First off there isn’t a single openly gay character in cartoons. It’s the popular opinion that gay issues are never addressed in children’s media thanks to network censors, but I believe that gay issues are addressed. But it must be done in a very subtle way for fear of being dropped by the network. Here I discovered wonderful examples from 2012 to 1996 with important messages to the child audience.
Gravity Falls created by Alex Hirsch
Episode: Dipper vs Manliness 2012
The young character Dipper is insecure about his masculinity when his uncle calls him unmanly. Distraught, Dipper seeks help from the Manotaurs (pun off minotaurs) to teach him how to be a man. After a montage of beef jerky, punching, and chest hair Dipper is nearly ready to be a man; his final test is to slay a beast called the Multi-Bear. Anxious at first Dipper agrees to the quest for fear of being called weak. Dipper defeats the Multi-Bear, but right before he kills it he learns the only reason why the Manotaurs want Multi-Bear gone is because he doesn’t fit their masculine ideal with his love of Icelandic pop group BABBA (reference to ABBA.) Dipper refuses to bring down the Multi-Bear and questions the Manotaur definition of masculinity. In the end being a man is about standing up for what you believe in.
Dipper: I’m saying the Multi-Bear is a really nice guy, and you’re a bunch of jerks if you want me to cut off his head.
Manotaur: Kill the Multi-Bear or never be a man!
Dipper: Then I guess I’ll never be a man.
While many cartoons have addressed the masculinity crisis, this one artfully shows how it can turn into bullying. Bullying against gay or simply non-hypermasculine boys is very common in schools. This normally happens because the bullies want to prove themselves (much like Dipper wanted to prove himself) and they show anger or rage towards other boys that don’t fit the ideal (like how the Manotaurs hated the Multi-Bear). This turned into violence. Dipper understood that this was wrong. The message to the Gravity Falls young audience was that you shouldn’t hurt or ridicule someone for not fitting in with the masculine ideal.
Adventure Time created by Pendelton Ward
Episode: What Was Missing? 2011
Through out this episode there are subtle hints that the female characters, Marceline and Princess Bubblegum had a relationship. Even the possibility of a gay relationship was so shocking that it lead to this episode being temporarily banned. The creators argued that an episode shouldn’t be banned based on fan speculation. After watching the episode, I would say Princess Bubblegum and Marceline definitely had a relationship even though there’s no solid evidence. It’s nice to see a non-traditional relationship being recognized in children’s media. This episode also helps us appreciate what these creators do. A banned episode generates no profit even though time, effort, and money has been used to create it. It’s inspiring to know artists would risk a banned episode just to teach an important lesson to children.
The Misadventures of Flapjack created by Thurop Van Orman
Episodes: Beard Buddies, Revenge, Something A Miss, Cuddle Trouble, Willy (or Won’t He), Bam!, and N is for Navy 2007-2010
Like I said earlier, other shows have addressed the masculinity crisis, but The Misadventures of Flapjack goes beyond a single episode of insecurity. There are so many episodes about it that I’m not even going to attempt to summarize all of them. The characters are constantly having their manliness, self worth, challenged. In the end the message is always just be who you are. Once again, the masculinity crisis at its core is pure homophobia.
Courage the Cowardly Dog created by John R. Dilworth
Episode: The Mask 2002
This example is not as subtle as Adventure Time. This episode is a about a stranger hiding behind a mask, Kitty, who hates dogs. She hates dogs because her best friend, Bunny, is in an abusive relationship with Mad Dog. Kitty tried to get Bunny to run away with her but Mad Dog finds out and tries to kill Kitty. Kitty takes out her rage on Courage (the main character, who is also a dog). Courage ends up rescuing Bunny from Mad Dog and reuniting her with an unmasked Kitty. Kitty’s last line is: “I was wrong, Bunny. Not all dogs are bad. Now we can be best friends forever.”
I really recommend this episode. Replace the word “Dog” with “Man” and the main message is clear. This episode is about more than the implied lesbian relationship between Kitty and Bunny. It’s about hiding from reality, about domestic violence, it’s about acceptance, and it’s about hate crimes. Despite all these serious lessons the episode was as entertaining as any other episode in the series. It taught us that when you grow up don’t be Mad Dog, be Courage. This show has always had a heartwarming side.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Disney
Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise 1996
I understand there’s a book but this critique is about the film. The main villain of this movie, Judge Claude Frollo, hates gypsies. Frollo despises gypsies so much that he declares an all out war against them. But he is only interested in capturing one gypsy, Esmeralda. Frollo claims she is a witch but in reality he is attracted to her. He is ashamed of his attraction and takes out his frustration on Esmeralda, blaming her for his own desires and believing her death will remove his sinful thoughts. In the end it destroyed him.
I believe we’re all aware of the study that claimed people with the strongest homophobia are more likely to have homosexual desires. This homophobic person is ashamed of this desire and takes it out his/her frustrations on the gay community. In an extreme situation the repressed homophobe will treat an actual person as symbol of their frustration. Violence too often follows. The message is you should never take out your personal (or sexual) frustrations on another person. I don’t think any children wanted to be like Frollo. Perhaps the creator wasn’t thinking of homophobia when he created this character but there are clear relations. If you don’t want to watch the whole movie (even though I recommend it) Frollo’s thoughts are summed up in his song Hellfire.
Even though children’s media still can’t openly address gay issues for fear of being banned, there are loopholes and subtle hints. I found even more shows and movies aimed towards children that ridiculed gay culture, but just the fact that there are a few artists that address these issues makes me thankful that Hirsch, Ward, Van Orman, Dilworth, Trousdale, and Wise had an interest in animation. All of these shows/movies are still cartoony, colorful, silly, and entertaining even with their important messages. If you have children I suggest you introduce then to these programs.