WorldFrom censorship to acclaim: the long journey from LGTBI characters to cartoons

From censorship to acclaim: the long journey from LGTBI characters to cartoons

Netflix debuted in September the Q-Force, an animated series about the adventures of a squad of LGBTQIA+ spies who, among other things, hunt down an arms dealer via the Grindr app and reveal the dark secret behind Eurovision. Five or ten years ago it would have been praised for its diversity and inclusiveness, but in 2021 it received indifferent criticism despite having the support of producer Michael Shur ‒ creator of Parks & Recreation and The Good Place‒ and a cast of voice actors and screenwriters as diverse as their agents.

The main reaction to the series seems to range from indifference to obvious and somewhat outdated jokes about Ally McBeal and sex and the city to complaints about being a very obvious attempt by a media conglomerate to score points with a collective with whom they are not living the best moment after the controversial special by comedian Dave Chappelle that is on the platform. In addition to the opinion about the Q-Force, the evolution of animated series over the last 25 years demonstrates both the struggle of minority groups to be represented in the media as well as animated series to end the label of being a mere children’s entertainment.

“Although there were adult animated series in the 1990s, there was a taboo about talking about LGBT topics,” says Matt Baume, writer and creator of a popular YouTube channel on the history of content. want on American television. There were already series with flesh-and-blood actors who had talked revolutionary about these subjects, but it took a certain yellow Springfield family to mark a before and an after in the animation world.

Pink flamingos for a yellow family

Bill Oakley worked on the Simpsons between 1992 and 1998. With Josh Weinstein (nothing to do with Harvey Weinstein), he is responsible for writing some memorable moments in the series such as Lisa’s fight against her favorite doll, Marge’s playfulness and Bart’s diplomatic conflict with Australia. The two screenwriters were also executive producers and ran the series when the family became friends with the gay curio shop owner played by John Waters in the season eight chapter, homer-phobia, which aired on February 19, 1997.

The old one showrunner of the series reminds ICON in a videoconference that the chapter was born of two ideas: A plot in which Lisa becomes obsessed with B movies and meets the director of pink flamingos and another in which Homer fears Bart is a homosexual. When the writing team decided to mix the two stories, the script was assigned to Ron Hague. Never before has an animated series in the United States talked about homosexuality beyond the occasional joke. Now, instead of a mere gag, an entire chapter in television’s best-known family centered on a parent’s absurd paranoia over the possibility that their child might not be heterosexual. Fox (conservative) bigwigs, however, were not happy.

“Back then it was very different from today,” says Oakley. “In the nineties they were very strict about what you could show off. Fox had a censor in charge of reading the scripts and taking notes. We usually received two-line notes with comments like ‘When Homer’s bare ass shows up, don’t show the slit’. With this chapter we receive not two lines, but three full pages of notes criticizing each reference to homosexuality and a remark at the end: ‘The theme and message of this chapter are not fit for your broadcast’.

Oakley, Weinstein and the rest of the the Simpsons they decided to do what they always did: ignore the censorship and move on. A change in Fox’s board brought in a new censor who approved it without too much trouble, and John Waters’ visit to Springfield was a classic moment in the series. The producer says, laughing, that “we haven’t received any letters for this chapter, but a ton for Australia’s. They sent children in schools to write us letters to ask us why we made fun of their country”.

Those (not so) wonderful ninety

homer-phobia was shown two months before Ellen DeGeneres became the first American television star to come out of the closet and a year before the flagship’s debut Will & Grace. Matt Baume says that the great television debate for the collective at that time was whether “any representation was better than no representation”. South Park, which premiered in 1997, and Family Guy, in 1999, also heralded a new era of animated series with jokes that the Springfield family dared not make. the fourth chapter of South Park it started with a gay dog ​​(played by George Clooney) and ended with a lesson in tolerating homosexuality from a character named Big Gay Al.

Gus and Wally, the gay couple who appeared in ‘Mission Hill’.

The demagogic mentions of the rainbow flag, however, used to coexist with the occasional homophobia and transphobia distilled into the mood of some of these productions that, for better and for worse, defended the credo of “making fun of everything and everyone of the same mode”. The members of the LGBTQIA+ collective were nothing more than the motto of a joke and the moral of the week. the chapter quagmires dad (‘Quagmire’s father’), from the eighth season of Family Guy, is intended as a defense of trans personas, but includes an allegedly comical scene in which a character vomits for half a minute upon discovering that he has unknowingly had sex with a trans woman.

