“In a Heartbeat” and the Reality of Gay Representation
By: Sam Quattro
Back in the haze of November 2016, Ringling College of Art and Design students Beth David and Esteban Bravo launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their senior thesis, a short called In a Heartbeat. They succeeded, pushing well past their initial goal, and about nine months later released it to the general public. I remember there being a big hype train on Tumblr about this, and I was both excited and anxious to see how it would turn out.
The short follows a boy named Sherwin as he tries to hide his crush on another boy, Jonathan. Sherwin’s feelings are presented as an anthropomorphized heart that goes wild at the sight of Jonathan, following him and causing trouble. It’s cute and a nice little film, but there is something here that separates it from being just another first love story. It’s the gay element, but more so than that the reality of the gay experience.
We’re going through this voyage as a culture trying to display more LGBT+ narratives, but with that there’s a lot of sanitization. While yeah, it’s better than being portrayed as villainous or not being portrayed at all, a lot of writers, creators, networks are applying straight and cis traits to those narratives to make it more palpable to a “wider” audience. Sometimes you can give it justification; if the story is set in a fantasy world, with aliens, whatever, would they have the same homo/transphobia we have in our world or the same concept of gender and sexuality? What if the creator is trans and they want to create a world less cruel than ours? But more often than not you’ll find a story written by ostensibly cishet people, set in a reality based on ours with all the main characters being cool and accepting, and maybe one outlandish prejudiced bully or a very special episode with someone on the street spewing derogatory terms. The characters never struggle with who they are in a world that tells them that it’s wrong, they never hate themselves for not fitting in with society. But they always end up dying anyway. And this is more with gay and lesbian narratives, the powers that be are still debating on whether or not to dip their toes into trans stories.
While the invisibility of LGBT+ characters and topics in animation is lessening, it especially struggles with sterilization due to, of course, being seen as solely for children. I’ve said it a billion times and I’ll say it again, there are lesbian, gay, bi, and trans kids too. And it’s not impossible for things aimed towards children to get real; go look at Hey Arnold, the Toy Story franchise, the Peanuts specials, any animated thing that doesn’t exist for the cognitive development of three-year-olds and you’ll find themes of death, depression, loss, neglect, and abuse among others. Things that exist in the real world that kids deal with every day. We can skate around the topic, but at the end of the day there are kids out there who are getting beat up, teased, treated like dirt, and end up killing themselves because of their sexuality or their gender identity. Those kids deserve to see themselves in the media they consume. To see characters who face the same adversity and are able to get through it with love, support, and friends. They deserve to see that they can be okay in the society we live in and not fed lies that it’s all perfect, that the pain they’re going through isn’t real.
And that is where In a Heartbeat succeeds. It shows a reality where kids sneer and whisper when you walk by. Where you’re terrified to even be seen near the person you like. Where you try so hard to not feel the way you do because of the social repercussions. But… life can also be surprising and beautiful in the face of all the negative. It’s a really beautiful, hopeful message, and I really applaud Beth and Esteban for their hard work and nuance here. I hope that other animators and creators look at this and feel inspired to follow their lead.