Queer Representation in Modern Western Animation: Change Makers Independent Project

Giannis Ioannis Paschos produced an outstanding project for our Change Makers Independent Project module this year and we are really pleased to share this excellent student work to celebrate his achievement.

Background to the Change Makers Independent Module

The Change Makers Independent Project module allows students to design their own project and assessment portfolio. This gives our undergraduate students considerable freedom of choice, providing a wide range of possibilities and potential for creative output – including both a written and a non-written element.

The module has been developed by Dr Daisy Pataki over the last three years. This project was co-supervised by Dr Pataki and Dr Mark Pope.

The students are supported in their pursuit of a stimulating selection of interdisciplinary projects by a scaffolded and collaborative project approach. While the students each complete an individual project, there are weekly sessions to share progress and gain peer review. The students really make the most of seeking feedback from their colleagues, working alongside them – both in the classroom and online – and benefit from the supportive team atmosphere, cheering each other on to complete their very different projects. The module also features regular milestone sessions to support the students in preparing proposals, applying for ethics and to introduce the students to a range of critical theories to help inform their thinking.

This year, topics included the promotion of student rocketry, the UN’s twelfth Sustainable Development Goal on Production and Consumption, open source communities and fast fashion.

Queer Representation in Modern Western Animation by Giannis Paschos

Giannis Ioannis Paschos undertook a project investigating LGBTQ representations in Western cartoons. Giannis’ research provided an insightful breakdown of the historical developments of these representations. His analysis draws on queer theory and outlines the challenges and progress that has been made through different time periods of the 20th and 21st century. Giannis chose to submit a video report and a written summary, which you can watch below.

Video Report

Giannis Paschos’ video takes us through his research
Written Element: A Brief Overview of the Timeline of Queer Representation in Modern Western Animation

Television and cartoons have been used throughout history for social commentary and are useful in introducing children to different cultures. When it comes to forming knowledge and shaping the discussion, the media play an important role [1]. This is important, since introducing children to a diverse array of people in society, with different gender and sexual identities can help them better understand themselves, and be more accepting of diversity in society. This essay explores LGBTQ representation in western cartoons by creating a brief timeline of different milestones made by different cartoon creators [2].

From the 1950s until the 2000s, queer representation in cartoons was very limited due to TV regulations. The Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters was created in the 1950s, which indicated that discussing ”Sex crimes and abnormalities” was not allowed, and programs should promote values that are widely accepted as moral, social, and ethical in American society [3]. Even though any sign of queerness was not allowed to be explicit, creators were able to create queer-coded characters in their shows, that is, portray queerness through the speech patterns, mannerisms, and costumes of the characters [3].

Queer-coded characters existed in many shows, such as Ursula from The Little Mermaid, or Jaffar from Aladdin, which are characters that behave in stereotypically queer ways. There queer coded villains can be harmful since they constantly portray queerness as part of being the villain of the story [4]. Even with the advances of the queer movement in the 2000s, the fear of losing the viewership and revenue of the heterosexual audience causes the characters to be portrayed as subtly queer, relying on the audience’s outside knowledge to avoid alienating homophobic viewers and potentially harming the show’s success. For example, Nickelodeon’s 2012 cartoon, Avatar: The Legend of Korra follows the journey of Korra, as she learns to master and control the elements of nature and navigate political and spiritual challenges in the world [5]. Avatar: The Legend of Korra featured a queer relationship between two main characters, but there was no clear indication of it being romantic, and that was only hinted at, in the last scene of the last episode of the show. The creator of the show, Michael Di Martino, later explained in a Tumblr post that Nickelodeon executives wanted the romantic moment between the two female characters to be as subtle as possible [6]. Gravity Falls follows the adventures of twin siblings Dipper and Mabel as they uncover the supernatural secrets of a small town in Oregon called Gravity Falls. The creator of the 2012 Disney show, also confirmed the homosexual relationship between the town Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland, however, he was not allowed to explicitly show it in the show [7]. The first explicit representation in cartoons was made in Steven Universe, a Cartoon Network show created by Rebecca Sugar in 2016. The show portrays many characters that do not conform to traditional gender norms, like “Shep” or “Stevonnie”. The show also has the first queer marriage between two female characters “Sapphire” and “Ruby” [8].

Since then, other shows have showcased queer representation, such as the 2019 Netflix show She-Ra and the Princess of Power. Noelle Stevenson, the creator of the show, who is transgender, has talked about how the crew see themselves through the characters and portray their real emotion, which is why it is important to not avoid showing behaviours that go against traditional gender norms [9].

