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Though Steven Universe gets a lot of credit for bringing queer issues to children’s television — and rightfully so — thankfully, it’s not alone. In fact, the number of queer cartoons is rapidly increasing. And while not every show necessarily gets it right (we’re looking at you, Voltron), at least there are many more other opportunities for young LGBTQ kids to see themselves on screen.
The past few years, there have been many queer cartoons — or at least queer cartoon characters. There was the first same-sex kiss in a kids’ cartoon in Disney’s Star vs. the Forces of Evil and gay parents have appeared in Cartoon Network‘s Clarence and Nickelodeon’s The Loud House.
Of course, the one doing the most for LGBTQ representation in animation is Rebecca Sugar, creator of Steven Universe. Alex Hirsch, creator of Gravity Falls, said Sugar is “driving a race car way, way ahead of everyone else,” when it comes to representation. “Every time a creator or a network decides to try to go a little further and do something maybe other networks have been scared to do, suddenly we’ve opened up that space.”
Hirsch’s Gravity Falls has had its own issues with trying to insert representation. In a 2014 episode, “The Love God,” about Cupid making people fall in love, originally was to feature a couple of old women in love. The women were depicted as background characters in the storyboards — basically, a blink-and-you-miss it situation.
But Disney’s standards and practices department objected. Hirsch says, “The truth is they’re scared of getting emails from bigots and they’re cowards. So they’re letting the bigots control the conversation. My response was basically, ‘Let ‘em complain,’ ‘they’re wrong,’ and ‘they’re just gonna have to live with it.’ Unfortunately, it got so contentious that [the network] essentially told me that if I didn’t cut the scene they would cut the episode and they strong-armed me out of it.” Thankfully, in the season finale, Hirsch was allowed to have two other characters, Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland, come out as lovers.
Even Rebecca Sugar had problems initially; she said Cartoon Network came to her with notes, but she held her ground. Sugar said, “If this is going to cost me my show that’s fine because this is a huge injustice and I need to be able to represent myself and my team through this show and anything less would be unfair to my audience.”
On July 4, Steven Universe aired the first same-sex wedding, featuring a full on-the-mouth kiss. And as a added twist of the knife to the international markets where queer issues are censored, she put the more traditionally feminine character Sapphire in a suit, and the more masculine Ruby in a dress. (In these homophobic countries, Ruby is often dubbed with a male voice actor, to avoid having Ruby and Sapphire be a same-sex couple.)
Though we’ve come far with queer cartoons, as we’ve discovered with Voltron, there’s a long way to come. Even though Voltron engaged in the “bury your gays” trope and the queer representation was shown in only two scenes, Netflix promoted the show with lots of rainbows — trying to take advantage of the trend for LGBTQ representation while botching it just the same.