(Warning: This article may contain spoilers in the descriptions of the series)
One of the most popular investments of our time in these days of self-isolation is TV series - whether we are starting new ones or completing the ones we’ve watched before and couldn’t find the time to finish them. Fortunately, today we have a lot of content that is rich in queer representation, and we cannot exclude animated content from that bunch.
Regardless of our age, there are many animated series that we can enjoy. Some can even be watched with kids. This is very important, as queer content in cartoon series can have a positive impact on children. In this article, we will focus on both the animated series itself and the impact that their presence (or absence) can have on LGBTIQ+ children.
There are many persons among us who have atypical sexual and gender identities, whose childhoods and adolescence are marked by struggles with confusion, shame and anxiety.
Conformism is a tempting way to save ourselves from social isolation, but it comes at a cost - we may lose the authenticity of a significant part of our being. However, it’s not our fault, because if a person rejects their own identity it actually reflects the failure of the environment to provide role models and examples which would help these persons build self-acceptance and self-love during childhood and adolescence.
Video content has probably had the most significant impact on the visibility of queer identities. Their presence in series and films is very important, but in children's series and films it holds an even greater significance.
The lack of queer identities in children's media has diminished over time, but there is still much more room for introduction of these topics. Below we will mention some of the more recent animated series introducing queer themes. In recent years, one of the most credited person for creating LGBTIQ+ content for children, a pioneer in the field of animation and queer visibility, has definitely been Rebecca Sugar.
Rebecca, a bisexual and non-binary person, is credited with creating the most famous queer-friendly and empowering children's series - Steven Universe. After majoring in visual arts, she built her career on smaller projects and advanced to the position of a writer for the well-known children's series, Adventure Time. In collaboration with Cartoon Network, after the first five seasons of the Adventure Time series, she decided to fully devote herself to creating her own series called Steven Universe.
Rebecca Sugar is a philanthropist and an advocate for LGBTIQ+ rights, women's rights and nonviolence. She wanted to convey the importance of empathy, gender, identity and (self) acceptance, throughout the Steven Universe series to the child audience. In an interview with PBS, Rebecca states: “I think the absence of LGBTIQ+ content from children's media is a clear statement that this is something to be ignored, and that the feelings of LGBTIQ+ people should be ignored. And I think that is very wrong. […] When you cannot see the stories you can relate to, as a child, what you take from that is that you are not allowed to have the love from your dreams. Your idea, that your romantic feelings are pure, innocent and beautiful, is forbidden and destroyed.”
Throughout her series, she seeks to convey the message that emotional life is equally important to boys as it is to girls, and she states: "I firmly believe that we should include boys in the conversation about feminism, and I do not appreciate that it is often directed only at girls."
Here are some animated series worth your time while in self-isolation:
In a relatively short period of time, Steven Universe’s popularity among the child and adult audiences has skyrocketed, and it’s one of the most watched animated series on Cartoon Network today.
The series tells a story about a boy Steven, who is under the care of alien beings - the Gems. Together, they seek to protect planet Earth from various threats. A specific characteristic of the series is that all Gems are addressed in the female gender, and are most often shown with feminine traits.
Throughout the series, Steven learns and deals with his family's past in a vulnerable and authentic way, without hesitation to express his feelings. He tries to reconcile the opposed parties through conversation, understanding and acceptance for higher values - peace and love; where the human and non-violence elements come through.
Most of the attention is focused on Garnet who is a fusion of Sapphire and Ruby. The fusion represents their love for each other, and most of the time they decide to stay connected, despite the fact that it makes them atypical Gems. Sapphire and Ruby have won over many fans of the series, and have certainly positively influenced a large number of young queer people.
This series is one of Cartoon Network’s larger projects, with a relatively large number of writers working on it. Adventure Time follows a storyline of a boy named Finn who along with his magical dog, experiences various adventures, meets different people and gets to know himself and his surroundings.
Adventure Time starts off as a distinctly children's series, but over time it matures, gains depth, and holds a message of a deeper meaning with it– even those with existential significance.
Adventure Time had no fear of showing the diversity of its characters' identities, nor did it have any fright of showing the importance of introspection, acceptance and philanthropy through the actions of the main character.
Throughout the series, it’s possible to come across wildly different characters: there are lots of strong women, a gay peppermint candy, a lesbian vampire, or a crazy dog. In addition to the variety and depth of the different characters, the relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the vampire, is of particular importance to the queer community.
Princess Bubblegum and Marceline had had a love past, and their relationship was not only friendly, we can say that with great certainty. However, it is only in the last episode “Come along with me” that their kiss is actually shown, and it was one of the most significant and famous scenes in the history of children media.
The Loud House
In 2016, Nickelodeon announced that for the first time ever there would be an interratial gay couple in an animated series – The Loud House, in which an episode’s storyline would follow the lives of Howard and Harold McBride, young Clyde’s dads.
After the announcement of this cute couple, social media was filled with nothing but support and positive reactions. However, a conservative organisation called One Million Moms made an appeal to stop the episode from being aired, and for the gay parents idea to be rejected, but to no awail - the episode aired successfully!
The Legend of Korra
A sequel to the famous Avatar: The Last Airbender series, this show follows Korra, the main protagonist, who is actually the reincarnation of Aang (the main protagonist in the original series). The series questions the themes of sexuality, race, gender and freedom in a bold and direct way, in addition to all of this Korra is also represented as a dark-skinned bisexual woman. Although the kiss between Korra and Asami is not featured in the series (despite the well-known scene that gave an indication that it will happen), it was shown in the comics for several years afterwards, and even before that the creators confirmed that Korra and Asami were together.
Bonus series: Bojack Horseman
Bojack Horseman is definitely not a series meant for younger audiences, but it is simply not possible to exclude it from this list as it has provided a well known, visible platform for asexual and aromatic identities. A character named Todd discovers he is asexual while researching about the LGBTIQ+ community.
In addition, the series portrays other identities in a non-sensationalist, non-stereotypical way, not by emphasizing their sexual and gender identities, but by highlighting them in the same way as cis, heterosexual characters. It’s also important to note that the series is based as a conversation about addiction, depression, mental health, emotional neglect and trauma in childhood, which further creates the potential for rehumanization while watching it.
Despite the conservative society we live in, there has been a major movement and success in creating animated series with content that allows space for people to identify themselves with the queer characters represented in those series. We think that mental health and the quality of the development of LGBTIQ+ kids depends on just that – representation.
Significant progress has been made for the visibility of queer identities, but there is still much room for progress in this field. What we can do is to share queer-inclusive content created for child audiences through conversation and social media and spread messages of acceptance, self-love, and celebration of diversity.
This text was published with the support of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Norway. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Norway, but solely those of the author.