Another important milestone in queer representation is the 2020 Netflix show Kipo. In the show, one of the main characters, “Benson”, comes out as gay to the protagonist. Having a character in children’s animation use the word ”gay” is significant. This is because both Steven Universe and She-Ra take place in a world that doesn’t impose gender or sexuality expectations. This means that terms such as ”gay,” ”lesbian,” or ”non-binary” have not been used, since deviating from gender norms is considered normal. “Kipo” however recognises that this representation is not realistic, adding a sense of authenticity to the representation [10].

Now, in 2023, in the Disney cartoon The Owl House, the main character “Luz” is bisexual and is in a relationship with another girl, “Amity”. This shows the progression from 2012 when Disney would stop this explicit showcase to the present, where effects from the movement and potentially other influences from children’s television networks have now made it possible for creators to show these stories. The creator of The Owl House, Dana Terrace, who identifies as bisexual has also expressed in the past that she tries to show her emotions and experiences through her show [11].

In conclusion, this essay showcases a brief timeline of queer representation in cartoons. In the essay, I also highlight the importance of queer themes being discussed and shown to children to raise awareness, to sensitize people and validate the feelings and thoughts of queer youth. While a lot of progress has been made, there is still a need for more diverse representation, written and created by queer individuals, that accurately reflects the experiences of LGBTQ people.

Reference List

  1. L. Gross, Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America. Columbia University Press, 2001. [Online]. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/ 10.7312/gros11952
  2. K. Chik and A. White, “Animation’s queer women, trans, and nonbinary creatives are pushing gender boundaries in kid’s cartoons their counter- parts couldn’t — or wouldn’t dare” — insider.com – https://www.insider.com/ queer-women-transgender-nonbinary-kids-animation-cartoons-2021-6, [Accessed 16- Mar-2023].
  3. “How Queer Characters Have Evolved In Children’s Animation” — Movies Insider —https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXeG-LGx25Y&ab channel= Insider, [Accessed 16-Mar-2023].
  4. “Chella Man + Rebecca Sugar — Nancy — WNYC Studios” — wnycstudios.org – https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/nancy/episodes/ nancy-podcast-chella-man-rebecca-sugar, [Accessed 16-Mar-2023].
  5. A. Romano, “Legend of Korra’s messy, complicated legacy” — vox.com – https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/8/13/21362113/ legend-of-korra-netflix-controversy-korra-vs-aang-korrasami. [Accessed 16-Mar- 2023].
  6. Z. Millman, “Legend of Korra Walked So Queer Characters on Kids’ TV Could Kiss” — vulture.com – https://www.vulture.com/article/ legend-of-korra-korrasami-queer-characters-kids-tv-legacy.html. [Accessed 16- Mar-2023].
  7. “A Look at Disney’s LGBTQ Characters: Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland (Gravity Falls)” — manic-expression.com – https://www.manic-expression.com/2021/06/24/ a-look-at-disneys-lgbtq-characters-sheriff-blubs-and-deputy-durland-gravity-falls/, [Accessed 16-Mar-2023]
  8. “’Steven Universe’ Makes LGBT His-tory with Same-Sex Wedding”, — pride.com – https://www.pride.com/stevenuniverse/ 2018/7/11/steven-universe-makes-lgbt-history-same-sex-wedding. [Accessed 16- Mar-2023]
  9. “”She-Ra” Showrunner Noelle Stevenson Shares Her It Gets Better Story” — youtube.com – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j1AAxJt6Cks&t=2s& ab channel=ItGetsBetterProject, [Accessed 16-Mar-2023].
  10. S. Kelley, “Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts’ Casual Di- verse Queerness” — denofgeek.com – https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/ kipo-and-the-age-of-the-wonderbeasts-casual-diverse-queerness/?amp. [Accessed 16-Mar-2023].
  11. M. Shen, “The Owl House makes history with Disney’s first bisexual lead” — dailymail.co.uk – https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8631465/ Animated-series-Owl-House-makes-history-Disneys-bisexual-lead-character.html. [Accessed 16-Mar-2023].
Response to the project

When this project was examined by our first and second markers and by our external examiner, we were blown away by the quality of this project. Our students are studying STEM subjects, and so their independent projects can venture into areas where the students have little academic experience and support. To see such an accomplished project was a real joy for all three examiners and we are very proud of Giannis’ achievement. Congratulations to Giannis on this outstanding project.

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