Korra comics, where their relationship was explicitly confirmed. They kissed, while in the Spirit World, and announced they were dating to their friends.
While they never said the words on the animated show, canon material left no doubt as to the nature of Korra and Asami’s relationship as being romantic. It was another step closer to eventually hearing the words said out loud on television.
Family is family
In 2016, Nickelodeon included their first, explicitly queer couple in their animated series The Loud House. The interracial, gay fathers appeared on an episode of the show called “Overnight Success.”
In it, Howard and Harold McBride dropped their son, Clyde, off at a slumber party at the Loud house. There was very little fanfare about the fact that they were gay, rather, the focus was on their overprotective nature as parents as they left their son overnight at a friend’s house for the first time.
Nickelodeon avoided making it an “issues” episode, centered around their sexuality, and instead showed them just as any other parents would be, because they are just parents. It was a groundbreaking portrayal for a show primarily aimed at a younger demographic, which rightly drew praise for its depiction of a family with two dads. (Additionally, the McBrides continued to recur on the show, instead of just being a one-off appearance.)
The McBride’s introduction, at the time, inspired further hope that positive queer representation would continue to feature in animated shows for children.
Which brings us to…
Since its debut in 2013, the show has portrayed a variety of queer identities, particularly as the Gems are part of a genderless alien race, though they present as women, and largely adopt she/her pronouns.
Ruby and Sapphire are, on the show, the most visibly queer characters, due to their explicitly stated love for each other. They were, in fact, the catalyst for my writing this article, reflecting on how animated shows have started to step their representation up.
In a five-episode arc “Heart of the Crystal Gems,” the two characters split up and considered life apart for the first time in 5750 years. That consideration didn’t last long, and culminated in a proposal from Ruby, and their eventual wedding.
As the two present as women, the wedding was unmistakably queer, and exemplified the core message of Steven Universe as a whole: that love, in any and all its forms, is worth fighting for. Between family, between friends, and between those you’re romantically involved with.
As part of their culture, Gems of the same kind are expected, through fusion, to become a bigger, more powerful Gem, in the aim of better serving the Diamond Authority. In Ruby and Sapphire’s choice to fuse into Garnet, as two different types of Gems, they eschew the expectations of their society, and abandon their roles in pursuit of their love — something that expressly forbidden on their homeworld. In the eyes of their homeworld, they are criminals, but they still choose to live as Garnet as an expression of their love, seeking sanctuary on Earth.
Steven Universe continues to celebrate non-traditional roles, from Steven’s unconventional family unit, made up of his father and three Gems, to Fluorite, a fusion of six different Gems, which represents a polyamorous relationship. The hope, of course, is that it will continue to galvanize other shows to represent a more diverse range of characters, especially with how deeply Steven Universe has struck a chord with its fans, particularly queer identifying ones.
“There’s an awful lot of awful things we could be thinking of,” Steven Universe sang, ahead of his aunts’, Ruby and Sapphire, wedding. “But for just one day let’s only think about love.”