Cartoon Network and LGBT representation

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Rebecca Sugar gives an acceptance speech at the 78th annual Peabody Awards in July 2019

For many years, Cartoon Network has had shows with LGBTQ representation, although it is not until recently that those characters entered the main cast of animations on the channel. In the 2010s, Cartoon Network became one of the key places for shows with LGBTQ characters and storylines. Some reviewers argued that when Disney and Cartoon Network are compared, its "easy to see who actually cares about LGBT representation," noting that for shows on Cartoon Network, "LGBT characters aren't centered around their sexuality."[1] Others noted that the network hosted shows which were "strong champions for LGBT representation," like Adventure Time and Steven Universe.[2] However, the creator of Steven Universe, Rebecca Sugar was told point-blank by executives that queer romance could have ended her show.[3] The role of Cartoon Network shows in LGBTQ representation would continue in the 2020s, with the airing of Steven Universe Future on the network and Adventure Time: Distant Lands streaming on HBO Max, along with some characters in DC Super Hero Girls. Other series, like OK K.O.!: Let's Be Heroes and Craig of the Creek would have LGBTQ characters as well. In December 2020, Amy Friedman, head of programming for Cartoon Network and HBO Max Kids & Family. stated that they are looking "at ourselves across the inclusion and equity spectrum" including LGBTQ+, to evaluate projects in production, development, and which have been greenlighted.[4]

Adventure Time[edit]

The Adventure Time team on the red carpet in May 2015, including Kent Osborne, Tom Herpich, Pendleton Ward, Patrick McHale, Betty Ward, Jack Pendarvis, Rob Sorcher, Curtis LeLash and Adam Muto.

On April 5, 2010, Adventure Time began with the broadcast of the episode "Slumber Party Panic" on the network. When Rebecca Sugar joined the show as a storyboarder,[5] she quickly became aware of the message of exclusion that was being told to kids by omitting LGBTQ+ characters.[6] She began working hard to put "LGBTQIA characters in G-rated content" in the years to follow. The show introduced viewers to two queer characters: Marceline the Vampire Queen and Princess Bubblegum. Sugar tried to foster the relationship between these two characters through her work on the show,[7] and one genderfluid character (BMO).[8] Initially, while many of these queer themes were worked into episodes as subtext (so as to avoid controversy or network censorship), later episodes—such as the series finale "Come Along with Me" and the Distant Lands special "Obsidian"—openly expanded on these themes, bringing them to the forefront of the series' plot.[9][10][11]

On September 26, 2011, Adventure Time began hinting at romantic subtext[12] between two characters, Marcy and Bonnie, called "Bubbline" by fans, with the airing of the episode "What Was Missing".[13] Additionally, some of those behind Adventure Time played down the relationship between Marcy and Bonnie, leading to the taking down a video about the subject. This was in-keeping with how the industry operated: same-sex couplings were shown in coded ways so allusions to gay relationships could "fly under the radar"[14] Even so, Sugar and Natasha Allegri, on the show's creative team, referenced the relationship between their two characters, with Bitch lamenting about the glimmer for hope that the "queer cartoon subtext" turns into "a queer cartoon subplot" or even a main plot in the future.[15] Others even pointed to the Adventure Time Presents Marceline and the Scream Queens comic, created as part of the franchise, as fleshing out this relationship.[16] Despite this, some reviewers later argued that the show dealt with topics such as "implied queer female sexuality," sexual assault, and other tough topics, arguing it served as one of the most adventurous kid's TV programs ever.[17] In an August 2020 interview, Sugar discussed the relationship between Marcy and Bonnie, explaining that she argued that both characters were "centuries-old, millenniums-old," with a relationship in the past, which they were unpacking in an apparent way, and noted that she was trying to, when entering the show in 2010, show the "characters actively in a relationship happening in real-time."[10]

In August 2018, Olivia Olson confirmed that Bonnie and Marcy had dated.[18] On September 3, 2018, the season finale of Adventure Time, "Come Along With Me" aired on Cartoon Network. It confirmed Marcy and Bonnie as a couple, an event for which Rebecca Sugar laid the groundwork for when working as a writer and storyboarder for the show.[19] Some argued that the on-screen confirmation of the same-sex romance showed that the "cartoon landscape has changed during Adventure Time's run,"[20][21] inviting viewers to re-examine the past interactions of Bonnie and Marcy "through a queer lens," while Mey Rude in Them noted the series impact on the animation world and TV industry.[22] Rude also argued that without the show, there would be no Steven Universe, Clarence, Summer Camp Island, or Rick and Morty. While some said the show made "great strides for gay fans,"[23] the kiss itself in the episode was not scripted, as series creator Adam Muto admitted, only added after a storyboard artist, Hanna K. Nyström, advocated for it.[24][25]

Adventure Time: Distant Lands[edit]

Marceline in Adventure Time: Distant Lands is voiced by Olivia Olson.

