Did ‘Animaniacs’ Have Surprising Queer Elements Hiding in Plain Sight All This Time?
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The quintessential ’90s cartoon, Animaniacs, was particularly known for including jokes for adults as well as kids. Its multi-layered sense of humor is what made the show so popular. But while Animaniacs had lots for adults, it tended to stay away from queer narratives … or did it?
A brief Animaniacs primer
If it’s been too long since the ’90s, let’s refresh your memory. Animaniacs (or, Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs if you’re formal) was an animated sketch show. It ran for 99 episodes on Fox, and later, the (now defunct) WB. It was created by Tom Ruegger (who also worked on Tiny Toon Adventures, Freakazoid! and Disney’s The 7D), and featured voice acting legends Rob Paulsen, Tress MacNeille, Maurice LaMarche and more.
The stars of Animaniacs were the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister), Yakko, Wakko and Dot. They were designed as throwbacks to the early ’30s style of character design. (If you’re up on your animation history, think the old Bosko cartoons.)
As mentioned above, the show was known for sneaking more adult jokes past the censors. One particularly famous bit is the “Fingerprints/Finger Prince” exchange, making a dirty joke about the famous singer. Though one of our favorites is when a character is unsuccessfully trying to find a date and calls up the prison to ask “Will Squeaky be paroled by Saturday?” — a knowing reference to Manson Family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme.
Generally speaking, each episode featured at least one cartoon starring the Warners, plus cartoons from their huge stable of recurring characters. Pinky and the Brain, the lab rats intent on conquering the world, were probably the most memorable of the non-Warner sibling characters. Other favorites included the cranky old-Hollywood cartoon star Slappy Squirrel, the musical cat and dog Rita and Runt (featuring Bernadette Peters as Rita) and the mob pigeons known as The Goodfeathers. (There were also less popular characters like the universally despised Hip Hippos.)
Queer subtext in Animaniacs
Perhaps due to the time, there weren’t a lot of nods to the LGBTQ community in Animaniacs. Sure, there was the close relationship between Pinky and the Brain, which some read as a romantic, albeit dysfunctional, relationship. But there’s one character no one really talks about when it comes to queer representation in Animaniacs: Chicken Boo.
Chicken Boo is one of the more cult characters on Animaniacs; he starred in a series of very short cartoons. The premise is delightfully capsulized in its theme song:
Chicken Boo, what’s the matter with you
You don’t act like the other chickens do
You wear a disguise
To look like human guys
But you’re not a man
You’re a chicken, Boo
Each episode featured Chicken Boo in some sort of costume, trying to fit in with human society. People mostly accepted him until, inevitably, someone shouts “Wait! That’s a giant chicken!” Everyone immediately turns on Boo and runs him off.
Some people saw Chicken Boo as a metaphor for the dangers of being out in the homophobic ’80s and ’90s. For example, as MetaFilter user hippybear said:
Every cartoon has Chicken Boo passing convincingly to everyone except one or two people, who keep pointing out that he is not who everyone thinks he is. And then something happens and he is outed and subsequently is cast out of his previously accepted roles. If you were an out gay in the mid-1990s, [the metaphor] was pretty obvious. (My partner and I even used the phrase “he’s a bit boo” for a while when talking about people who were obviously queer but living in the closet.)I
In 2020, Animaniacs was rebooted for the Hulu streaming platform. And Chicken Boo returned as a reoccurring character in the show’s “Yakko, Wakko, and Dot” segments, usually as part of a surprise twist ending.
These days it’s almost 20 years on from Animaniacs‘ original run, and while Chicken Boo for many years worked as a metaphor for being closeted, now Boo could perhaps be seen as negative commentary on trans identity, lumped in with regrettable takes like the South Park‘s episode where Kyle’s dad Gerald compared transitioning to wanting to become a dolphin.
On the other hand, the characters outing Boo have always been antagonists. If that tack is taken, Boo could be used as an illustration of “passing privilege” instead!
Or maybe it’s just a silly cartoon about a giant chicken wearing a costume. There’s always that too.
At the end of the day, here’s hoping Chicken Boo has finally found a community that accepts him as he is: a giant chicken wearing a wig.
Were you a fan of Animaniacs? Did you get queer vibes from the Chicken Boo sketches?
This article was originally published in January 2018. It has since been updated.