Animated Films’ Missing LGBT Characters

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In May, controversy erupted on the internet when some eagle-eyed viewers suggested that there were lesbians in the “Finding Dory” trailer. Predictably, the response split along pro-lesbian and anti-lesbian lines. For the pro-LGBT faction, the inclusion of a lesbian couple in the latest Pixar movie represented a step forward for LGBT inclusivity in family films. For the anti-LGBT faction, the inclusion of a lesbian couple was more proof of a vast LGBT conspiracy to insidiously corrupt society. The two sides could hardly have had more divergent views. Playing coy to avoid alienating either side, “Finding Dory” filmmakers responded to questions about the alleged lesbian couple only by saying, “They can be whatever you want them to be.” In the end, the controversy died a swift but quiet death when it turned out that the alleged “lesbian couple” was on screen so briefly that all but no one even noticed the two women when actually watching the film.

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Viewers championing the inclusion of a lesbian couple may have been overly optimistic in placing such hope in Disney. Per GLAAD’s fourth annual Studio Responsibility Index report, Disney—which bought Pixar in 2006—has the weakest history of LGBT inclusion in its films of all the studios tracked, and Disney received a “failing” grade three out of the past four years. Then again, to be fair, it’s not just Disney: there has only been one known queer character in any animated movie intended for a children’s audience, ever. (In the final scenes of 2012’s “ParaNorman,” the jock character Mitch casually references having a boyfriend.) It’s no overstatement to say that LGBT characters in animated family films are a completely absent demographic.

In the broader context, the uproar over the possible presence of lesbians in “Finding Dory” is just another battle in the conflict between liberal advocacy for greater inclusivity and conservative retrenchment against perceived liberal social imperialism. Two almost diametrically opposed forces acting much like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. For example, when #GiveElsaAGirlfriend trended on Twitter, it was met by an equally strong wave of opposition and promises of a boycott if Disney should, in fact, give the character Elsa of “Frozen” a girlfriend. Per the American Library Association (ALA), of the top ten the most challenged (a challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness) books of 2015, three were for homosexuality/transgenderism. “And Tango Makes Three,” the true story of two male penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo that raised a chick together as a family, has been on the list seven times since it was published in 2006, and was the most challenged book of the year for four of those years. In 2006, however, it also won several literary awards, including recognition as an ALA Notable Children’s Book, an award that “identifies the best of the best in children’s books.”

At the heart of the issue, of course, is a fundamental difference of opinion regarding how and when the next generation should be educated about gender and sexuality. Social conservatives generally oppose any attempt to introduce the idea of gender fluidity and the sexual spectrum to minors, while social liberals generally espouse the view that children should be exposed early and taught to embrace diversity as a natural facet of life. Live action character Ruby (Red Riding Hood) can kiss Dorothy on “Once Upon a Time” without spawning a massive boycott because the show’s target audience is adults, but animated character Elsa can’t have a girlfriend in “Frozen 2” because millions of children would be exposed to the idea of non-heterosexuality. These opposing beliefs about exposing children to diversity has led to vigilant policing on the part of social conservatives and, consequently, a highly conservative posture on the part of family films.

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This is likely to change within the next decade, however: several TV shows for children since 2014 have already included LGBT characters, suggesting a slow shift that will eventually reach the big screen. Although not entirely explicit, Korra and Asami got a happy ending on Nickelodeon’s “The Legend of Korra,” while on Cartoon Network’s “Steven Universe” Ruby and Sapphire present as feminine-presenting “lesbians” and feminine-presenting Pearl has an attraction to Rose Quartz. A few other shows have been even more explicit: on the Disney Channel XD’s “Gravity Falls,” Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland publicly expressed their love for each other in the series finale. On the Cartoon Network’s “Clarence,” one of the show’s three main characters, Jeff, has been shown as having two mothers, EJ and Sue (voiced by Tig Notaro and Lea Delaria, naturally). And on Nickelodeon’s “The Loud House,” main character Lincoln Loud’s best friend Clyde McBride has two dads. All of these shows had an underage audience.

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Does this mean that by “Finding Dory 2” Dory will find love with a nice parrot fish named Porsha? Almost certainly not. Nevertheless, although Disney’s princesses won’t be seeking any Princesses Charming for many, many years, it’s likely that we’ll begin to see very subtle, often unacknowledged nods to the LGBT community in animated family films in the near-term. Women with short hair and flannel may appear briefly in the background of scenes. Two women with an ambiguous relationship might be fairy godmothers. And at last, we may eventually see same-sex parents for main characters. This slow, incremental approach to inclusion may frustrate those who want greater representation on film, but it is inevitable so long as the battle over how to teach children about diversity rages. Social conservatives will fight tooth and nail against the depiction of LGBT characters in children’s movies, but ultimately, greater inclusivity in all film genres is inexorable. One day Elsa will have a girlfriend, but it won’t be in this decade.

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