Yet Another Article About Queer Representation in Mainstream Media: Live Action vs. Animation
By: Sam Quattro
Today while waiting around for my landlord to come over and inspect the state of the house, I decided to rewatch the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” to kill some time. Black Mirror is not an animated show (and the one episode that does have to do with animation is considered to be the worst of the series), it’s a live action, Twilight Zone-esque anthology series about the wrongs that technology can hold against our humanity. “San Junipero” is on the lighter end of the scale and is considerably one of the better episodes Black Mirror has to offer, and without giving too much away the crux of the episode is the romantic relationship between two women.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly (spoilers), the showrunner and writer of the episode Charlie Brooker says that he had turned the couple from a straight one to two cisgender women primarily because in the setting of the story, 1987, gay couples were not given the legal right to be married. But why two women? Why not two men? Nonbinary? Transgender? Any other combination of people who fall outside of the heterosexual label? I found myself thinking throughout the hour of the episode, “Were there ulterior, sex-based motives for showing two women together or was it out of sympathy and being an ally?”
I’ve noticed that overwhelmingly in the mainstream live action media that wlw (acronym for “women who love women,” a blanket term regardless of specific orientation or gender identity/expression to describe, well, any women who are attracted to any women) are far more prevalent than mlm (see definition for wlw above but with men). Although we keep dying in said media, so who is to say who has the better end of the stick here. Nonetheless, that really has me wondering that same question I had about “San Junipero” but with live action as a whole. Are there ulterior, sexual fantasy based motives for two cis women to be shown on screen together, if it’s written by a typically cis, straight man especially? Given that, you know, we’re living in a patriarchal society and the entertainment industry is not divorced from that, I would say yes for many portrayals. Two cis women together is considered to be sexy, due in great part to the sexual objectification of cis women. And on the other side of the coin, the society we live in and the rampage of toxic masculinity that goes along with it turns mlm into something disgusting, something to be feared and ridiculed because if you are vulnerable in anyway, you are not truly a man in our society. This is not even touching the tip of the iceberg of trans representation in the media as well as the real life trans community who greatly, greatly suffers from the constructs we’ve built. Things are getting better slowly in the media, but we’re really timidly nibbling along here.
Blue is the Warmest Color is a film that comes to mind when the discussion of sexualization of cis women is at hand. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Julie Morah, who is a lesbian, I remember it being a really big deal when it came out. It had a ten minute sex scene! It portrayed a wlw relationship throughout the years! It was about love and loss and humanity! It was going to be great and I was very excited when it came to a local theater. But actually seeing it felt uncomfortable. In front of me was a balding man who left and never came back after the main sex scene. The people to my right were scoffing and rolling their eyes. I felt disappointed and like the film didn’t have a heart when I left.
The film was directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, who has been quoted as saying “What I was trying to do when we were shooting these scenes was to film what I found beautiful. So we shot them like paintings, like sculptures.” This is a kind of a literal example of the male gaze, filming women akin to literal objects. And that is…pretty concerning. Objectifying cis women’s sexualities for your own aesthetics and pleasures as a cis man. Kenchiche has also said, “Do I need to be a woman, and a lesbian, to talk about love between women? We’re talking about love here – it’s absolute, it’s cosmic,” and to that I say that you don’t need to be either of those things to talk about love between women, but there is a difference between talking about it and portraying it in the romance of sunlight and objectifying it and putting a spotlight their breasts and vaginas.
Television, I find, is so much better about portraying love between women. Shows such as Supergirl, Orange is the New Black, Transparent, and many more give their characters love and loss and attraction and sex in ways that are beautiful because they feel real. They draw more on the realities of being a queer woman than Blue is the Warmest Color and other such films have. But then I guess it should be noted the grouping of writers and producers of said shows consist of many queer women where as the film industry is still a boys club.
And of course when we talk about showing men in a romantic relationship there’s…not much. Not mainstream, anyway. If you look on the Netflix Gay & Lesbian section the majority of films they offer are about men and the two films with big names in it are drama A Single Man and comedy I Love You Phillip Morris. And that’s what it is with mlm movies in the mainstream in the past 15 or so years, dramas and comedies. I think of the film Milk, the biopic on gay politician Harvey Milk’s life, how it won the Oscar for best original screenplay and best actor. And I think of I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, the abhorrent Adam Sandler/Kevin James comedy that has too many stereotypes to count and thinks the mere notion of men kissing is considered gross. Brokeback Mountain, The Birdcage, the duality goes on and on in the mainstream. Movies about men who love each other fall on that line between acclaimed dramas, where the lead actors are given accolades or even just nominations for daring to play gay, or comedies that think being gay is funny, the deconstruction of typical masculinity is gross and it’s funny because it is gross, the same logic of toilet humor.
