Queer Representation in Cartoons: A Trip Through Time
Posted on March 26, 2022
Recently, The Proud Family was rebooted, and given a fresh, modern makeover on Disney+. One of the characters, Michael, made headlines. In the original Proud Family, Michael had more feminine characteristics, and was occasionally made fun of in the plot of the show for them (although he was never outright identified as gay). In the reboot, the creators leaned into this, and allowed him to openly identify as gay, and gender non-conforming. To me, this is a perfect example of how queer characters have evolved over time, as society grows to be more accepting. I decided to do some research into the history of queer representation in cartoons, and how we got to where we are today.
In the days of early film and TV, queerness was taboo in general Western society.
While early filmmakers were constantly pushing the envelope and creating progressive cinema, their efforts were quickly squashed by the introduction of The Hays Code, a censorship guideline that came into effect in the US in 1930. The code prohibited a range of topics considered to be socially harmful to be portrayed in film and television, including ‘sexual devience’, which included queerness. In kids media, queer representation was scarce.
Any representation was normally queer-coded, and not overtly named. Furthermore, many characters fell into the ‘queer villain trope’, where a queer coded character is also sneaky, untrustworthy, or downright evil, feeding into harmful stereotypes. Think Jafar, Captain Hook, Scar, Ursula (who was literally based off of drag queen Divine), or pretty much any Disney villain of the 20th century. While these characters weren’t necessarily good representation, they did become queer icons of their own right, and were celebrated in queer communities. I mean, they were pretty iconic.
Other queer characters served as the butt of harmful jokes at the expense of real queer people, reflecting general society at the time. One character that broke this mold was Bugs Bunny, who first appeared on screen in the late 1930s. Bugs Bunny often crossed dressed in his sketches, but was contrastingly portrayed as glamorous, or witty.
In 1968, the Hayes Code was abolished, but harmful stereotypes of queer people continued. Queer characters were gently introduced in kids’ cartoons throughout the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, and were often met with a boatload of backlash from conservatives. Shows such as SuperTed, Gargoyles, Arthur and Dexter’s Laboratory featured queer characters (though rarely main characters) on their shows.
In 2013, Steven Universe aired, and quickly became the cartoon show to feature the most queer characters of all time – over 39 characters to date (Insider)! And let’s not forget representation behind the scenes: Steven Universe had a nonbinary, bisexual showrunner, Rebecca Sugar.
As acceptance grew, representation grew. According to Insider, there was a “222% increase from 2017 to 2019 in the number of LGBTQ characters confirmed in new series or by showrunners of series that had ended.” Huge strides have been made: you can now find queer characters on pretty much all of the major networks.
Of course, there is still work to be done. Queer characters are still rarely the lead character in a show. Trans and non-binary characters are still vastly under-represented. White queer characters outnumber BIPOC representation. Queer disabled characters are also rarely seen onscreen. Representation in kids’ media matters: when we see ourselves on screen, we feel more confident in our identities. We’ve made progress in the last decade, but I can’t wait to see what progress will be made in the future.