My ultimate comfort during the pandemic is watching animated shows that don’t have adults as their target audience. I’ve loved the whimsy and witty comedy of children’s cartoons since I was a child, and that hasn’t changed now that I’m an adult.
Something I’ve noticed while watching many newer cartoons, though, is the inclusion of queer characters and relationships. Not all aspects of this queerness are as blatant as a main on-screen relationship, but even quick mentions or cameos weren’t included in many older cartoons, so I appreciate the gesture.
As an adult, I hope the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters continues to grow, but I can’t help but wonder if seeing queerness normalized on TV as a child would have helped in my acceptance towards others–-and eventually myself.
How shows are including LGBTQ+ characters?
I’m not one to consider our work as activists done just because a cartoon happens to have a single frame of a gay couple kissing in the background of a shot. However, I can still appreciate any representation I do see, because I know the creators probably had to fight tooth and nail for it.
My article about the representation in the 2018 She-Ra reboot highlights the LGBTQ+ aspects as well as other instances of representation, but the show is a great example, so I’ll say it again. The She-Ra reboot has a non-binary character and multiple gay relationships, one of which is between two main characters. There’s no fanfare, shock, or questions. The characters simply are what they are, and everyone treats it as normal.
It’s the same for The Owl House, an animated show released in 2020. This cartoon also features a nonbinary character, as well as multiple gay relationships. Like She-Ra, these relationships include one of the character’s parents, two dads who are only briefly seen in an episode, but they also include a romantic relationship between two main characters.
Other shows aren’t as direct. For example, The Ghost and Molly McGee, released in 2021, has a teacher character mention her wife a few times in a scene, and that’s about it. There are also many examples of nameless background characters in gay relationships, like a shot of a man proposing to his boyfriend on Amphibia.
There’s debate between people within the LGBTQ+ community on what is “enough” representation, but personally, I still grin when I see two seconds of a gay couple, because it makes it feel normal. I definitely wouldn’t say no to more direct representation, though.
Backlash from parents and executives
Nothing comes easy for us, it seems. Even though shows like The Owl House have managed to meaningfully represent queer characters, the process isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. There are many stories of bigwigs at companies resisting showrunners’ attempts at diversifying their casts, and it’s exactly why I give any and all praise to the creators of these shows instead of general entities like Disney and Cartoon Network themselves.
And then you have the “concerned” parents protesting and even creating petitions against shows like DuckTales because–gasp!–the show dared to give one of the characters two dads.
The argument is always the same, usually “what will we tell our kids?” (Uh, that gay and trans people exist?) Or it’s “what if my child grows up to be gay/trans?” (Even though that’s obviously not how that works, and even if it were, so what? There’s nothing wrong with being part of the LGBTQ+ community.)
Exposure to LGBTQ+ media is good, actually
Like it or not, we are influenced by what we see. A study was done assessing the reactions of participants to gay people following an anti-gay video for one group and pro-gay video for another group. During questioning after the fact, there were more positive reactions from the group who watched the pro-gay video and more negative reactions from the group who watched the anti-gay video.
What we need is more acceptance towards the LGBTQ+ community, not less. If children are our future, we should raise them with acceptance towards those who are different from them, and children’s media is a great way to do that. Furthermore, normalizing gayness and transness allows kids to feel less isolated or “broken” if they happen to realize they’re gay or trans at an early age.
When I was a kid, I didn’t even know I had the option to view other girls romantically, because I thought heterosexuality was the only sexuality! Perpetuating gayness and transness as inherently damaging to children is only causing them more harm in the long run. If a huge increase in LGBTQ+ youths suddenly surges after a hypothetical total normalization of queer representation, that would only be because children would understand themselves more and not feel the need to hide or repress who they are.
I, for one, am happy with the increasing queer representation in children’s shows, and I hope it only gets better from here! Let children be who they are, and let them see themselves on television!