And what’s there to say about mlm in television? They mostly abide by comedy if they show up at all. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Real O’Neals, Modern Family, etc. with past outliers like Glee, Nurse Jackie, or Faking It (all three of which are considered comedy-dramas by the by). Queer as Folk ended 11 years ago and that was the last serious mlm show I can remember, let alone one of the few where the man in question is the main character. While being comedic relief does not define the mlm characters completely, the fact that I’m finding the majority of current portrayals in sitcoms is the troublesome element. The comedization of queer men and the reliance on stereotypes is extremely harmful and puts real life people at risk because the more we laugh at mlm for loving men, the more it becomes something weird and not “normal”, the more bigots will try to “correct” them into normalcy by any means.
There is a great, albeit dated, documentary called The Celluloid Closet that takes a look at queer sexuality in film from the beginning of the medium until about 1994. It goes through the use of stereotypes, tropes, and the censorship of sexualities. There are a few good quotes regarding the more wide acceptance (even then when the film was made in 1995) of women being intimate versus men. Writer Susie Bright remarks that “There’s a world of difference between how an audience looks at two men getting it on and two women getting it on. There’s a comfort with female nudity…it can be sexy and it can be completely palatable, even erotic. Women don’t find it threatening and men either find it completely unthreatening or titillating.” And to aid that notion, actress/Comedian Whoopi Goldberg follows, saying “I think straight men are more uncomfortable with two men making love because somehow that means you weak…people equate weakness with male sensuality towards other men…like being a man is based on who you happen to be boning that day.” These two thoughts, I feel, capture a truth we have in real life and in our entertainment. Cis women being intimate with one another is much easier to swallow in society than cis men being intimate with each other, not even speaking of any trans or nonbinary relationships because those are nearly unfathomable in the collective consciousness. Cis women are sexy and objectified to be so, it’s “hot” when two are together, and anything else under the queer umbrella is disgusting.
So this is all well and good, it’s definitely important to analyze the media you consume and acknowledge its problems. But we’re on a website dedicated to animation. What about representation in that medium?
There is a wikipedia page that lists, not all but the most notable, LGBT characters in animation and graphic art. It is distressingly short. Where the fight for representation in live action, perceived “general audience” media is still being fought, there are so many more characters and types of people represented than in animation, perceived “children’s” media. And I can take a guess it’s the whole “children aren’t old enough to be exposed to sexuality” argument. But we show heterosexual love stories all the time to kids. Any Disney princess movie is at least a little bit about straight people falling in love; Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, it goes on and on. Movies where the man and woman kiss and live happily ever after and maybe there’ll be a bad direct to video sequel where they have a kid. Where do you think the kid came from? It drives me nuts that straight relationships can be hidden as sexless and pure or whatever while queer ones can’t by the powers that be.
Another extreme argument to be made by the other side is that we’re recruiting children to the gay agenda. Completely ridiculous seeing as how there are gay children on this very earth as I type, kids who would greatly benefit from seeing characters like them on Saturday mornings. I remember when The Last Of Us DLC, Left Behind, came out a few years ago and, spoilers, how the 14 year old Ellie kissing her 16 year old best friend Riley over the course of the game caused all of the termites to come out of the woodwork because it was two girls kissing. I read comments claiming that she was too young to be doing that sort of thing, how people were angry that she wasn’t kissing a guy, how you cannot possibly be gay when you’re that young, you can still read these on any video of the scene in question. No doubt a lot of that pushback is due to the sexualization of queer relationships, of wlw especially. But hell, the director of the game has said that she’s gay and that the kiss was no accident or just a friendship thing. Queer kids exist in the media and in real life. I existed when I was 9, 10, 11, any age that is still under the label of “kid” and feeling romantic feelings towards my best friend just as I exist at 22 as an out gay woman.
Then there’s the whole notion that animation is only for kids that is troublesome. The Animation Age Ghetto as tvtropes calls it. Yet another, more minor, construct of the society we live in. It all blends together into a homophobia smoothie. Cartoons are for kids, kids are too young for exposure to (queer) sexuality, and thus no queers in cartoons. But seeing as how there’s a wikipedia page for LGBT characters in animation, that unspoken rule is being broken more and more.
As with live action, there are way, way more wlw in “children’s” animation than there are mlm. The only instance I can really think of is Prismo’s crush on Jake and comments about Finn having a crush on a guy on Adventure Time in that regard. Again, this is probably to do with people, executives, creators, society being more comfortable with women’s sexualities than men’s. However in shows such as Steven Universe there is the matter that much of the staff is queer, Rebecca Sugar herself being bisexual. So the stories of Pearl, Rose, Ruby, and Sapphire among the countless others that haven’t been confirmed are told more from places of experience rather than sympathy and/or being a ally. The other more prominent animated wlw, Korra and Asami from The Legend of Korra and Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen from Adventure Time, have their stories told on the more being a ally end of the scale but they are 100000% better than Blue is the Warmest Color in regards to how to tell a story of women being in love with each other. However there’s one negative thing about these two relationships, neither are explicitly mentioned to be romantic within the narrative. The Legend of Korra creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino confirmed on their tumblrs that Korra and Asami are in love after all was said and done with the show, while Adventure Time has mountains of subtext and hinting in show and in the comics for Marceline and Bubblegum, but no official word as of yet.
