The Path to Pride: LGBT+ Representation in Cartoons

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Peyton Ludwig

In the last decade, representation of same sex couples in children’s media has completely changed through mainstream shows like Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and The Owl House (photo credits to Cartoon Network and Disney Channel, photo courtesy of Peyton Ludwig).

Modern cartoons have revolutionized LGBT+ representation for kids in recent times. For years, gay and trans characters had only been playing minor roles and often only as stereotypes. While Japanese shows like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Sailor Moon had representation very early on, a majority of other countries have heavy censorship laws and forbade those kinds of characters to this day. While American cartoons have only recently opened up to include such characters in major roles, it’s been a greatly beneficial change.

The earliest LGBT+ main character on a mainstream American kid’s show was in 2014. Legend of Korra, sequel series to the beloved Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon, revealed in its series finale that the main protagonist Korra was bisexual. In the last scene of the show, Korra and the female supporting character Asami hold hands and look into each others’ eyes as they travel to what is known as the “Spirit World”. Outside of the show, their relationship was officially confirmed by the creators. What seems like a simple moment brought absolute joy to fans, who were seeing representation in their shows for the very first time, even if it was for a very minor part of the show. This scene compared to scenes with gay characters in cartoons now has shown tremendous development in the world of representation for these characters.

“It’s crazy how far it’s come. I remember how happy I was watching the scene where they held hands, and then seeing the kiss in the [Korra] comics…It was so amazing at the time. Shows now have gay couples, gay kisses, gay weddings — it’s insane,” said college student Kristine Bates.

Steven Universe absolutely revolutionized the role of LGBT+ representation in kid’s entertainment. As early as 2015 and relatively near the beginning of the show, a main character is revealed to be in a lesbian relationship with another main character. Instead of only being hinted at and later confirmed like Korra, this gay relationship is shown in the show itself. It was immensely important for show creator Rebecca Sugar to normalize gay relationships, especially in children’s media.

“By including LGBTQIA content and characters in G-rated entertainment for kids, you tell kids when they’re young that they belong in this world. You can’t not tell them that,” Sugar said in an interview with EW. “There can’t be only a certain group of kids who are told someone will love you by all the entertainment that they see. It’s just so unfair.”

In 2018, Steven Universe became the first mainstream cartoon depicting gay marriage with the episode “Reunited”. Sugar and her team had to fight many battles to be able to air it on Cartoon Network. Not only was it a 3-year fight to be made, but Sugar had to make the decision between airing the episode or keeping the show’s international funding. After airing the episode, many countries dropped the show, and it lost a majority of its funding. Sugar fought to be able to air nine final episodes to end the series.

“[Steven Universe] is such a special show for me. I remember watching it back in middle school, and it was around the time I was just figuring out what being ‘gay’ was. It was such a foreign concept to me — guys kissing guys and girls kissing girls? But that’s not right!… It was through this show that I saw one of my favorite characters, Garnet, turn out to be gay. It changed a lot. Over the last couple of years, I’ve realized that I’m gay myself, and I think I’d still be battling internalized homophobia today if not for that show,” said a junior Brashier student. 

Despite it causing the show to end early, the decision to keep the Steven Universe episode broke new ground and paved the way for future creators to include LGBT+ characters in their own shows.

One example of the effect of this episode was in the show OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes, a show on Cartoon Network from 2017 to 2019. Show creator Ian Jones-Quaterly said that Cartoon Network’s receptiveness of a relationship between bisexual main character Enid and lesbian side character Red Action improved greatly after the Steven Universe wedding episode. This would lead to an on-screen kiss between the couple and even a gay wedding of its own.

In 2018, Adventure Time joined this trend. For the finale of the show, the two female main characters Princess Bubblegum and Marceline kiss. Even though the kiss was in the final episode, the relationship between the two girls was very well built-up and hinted at throughout the series. Having such a mainstream and immensely popular show include this representation was a great contributor to the normality of gay relationships in mainstream media.

Even Disney, well-known for its mishandling of gay characters, has proper representation in the form of the 2020 Disney Channel show The Owl House. Show creator Dana Terrace was very adamant about including LGBT+ kids in the main cast. Being bisexual herself, it was very important for her to be able to portray those characters in her show.

“In [development] I was very open about my intention to put queer kids in the main cast…When we were greenlit I was told by certain Disney leadership that I could not represent any form of bi or gay relationship on the channel. Luckily my stubbornness paid off, and now I am very supported by current Disney leadership,” Terrace said on Twitter.

This would mark Disney Channel’s first gay main character in a cartoon. It’s reassuring news that the show is still being supported by Disney and is planning for a second season. Many are hoping that it will continue to run and it won’t suffer the same fate as other shows, who either had to wait until the finale or was cut off funding because of its LGBT+ representation. Either way, it’s incredible that an ongoing Disney Channel show has such a diverse set of characters, which is very important for young kids to see.

Psychologically, representation in children’s shows is crucial for development. Research has shown that a lack of representation in media can lead to negative psychological outcomes for minorities, especially when those identities are negatively portrayed. Conversely, if those characters are shown positively in mainstream roles, it leads to higher self-esteem on “several dimensions”.

LGBT+ representation in kid’s cartoons has been a long and arduous battle throughout many production teams and networks. Despite its hardships, it has managed to thrive in recent years due to the commitment of dedicated creators wanting to stay true to their shows. The importance to show kids that gay and trans characters are just as loveable as all the rest is important in normalizing them and making tolerance more widespread. Many countries still face censorship laws and bans on LGBT+ content, but the improvements in recent times have been tremendous.