Animating Diversity: Exploring LGBTQ+ Representation in Kids’ Cartoons

by | May 31, 2024 | Resources & Support | 0 comments

Queer erasure affects children all across the word. Pride & Joy speaks to creative director and mother Rachelle Strange about her experiences and opinions on how LGBTQ+ representation in children’s animation.

Growing up, we all had someone to reconcile with, to relate to through cartoons. Waking up on Saturday morning, cereal bowl in your hand, seeing whatever crazy mishaps had taken place this week. From the wild and wacky Cartoon Network, to the mystical adventures you’d find on Nickelodeon or Disney Channel, there was always someone to look up to, to laugh at, to resonate with on those shows.

Or was there? Were all communities truly being represented? One of the main goals of these shows is to teach children growing up life lessons through their story beats, but were they giving a skewed view on community, or was there an identity missing? Throughout the 21st century, children’s animation has changed from the Saturday morning cartoons to developed, plot heavy shows, but how has representation in the LGBTQ+ community been shifted in the public eye through these shows, and what shows have pioneered inclusivity in the past two decades?

Soon-to-be creative director Rachelle Strange didn’t have the luxury of seeing any queer representation when she was growing up. In Manchester, under the Conservative Thatcher government, there was a policy in place on the Local Government Act, which was a controversial policy that stated authorities couldn’t “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” Rachelle struggled to find her identity or any similarities for the queer community in the shows for her age group.

“While you had the Ellen Degeneres show in the 1990s, or Queer As Spoke, or Queer Eye doing stuff in the adult space, there wasn’t anything for my age group. It stayed that way up until I left, when I was 16, it was illegal.”

Section 28 was abolished only in 2005, which was only nine years before same sex marriage would become legal in England and Wales. From 2005, to now there have been multiple shows and movies which have shown same sex couples or have queer representation.

 “As people have been allowed to grow up and be queer, that has also passed onto the content they make, which includes queer narratives and queer stories.”

Two of the biggest pioneers of bringing queer narratives to television were Adventure TIme and Steven Universe, Cartoon Network shows that both aired throughout the 2010s, the former while not having it be the main focus, had a same sex relationship between two of the main characters, and Steven Universe had multiple same sex relationships and storylines throughout the show. Alongside the representation, shows had started to become a lot more serialized, having entire plotlines spanning throughout the show instead of the episodic nature of the most beloved cartoons of the 2000s, appealing to older audiences as well, like Rachelle at the time.  Rachelle has worked in the media industry for most of her professional career, but she had a brief stint in teaching for a couple of years, where she taught teenagers that had been growing up watching these shows.

“When I was teaching and lecturing that 16-18 age group, it was great to see that queer students could feel comfortable and confident in themselves and could see themselves in the content they were consuming.”
Rachelle could also see how it was changing the younger generation not just from a teacher’s perspective, but as a parent.

“My son is also part of the queer community, and he felt comfortable coming out to us at 13 because he had the opportunity to be educated by mediums that were made for him and his age group.”

However, despite leaving the targeted age bracket for these recent cartoons, Rachelle has appreciated and connected with certain characters and their stories.

“Because I love the enemies to lovers trope, I think mine has to be Catra from She-Ra Princess of Power. She’s so sassy, and I love that. For a slightly older audience though, Vi from Arcane.”

She-Ra Princess of Power is a reboot of the 1985 animated series with the same name, which has been massively praised for its queer representation amongst its main cast. Whilst being more subtle, Arcane has also been praised for its inclusion.

Rachelle thinks that the early 2010s, while being revolutionary for its time when it came to queer inclusion, wasn’t as progressive as we see today in the stories that were told surrounding queer topical issues.

“I think the early 2010s had a really tough time towing the line. You couldn’t just have an overtly queer character, they’d have to be slipped into the background or kind of hinted at in the background and revealed at the end. Even in the Legend of Korra, there were many implications and hints that Korra was queer, but it was only in the comics after and in the final episode where she’s officially in a same sex couple. They even had the same with SpongeBob, who was asexual – they had to be queer but they couldn’t really be that open with it, just hints and nods to it. After Steven Universe, She-Ra was a real breaking point as the relationship is genuinely integral to the plot.”

Noelle Stevenson has spoken many times about the importance of the main relationship in She-Ra and how the final kiss (spoiler alert, apologies) in the final scene couldn’t be rejected by the executives when wanting to finish the show.

“In the 2010s the character’s were just seen as a bit queer, but there’s a trajectory across where they’re now allowed to be part of the main canon of the story.”

However, not every animation company has been thriving in inclusion, the biggest example being Disney. Many people have critiqued Disney for their hesitancy to include any queer main leads or themes surrounding the LGBTQ+ community instead having to be ‘way too subtle’ about the sexuality of their characters or cameos.

“Disney are a lot less progressive than we think. They’re here to make money, and the best way for them to do that is to dial down the queer characters. They had to cancel the Owl House two seasons early because it was a bit too queer. You obviously had Strangewolds which was a great film, but it all got tied up on a character being bisexual. Amazon and HBO Max cancel shows as well, there’s a disproportionate amount of shows with queer inclusion that are canceled before or just after their second season. It feels like it’s leaning into the ‘bury your gays’ trope, where queer characters could never be happy, which feels like the narrative is now in a corporate context.”

Rachelle’s experiences with working in the media industry as an creative director and as a fan of a lot of these shows has helped her view on if there’s anything staff members involved in these shows can do to be even more inclusive and have more representation for the queer community.

“I think the people who are producing these shows, and putting their blood sweat and tears into them are doing a good job, the real problem is the board rooms that aren’t letting this happen and are focusing on the money. This kind of comes with the downfall of streaming, there isn’t room for a niche audience, it has to appeal to the masses, and that’s challenging.”

All in all, while there are definitely still issues with how companies treat queer representation, shows like Steven Universe, She-Ra, The Owl House and many more have paved the way for queer narratives in children’s animation, and with everyday, more and more children are being educated through the shows about their sexuality, whilst still entertaining both young and old.