Those are just the big names. There’s tons of minor characters out there who get outed in throwaway lines, are parents of the main character’s friend, or just are a background easter egg for anyone observant enough. Mitch from Paranorman, Howard and Harold McBride from Loud House, EJ and Sue Randell from Clarence, Judy’s neighbors from Zootopia, the two women walking a baby together in Finding Dory. While I think these portrayals are a good way to normalize queer relationships with just their unquestionable presence, they still feel like the writers trying to “sneak” past the censors with the characters being so minor. And unfortunately this normalization stinks a bit of homonormativity, which in short is basically the idea that media portrays queer people/relationships whitewashed, upper middle class, and abide by the gender binary and treated like a straight relationship/ignores the struggles of being queer in a heteronormative society while still holding them to stereotypes. That’s a lot to lay on a bunch of minor characters with 10 seconds of screen time, but in the examples above I find it to be pretty true. It’s the eternal struggle of the majority trying to fit the minority into its narrative whilst ignoring the minority’s story.
And what about so called “adult” animation, the more “mature” form that can theoretically get away with more by virtue of being TV-14 or TV-MA? Moral Orel, I think, had a great depiction in Stephanie. Her story is told from a place of sympathy, she’s probably one of the nicer people in the town and even had her own focus episode “Closeface.” And there is Coach Stopframe and Orel’s father Clay who have a relationship; both aren’t really good people (Clay especially) but the show is good at psychoanalyzing its characters and giving reasons as to why, their problems as people don’t include their sexualities. South Park was nominated for a GLADD award in 1998 for the episode “Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride” and has always been pretty good with their portrayal of Big Gay Al, though much, much less so with their more prominent queer characters Mr. Garrison and Mr. Slave, as well as making the episode “The F Word” a bit…backwards for lack of a better term in that the plot revolves around trying to change the word “fag” to describe an annoying, obnoxious person (my problems with the whole plot is a discussion for another day). Bob’s Burgers and Family Guy have queer characters pop up to varying degrees of stereotyping and destructiveness, Family Guy more so on the destructive end, and of course after 27 years Mr. Smithers from The Simpsons came out in the 2016 episode “The Burns Cage.” And there have been shows like Chozen who had a gay man as the main character or Archer who has a few queer characters from what I can gather. You’ll notice that most of the characters I just mentioned are mlm, and yet again like with live action they are in comedies. But perhaps it should be noted that animation, especially “adult” animation is almost all comedic. But comedy is no excuse to lay on all of the old stereotypes for a laugh, as we change as a society into being more open and diverse maybe we should stop laughing at people who are perceived as “other.” Differences need to stop being laughed at and start being accepted, but I’m unsure this will happen given that the prime audiences for “adult” animated shows tend to be the 18-49 male demographic and the whole fear of male intimacy thing is still, well, a thing after 3,000 words.
I’ll ask the question to animation that I asked to live action. Does the inclusion of wlw characters have ulterior movies, sexual fantasy implications? I would say no, at least not in western animation (anime is, yet again, a discussion for another day). While there have definitely been characters subjected to the male gaze, I don’t think that there is much reason for creators to have overtly sexualized relationships between women in their media, and from what I can glean many of the people who work on these shows are queer or allies anyway so the element of outsider objectification isn’t really a thing. Creators probably don’t even think about it since the animation they’re doing is shown on networks meant for children, the societal pressure of sexualization is pretty much off at that point and we can get to telling stories without it. But even the small, more innocently romantic moments that fly in straight relationships aren’t allowed canonically queer relationships by the same networks. Nickelodeon wouldn’t let Korra and Asami kiss in The Legend of Korra. The Steven Universe episode “We Need to Talk” edited out Rose and Pearl’s fusion dance in the UK on the grounds that it was too “sexy” for kids. The fear that queer sexuality will poison the children has somehow enabled us to have the scraps that we have of it in animation today, however. We’ve made our characters sexless, not human; they’re aliens or sentient pieces of gum. They hug and hold hands instead of kiss. We’ve made their love balance on the tightrope between romantic and platonic so that the networks will be heterosexist and automatically assume platonic.
I hope that someday we won’t have to be so coy about representing ourselves in animation. That we don’t have to dance around and hide from the people who think it’s unacceptable for their children. That the whole notion that queer sexuality is unnatural will be demolished. Man, as I type gay marriage is legal in the United States, you cannot keep hiding and denying the existence of your neighbors, your coworkers, your siblings, for the “benefit” of your child. It’s leaking into the media and it’s beginning to be so much more than minor or one off characters. We’re gonna turn our big damn hand hold into a big damn kiss and progress will be made. As much as the powers that be, in place or pending, are going to try and stop it, it will happen. Humanity is progress. The world doesn’t stop for anyone; we’ve come a long way from the accidental creation of fire. We can simulate brain chemicals and put them in pill form to help people. We can build metal structures into the heavens. We can venture into the heavens themselves with enough studying and physical training. If we can achieve the unthinkable, we can let queer people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and identities live and have a reflection of themselves on the screen. It’s such a small thing not to have in comparison to the vast cosmos that we’re reaching for, why are we holding ourselves back? Progress will be made nonetheless. Hopefully in my lifetime.