“Made of Love”: Queer Representation in Cartoons
Imagine your favorite childhood cartoon character was in a queer relationship. Imagine you spent years watching an animated show only to find out the main character was actually raised by two moms. Imagine that, from a very young age, you saw authentic queer representation in cartoons. What would be different?
In 2016, the mere idea that there might be a lesbian couple in Finding Dory filled the internet with negative comments and (failed) attempts to boycott the film — signaling the challenge of inserting queer relationships into youth-centered cartoons. The alleged couple ended up appearing for less than half a minute. Later, in 2018, when one of the writers for Sesame Street confirmed the romantic aspect of Bert and Ernie's relationship, other writers were quick to deny it, and many turned their relationship into a joke. For those who complain, it seems that homosexuality shouldn’t exist in fiction unless it is played for laughs. Portraying queer relationships as more than mere subtext therefore seems infeasible.
But, the point is: such queer characters and relationships thankfully already exist. In subtle ways, usually without any kisses or labels, cartoons like Steven Universe, The Legend of Korra, Gravity Falls and Star vs. the Forces of Evil show us that it is possible to promote diversity amid prejudice and succeed. Other shows, like Voltron, have shown us the queerbaiting and problematic tropes that can arise from these attempts to incorporate queer characters.
Either way, if you're looking for examples of queer representation in cartoons, check out this roundup featured below. Warning: many spoilers ahead.
Steven Universe is without a doubt a must-watch for anyone tired of the lack of lesbian couples in the media. The show tells the story of the “gems,” an alien species with a majority of female members. It is no secret in Steven Universe that Ruby and Sapphire, the show’s most evident same-sex couple, love each other, as seen in the lyrics sung by the “fusion” of the two, Garnet.
Go ahead and try to hit me if you're able.
Can't you see that my relationship is stable?
I can see you hate the way we intermingle.
But I think you're just mad 'cause you're single.
You're not gonna stop what we've made together.
We are gonna stay like this forever.
If you break us apart we'll just come back newer.
And we'll always be twice the gem that you are.
I am made o-o-o-o-of
A “fusion” in Steven Universe represents a state of extreme connection, in which two or more gems form a singular union. Sometimes it has a sexual connotation, especially because most fusions are achieved through a synchronized dance. When forced, fusions work as an allegory for rape and abusive relationships. Most of the time, however, it means that the characters are emotionally harmonious. In Ruby and Sapphire's case, it means they are completely in love.
One interesting piece of the Garnet fusion is that it is seen as unusual, and possibly disgusting, by other gems. For them, fusions are supposed to happen only between alike gems and in order to form a weapon. Rubies are supposed to go with rubies, and sapphires are supposed to go with sapphires, merely making them bigger versions of themselves, but not different or unusual. So when Ruby and Sapphire first become Garnet, by accident, the reactions of other characters are strikingly similar to what homophobes might say when seeing a gay couple. Eventually, Garnet chooses to leave their homeland and live on Earth because it is where they can be whoever they want. Here, Rebecca Sugar, the creator of Steven Universe, shows us how to depict queer representation without ignoring the effects of queer prejudice. The characters are allowed to flirt shamelessly, argue, cry, reconcile, kiss tenderly, and eventually get engaged.
Currently with about 150 episodes, the show is so open in showing gay relationships that several scenes and episodes have even been carelessly censored. In addition to being a great source of female and LGBTQ+ representation, Steven Universe also explains and allegorically explores sensitive topics such as consent, discrimination, abusive relationships and homophobia in a way that kids will understand — making it a truly intense and thoughtful cartoon.
The Legend of Korra
In The Legend of Korra, an animated series that takes place many years after Avatar: the Last Airbender, we encounter Korra, her rival Asami, and what might be one of the best developments for a female couple on television. The relationship between the two, nicknamed Korrasami, is a perfectly written slow burn through the first four seasons, as the two go from rivals to friends and (finally!) lovers.
The couple starts off as rivals because they like the same guy. By the beginning of the last season, however, as Korra is completely broken, things change. She’s assumed to be hiding from everyone, though it is then revealed that she had actually been communicating with Asami, the only person she trusted enough to send letters. Their relationship was never overtly obvious like the ones we can see in Steven Universe, but these details show the intended deep intimacy between the characters.
Of course, this did not stop some so-called fans from calling the idea of Korra and Asami getting together "far-fetched" or "rushed,” and some claimed that the girls are just good friends, denying the creators' own statements about the characters’ bisexuality.
Unfortunately, we never saw a same-sex kiss in the show, since the couple only became canon in the last episode; however, in the comics released afterward, we do get to see Korra and Asami acting like girlfriends and revealing their relationship to Korra’s parents. Even if romance is not the most important facet of the show, which also addresses difficult topics such as post-traumatic stress, dictatorships, totalitarian leaders, and anarchism, Korrasami being official is still a win for everyone who shipped them.
