When Will LGBT Characters Be In Cartoons?
This topic came as a fortuitous coincidence of reading about it, seeing people discussing it, and starting some research on it for something else entirely, in the span of a few days. So since the universe is pulling me towards it let’s talk about when we’ll see LGBT characters be in cartoons.
Now before I start let me clarify some terms. By “cartoons” in this case I mean Western, mainly American, animation. By “seeing” I mean actually having their sexuality confirmed on screen. Not, for example, like Lexington from Gargoyles, who we only know was gay and hadn’t figured it out for himself because the creator, Greg Weisman, confirmed it years after the series ended. Which is the standard state of affairs at the moment regarding any known LGBT characters in cartoons, years after the series is over the creators might say a character is gay. And for those that don’t know, since I always seem to have to clarify this to someone, LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transsexual. Sometimes it’s GBLT, there’s also more letters added on every so often to include more types, but for our purposes it means non-heterosexual and non-traditional gender identification.
The thing with the LGBT representations in regular media is that it’s always growing and even though things have gotten better, it’s not perfect. It’s rare to have a main gay character where being gay wasn’t the primary focus of the show. We haven’t gotten to the point where there’s, for example, a cop show with a lesbian lead, and Rizzoli and Isles doesn’t count. So there’s still a long way to go in prime time before cartoons can do anything like this, or even just mentioning the words “gay”, “lesbian”, or “homosexuality” would be a start of cartoons.
In the West cartoons are still considered a children’s medium, by and large, so more mature topics are off limits. To some sexuality is a mature topic, despite it being something children will deal with as they grow. That should mean all sexuality is out of bounds to be shown, not just homosexuality. It is understandable for shows like Static Shock, where the producers had to fight the network for many seasons to let them get straight relationships shown. So if it’s restricted across the board then that’s fine, Static even had a gay character in Richie, Static’s best friend, who the creator Dwayne McDuffie revealed as gay on his message board. However when the majority of shows are like Young Justice or Legend of Korra, where relationships between characters are an important sub-plot, it becomes a problem. If it’s ok to show heterosexuality without “harming the children” then it should be the same for homosexuality.
The main issue is whether people think it’s a suitable subject for kids. That it’s something “parents should tell their kids about” is what I keep hearing. I can understand that, I don’t agree with it but I understand that stance, but at the same time cartoons aren’t the only way children experience the world. Ignoring the possibility of them talking to other kids with same-sex parents or a homosexual family member there’s also plenty of other things on TV, books, and let’s not forget the internet, that will at least mention homosexuality in some form. It’s not some secret parents can keep hidden till their kids are 18, they will find out somehow. The key thing is representation. That there should be some character there to show how big and different the world is. That just because something appears different doesn’t mean it’s bad and that we’re all the same with the same problems facing us.
How to go about it is a tricky question because being too “in your face” with the subject is a bad idea and can lead to the worst type of tokenism stereotyping. Ignoring it can lead to the opposite problem of having representation but no one knows if it’s actually there or not. There’s no one set way to go about it and is more of a case by case basis on what each show’s main themes and goals are. So long as it’s done respectfully and the creators want it, which some of them already do, it should be ok and up to them what’s in their shows.
The closest there is to actual representation at the moment are the adult comedy shows, Family Guy, Venture Brothers, Drawn Together, and things like this. One of the more recent examples, from about five days ago, from the Young Justice cartoon and tie-in comic. In episode 21 “Image” we learnt that the villain, Queen Bee, can control “most men, and some women.” At the time it seemed just like a clever way to slip something past the censors, but it was set-up for later on. In issue 25 of the comic we saw Marie Logan, mother of Beast Boy and idol of Miss Martian, get enthralled by Queen Bee’s powers. Which says that she’s either a lesbian or bisexual. That’s a fairly big step to have official confirmation in canon rather than subtext and the word of a creator years after the show has ended. It would have been nice to see more of the character, who was only in one episode and comic issue, but what we got, by way of implication, was quite good. We see that being a homosexual mother is no different than any other mother, and that she could be an idol to one of the main cast and that that helped Miss Martian through her formative years to discover who she is. It is quite a positive representation for kids. I just wish that there was some confirmation in the show rather than just the comic. Since the comic will only be read by a fraction of the show’s audience.
Now there are a few things often forgotten when talking about these subjects, one of them is the “T.” Transgender. This one’s a little harder to do without making a big issue out of it. Addressing it can potentially lead into doing “A Very Special Episode” rather than natural storytelling. Since having a trans character and needing to explain exactly what that entails to the audience can lead to that territory. There are ways to get around that using magic or sci-fi elements. Such as Miss Martian on Young Justice being an allegory for it because she’s a Green Martian even though she has a White Martian body, but that’s just an allegory, and an unintended one at that. A regular character who is transgendered, with no gender changes by magic or similar, would have to be delicately handled. The best representation I’ve seen is in the Anime You’re Under Arrest, which follows a group of female traffic cops in Japan. In episode 5 “The Beauty, His Name is Aoi” we’re introduced to regular cast member, Aoi, who is transgendered. She’s an undercover cop who had realised she was more comfortable as a woman than a man. The episode skirts the line of stereotyping, but without being insulting. It’s my bench mark for transgender portrayals in media.
In the end I’m not sure how long it’ll be before any of this will happen upfront in cartoons. My hope is that in the next ten years we’ll see something, but it’ll all depend on how much LGBT culture is accepted by the executives overseeing these series. Cultural attitudes will have to change before it happens, but we look to be on the right path at the moment. Even if it seems to be a long one.
Edit December 2014:
We got one! In the final of Legend of Korra the final shot of the show is the heroine walking off into the, metaphorical, sunset with her (current/soon to be) girlfriend, Asami. The creators of the show confirmed they are bisexual. Now we need the LGT to go along with the B, not to mention APDQ and the rest of the alphabet soup.