Homosexuality has always had somewhat of a rocky relationship within the world of television. Until very recently, it was almost impossible to include any references to the LGBTQ+ community without receiving backlash.
Only 20 years ago, “The Puppy Episode” of Ellen DeGeneres’s self-titled series “Ellen” had its star character come out as lesbian, which received extreme backlash and almost destroyed DeGeneres’s career completely. Since then, however, LGBTQ+ references have been included more and more in modern sitcoms and live-action series have become somewhat of a regularity.
Yet, what does that mean for animation?
There seems to be a stigma when it comes to cartoons that children are not ready to be exposed to homosexual relationships as teenagers or adults may be. It has been reflected in some modern cartoons, such as “SpongeBob SquarePants” or “The Ren & Stimpy Show,” where even the most subtle nods to homosexuality through gags or one-liners have been criticized and garnered controversy.
In recent years, however, the world of animation has seen a notable uprise in the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters and relationships. Some of these shows include but are not limited to “The Legend of Korra,” “Adventure Time,” “Steven Universe” and “Clarence.”
These shows have respectively explored bisexual and lesbian relationships, as well as a same-sex marriage between two males. These relationships are not just put in to lurk in the background and be devoid of attention, however.
Every relationship is portrayed as genuine, complex and admirable. It goes beyond just labeling a character as “gay” and leaving them to be mere stereotypes of who they are.
These shows understand the LGBTQ+ community and speak to them as honestly and passionately as possible, with no concept feeling too forced or unnatural.
For that reason, these shows have gained a large following from the LGBTQ+ community for appropriately representing their culture in the most positive and uplifting way necessary, while also leaving impressionable children with a positive message.
“Children are born totally accepting and with no innate prejudices,” 15-year-old Ted Finnegan said. “Those are simply ground into them by the environment that they grow up in, and if they watch early on a show that helps teach them loving kindness, they will be more likely to learn how to practice this later in life.”
Finnegan, being a citizen of the United Kingdom, resides in an area where heavy censorship still plagues modern television and harms a lot of what this collection of animation is aiming to do. Though he notes that Britain itself does not lean towards homophobic tendencies, network executives will constantly aim at removing anything that resembles a reference to homosexuality, with little explanation or reason behind their actions.
“It’s so much harder to show those LGBT+ relationships if they aren’t actually appearing on the screen,” Finnegan said. “The censorship really just enforces ignorance, which is what the show is aiming to stop.”
Finnegan himself questioned the purpose behind this type of censorship.
“Besides, the inverse argument, ‘how is it damaging to society?’ has the obvious answer: it is not damaging,” Finnegan said. “If no harm can be done with it, why not put those references in?”
Isaac Dadun, an arts and science major, concurred with Finnegan’s feelings.
“I lost count how many times I’ve heard someone say ‘being gay is fine, just not in front of me;’ a damaging message that the UK seems to be reinforcing,” Dadun said. “Kids want to conform by keeping queer identities as this hush-hush idea, yet kids with those identities are going to be more at risk of trying to force themselves into changes they can’t make.”
Among these animated series, Cartoon Network’s “Steven Universe” has received acclaim over the past four years for the way it embraces LGBTQ+ relationships in such fascinating and explicit ways. It has pushed the boundaries for what a children’s show is able to allow when it comes to depictions of sexual orientation.
Creator Rebecca Sugar believes queer representation in the show is important because of her identity as a bisexual woman.
“These themes have so much to do with who you are,” Sugar said. “There is an idea that these are themes that should not be shared with kids but everyone shares stories about love and attraction with kids.”
Sugar believes that the identity of children is something that should be treated with grave significance, as what they see and absorb is what will transform them in the future.
“It really makes a difference to hear stories about how someone like you can be loved,” Sugar said. “If you don’t hear those stories, it will change who you are.”
“Steven Universe” has reflected that notion by showcasing what a strong, loving relationship can look like amongst those in the LGBTQ+ community.
“Honestly, I think it’s a good introduction to most relationships, regardless of sexuality,” Dadun said. “It demonstrates healthy, functional, loving relationships that I aspire to cultivate.”
Ria Lismus, a lab manager, was an undergraduate student by the time “Steven Universe” first aired. Though she noted that she was not struggling with her bisexuality at the time, she did note how helpful it would be for future generations.
“This show was the first one I’d ever seen celebrate healthy romantic relationships in such an approachable, unassuming way,” Lismus said. “The show celebrates humanity and the possibility and necessity of growth for every being; this is the only cartoon I’ve ever seen present LGBT relationships with such consistent depth.”
While a show like “Steven Universe” has received praise for its portrayal of compassionate, loving homosexual relationships, it has also been lauded for its approaches to unhealthy relationships as well. The series carefully deals with toxic relationships and the steps a person can take to freeing themselves from one.
“As the series goes on, we learn that one of the main characters was deeply in love with another [female] character,” Litmus said. “But it’s not presented in a great light – in fact, the level of unhealthy dependency that this character displays, to the point of sacrificing herself for this love interest over and over again in battle, is shown to be a bad thing.”
Litmus and Dadun both commended the series for utilizing these relationships to their fullest potential by showing the pros and cons to any partnership, all while creating a relatable and empathetic story for those in the LGBTQ+ community.
“Whether going on in the background, well-supported by subtext, or the focal point of an arc, LGBT relationships are never presented as categorically different from hetero relationships,” Lismus said.
“Steven Universe,” among the other aforementioned shows in the animation industry, seem to be the most positive form of progressive art by teaching children the different types of relationships and people they will encounter in their everyday life.
“You just can’t be unaware of LGBT people today, not any more than you can be unaware that people have different skin colors and heights and foods,” Lismus said. “There’s a lot of cool things to see for people who are questioning their gender or their presentation, and a lot of positive messages for people who don’t fit into pink vs. blue ideas of gender.”
“These shows normalizes children’s’ feelings and fosters acceptance, rather than just tolerance,” Dadun said. “Treating minorities as though they don’t exist is not preparing kids for a part of reality that really shouldn’t be threatening.”