One memorable exception was the 1999 series Mission Hill, created by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein after leaving the Simpsons. Oakley comments that the two felt limited by the narrative possibilities of a middle-class family in a population where all characters were children and adults. “There are no teenagers and young adults in Springfield,” says the producer. Mission Hill, in turn, is about a nerdy teenager who moves into his bum brother’s apartment in a neighborhood of a big city that is among bohemian, bustle and misery. A good analogy, approved by Oakley, would be to say that Mission Hill was to friends which the Simpsons was to The Cosby Show: an animated and filtered version of the absurd.

Even though it only lasted 16 chapters, the series is a cult product that in 1999 talked about themes that friends and the Simpsons did not touch, like gentrification and the precariousness of child labor. It also had among its secondary characters Gus and Wally, the protagonists’ neighbors and the first homosexual couple in an American animated series, and who shared a passionate kiss in the first appearance.

“When we received the GLAAD award [sigla em inglês para Aliança de Gays e Lésbicas contra a Difamação, que premia os produtos inclusivos à comunidade LGBT] the series had already been taken off the channel,” says Oakley wryly. The screenwriter, who has worked recently in productions like Portlandia and Just a show, said he and Weinstein are talking to various streaming platforms to try to make a series centered on Gus and Wally’s lives.

Steven Universe, protagonist of a series of the same name in which orientation and gender are diluted.
Steven Universe, protagonist of a series of the same name in which orientation and gender are diluted.

There have been some attempts throughout the 2000s to create cartoons for an LGBTQIA+ audience, such as queer duck by Mike Reiss (another veteran of the Simpsons) and Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All the World by Q. Allan Brocka. None remained in the memory of the spectators. It would take a few more years for paradigms to change in the animation world.

Aliens, vampires and jujube princesses

The big change in animated series came, as Matt Baume says, from a generational shift seen in the late 2000s. Adventure Time, a Cartoon Network production created by Pendleton Ward and which debuted in 2010, is considered to be the pioneer in this new layer of creations for the youth audience, but it was also hugely popular among teenagers and young adults. The surrealistic adventures of a boy and his dog in a post-apocalyptic land included Princess Jujube and the vampire Marceline among its characters, who ended up having a romantic relationship.

“I think what you see today is the result of those working behind these programs. A clear example is Steven Universe. There are more and more creators who can live their identity openly and more allies of the collectives that claim the importance of representation”, says the writer. Rebecca Sugar was part of the team at Adventure Time until he took the leap to create Steven Universe (2013-2019). In this way, she became the first LGBT (Sugar is bisexual) creator on the Cartoon Network channel.

Steven Universe is a boy raised on Earth by three gems, a female-looking extraterrestrial race that reproduces asexually. Both gems and humans throughout the series show different ways to understand love and identity: from the story of two gems whose love is seen as abhorrent by their society and decide to flee Earth to a secondary human character who, as the creator of the series, is a non-binary person.

“It’s not that one show changes the entire industry, but it was a bold move and Rebecca Sugar’s tenacity was an engine for change,” says Baume. Other youth-oriented animated series with LGBTQIA+ representation from that era include The Legend of Korra (2012-204), with an openly bisexual protagonist who ends up with another woman, and Gravity Falls: A Summer of Mysteries (2012-2016) by Alex Hirsch. Baume emphasizes that this advance was not something that counted, exactly, with the good will of the channels. Sugar, for example, stated that Cartoon Network censored scenes that suggested homosexual romances under pressure from conservative markets while seeing no problems selling LGBTQIA+ merchandising in places like Europe and the United States.

The writer, however, gives the example of gravity falls as a show of irreversible trend: a 2014 chapter of the animated series changed a scene in which a woman fell in love with another by Disney intervention, but two years later, in time for the series finale in 2016, the multinational did not object that two male characters ended up together as a couple.

It is currently possible to find an unprecedented variety of LGBTQIA+ characters in animated series. A quick review of the latest GLAAD Awards brings examples ranging from adult comedies like Harlequin and Big Mouth to three Disney youth animated productions, two from Cartoon Network and one from Nickelodeon. With so many options, the idea that any representation is a good representation becomes obsolete.

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