What happens when a show promises representation and doesn’t deliver it? That is when things get a little complicated, and this is definitely the case with Voltron.
At a San Diego Comic Con panel for the show, creators confirmed that one of the main characters, Shiro would be paired with a boyfriend in the new season. Nevertheless, when it was released, fans were disappointed with the final product: Adam, Shiro’s ex-boyfriend, was introduced only to be killed shortly after, giving Shiro hardly any time to mourn his death.
Their relation is a prime example of “Bury Your Gays”: a trope despised by many in the LGBTQ+ community. In general, queer characters have a much higher chance of dying or not getting a happy ending in comparison to their straight counterparts. The trope infers that an open queer sexuality often ends in death. In killing Adam, Voltron, a show where characters seldom die, effectively killed half of the queer representation, denying Adam any character development.
Fans and some members of the cast have tried to argue that there still is representation: Shiro is alive and doesn’t need a boyfriend to prove his queerness. Still, his status as a couple with Adam was rather ambiguous and was interpreted by many as a simple friendship. In some subtitles, like the Japanese one, Adam even calls Shiro his “best friend.” Accusations of queerbaiting from the fans caused some of the cast and crew to apologize and indicate that they did what they could, but the final decision wasn’t in their hands.
In Season 8, the writers seem to forgot that Shiro was the main character, and in the last episode, we learn that he married another man, though the audience did not get to watch him mourn Adam and fall in love. Again, many fans were unhappy with the conclusion and wondered why the show would claim to bring representation if it wasn't ready to do so.
Gravity Falls, Star vs. the Forces of Evil and others
Perhaps because Gravity Falls and Star vs. the Forces of Evil are from Disney, any queer development is much more subtle. In the suspenseful and often scary Gravity Falls, the early relationship between Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland seems to exist for purely comedic purposes. In the last episodes, however, the suspicions of several fans of the series were unofficially confirmed. In one scene, Blubs is extremely relieved to find his partner alive, and the characters softly utter "we're mad with power, and love," while looking affectionately at one another. Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch once stated that he would have loved to include a LGBTQ+ character in the show, but doubted that anyone would let him.
Star vs. the Forces of Evil, however is a different story. None of the main characters have been confirmed to be queer, though one of them, Marco, seems to have little regard for gender norms and constantly dresses like a princess: “Princess Turdina.” I’m including it here, though, because of one surprising achievement: in the episode “Just Friends,” Star vs. the Forces of Evil featured Disney’s first gay kiss.
Among other animated shows, there is Adventure Time, whose creator has confirmed that the characters Marceline and Princess Bubblegum used to date, and also Miraculous Ladybug, whose secondary characters Juleka and Rose are always together, pairing up in scenes where the other straight couples are present and together. Thomas Astruc, the creator of the show, has also confirmed that one of the characters (Marc) was inspired by a friend of his who is bisexual and not cisgender.
A Future, “Made of Love”
Of course, we are far from having queer cartoon couples who are as open as heterosexual couples. In The Legend of Korra, there were several clues that Korra and Asami liked each other, but the couple was only confirmed at the end of the show. Even in Steven Universe, where representation exists, there is constant censorship of several scenes in almost every country where it is broadcasted, including the UK (Here you can see a list of moments that were edited, muted, or simply cut).
Some may argue that no one is creating queer cartoon couples because the shows are aimed at younger, and presumably more “sensitive,” audiences. Still, in The Legend of Korra, Korra kisses her boyfriend time and time again before they break up, and the straight couples in Steven Universe are not censored like the gay characters. Seemingly, the true purpose of not allowing queers intimacy is to hide queer characters in the closet and let their romantic relationships always be interpreted as harmless friendships — not to protect children from something they see all the time.
Moving forward, it is critical that cartoon executives change this bigoted trend and include more LGBTQ+ characters. Creating a stereotype-free community of LGBTQ+ cartoon characters can only affect more positive change for the realities queer people live every day. Introducing them like other characters helps children understand that they are normal, just like cishet couples. We are not simply the gay best friend of the female main character who likes fashion and gossip; the bisexual girl who is confused because she dates a guy but now finds herself in love with another girl; or the person who lives in fear of leaving the closet.
There's a new trend on the internet: people (mostly men, mostly older) bashing new cartoons, claiming they're not as good as the old ones. If they're angry because of the lack of sexualization and efforts to include more diverse characters, it means we're doing something right. There is still a huge gap between the treatment of gay relationships and that of straight relationships, and though I appreciate the effort of cartoon writers, we have to keep pushing forward. These new cartoons, with their clever jokes and messages about hope and love, are a wonderful and unique way of educating children to build a more open-minded world, where they can feel free to be whoever they want to be, or already are.
Keyla Carvalho is a journalism student at Northwestern. Originally from Brazil, she is very passionate about feminism, LGBTQ+ issues, fiction and international politics. You can find her on Twitter (@keyccarvalho), ranting about how female and queer characters never get the treatment they deserve.