In the summer of 2020, the Adventure Time: Distant Lands series, the name for four hour-long streaming television specials based on the American animated television series Adventure Time, began streaming on HBO Max. On June 25, the first episode of that series dropped. This episode, titled "BMO," introduced Y5, an anthropomorphic rabbit and teenage scientist between age 11 and 13 who lives in The Drift.[26][27] Originally named "Y4", Y5 chooses her new name[28] with BMO's encouragement and eventually becomes the robot's "deputy."[29][30][31] Y5 struggles with managing the expectations of her parents (voiced by Tom Kenny and Michelle Wong, respectively), and finds herself forced to disobey them in order to save the Drift—all the while discovering her own identity.[30][32] Y5—with the titular robot's assistance—helps the citizens of the Drift defeat Hugo, and after their overlord is dethroned, she proposes a new form of social organization based on cooperation that will ideally allow the Drift to flourish.[33][34] Voice actress Glory Curda later argued that Y5's story has a lot of context and is representative of coming out into your own identity and defining yourself with whatever terms are comfortable for you.[35] Curda, in a Q&A on Reddit, said that after BMO left, Y5 grew and developed into "a leader and trailblazer to help save the drift,"[36] and noted that she was a big Adventure Time fan before getting the part.[37]

Then, on July 24, Michaela Dietz moderated a Comic-Con@Home panel about an the upcoming episode of Adventure Time: Distant Lands, "Obsidian", which focused on the relationship between Bonnibel "Bonnie" Bubblegum and Marceline "Marcy" Abadeer, with snapshots of their life, and what happens "after a big romantic moment" as they head to "the Glass Kingdom to prevent a catastrophe."[38][39] Adam Muto, the executive producer of Distant Lands, said that the episode came out a "few ideas for miniseries" and teased at possible future specials (or episodes) while Niki Yang, the voice of BMO said she was surprised by the ending of the first Distant Lands special, "BMO." Also part of the panel, Olivia Olson, the voice of Marcy, said that although Adventure Time's finale, "Come Along With Me" ended "perfectly," it opened a door to exploring the relationship between Bonnie and Marcy.[39] After the panel concluded, Olson played a song, titled "Monster," which will be featured in the episode.[40]

On November 19, 2020, "Obsidian," the second episode of Adventure Time: Distant Lands, with the first episode described earlier in this article, aired on HBO Max. It will bring together Marceline "Marcy" Abadeer, Bonnibel "Bonnie" Bubblegum, and Glassboy, the latter who is voiced by Michaela Dietz, who voiced Amethyst in Steven Universe.[41] In this special, Marcy, living with Bonnie, is anxious about revisiting the Glass Kingdom as it holds bad memories, but she and Bonnie are forced to confront this "rocky past" as they face off against an ancient, dangerous, and powerful dragon. Marcy is a confirmed bisexual character, as she dated male characters in the past, while Bonnie is more ambiguous, as her exact sexuality has not yet been confirmed. A few days before the premiere, Mey Rude described Bonnie and Marcy living a "happy, gay life together" which they always deserved, and predicted that the series would be full of "action, brand new songs, and classic Adventure Time weirdness and heart."[42] Before the episode even aired, writing for The A. V. Club, William Hughes gave this episode an A, calling it "fan service at its finest" with "plenty of the usual lovely Adventure Time touches".[43] After the episode aired, Rebecca Long also gave a positive review of the episode in Polygon. She wrote that the episode gives fans the "emotional payoff and answers" they have been yearning for and that the special uses the plot to explore Marceline's childhood trauma, her romantic history with Bubblegum, how the two are interconnected, and fills in gaps about her past.[44] Long also stated that while the special is not "as offbeat" as BMO, it is heavier in terms of emotional weight and plot, and making clear that "romantic subtext" in the original show has "always been straight-up text." At the same time, she states that not all interactions between Bubblegum and Marceline are loving, that the special has flaws due to a conventional structure and storytelling, even with some "inconsistencies in Princess Bubblegum's character design," but is still heartfelt and effective, complete with new music, with Marceline and Bubblegum having "a shared future that feels real." Rosie Knight of IGN gave a similar assessment.[45] She writes that the special is a "perfect example" of why Adventure Time has a such a big impact, and is strongest in the fact at "how accessible it is to new viewers." She added that the special could be enjoyed by "hardcore fans" and by new viewers who wanted to "live their best lesbian cottagecore lives," with the special constructed allowing people who have little understanding of the characters able to come in to "enjoy this fantastical romp about aging, falling in love, and settling down." Knight further pointed out that the episode has a journey which results in Bubblegum and Marceline looking back at their relationship's ups and downs, along with a series of new songs, and delivers the message that Marceline's power comes from her love of Bubblegum and their relationship while having a song ("Monster") which she says is as iconic as "I'm Just Your Problem" and "Everything Stays the Same." She ends by saying that while the special could be called "fan service," it is "fan service of the highest order, a wonderful animated episode, and "a fitting addition to Adventure Time's legacy."

In February 2021 it was announced that Adventure Time: Distant Lands episode "BMO" had won a Kidscreen Award for Best One-Off, Special or TV Movie.[46][47]

Steven Universe[edit]

Stevonnie in Steven Universe is voiced by Actor and musician AJ Michalka.

Steven Universe began airing on Cartoon Network on November 4, 2013. It came at a time that people were unhappy at the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters on TV and were calling for better representation.[48] The groundwork for the show had been set the previous year,[49] with much of the show, including the final seasons mapped out already.[50] During the creation of the show, Sugar was influenced by the game The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and the One Piece anime.[51] The show, tailored to appeal to queer youth, focused on themes such as bisexuality, same-sex attraction, trauma, grief, consent, and many other complex subjects in its run of over five seasons and 160 episodes,[5] continuing Sugar's work of moving "LGBT stories from the margins into the mainstream."[19] The show was also Cartoon Network's first show "created solely by a woman"[52][53] and having overly queer themes.

In their 2015 report, GLAAD mentioned Steven Universe for the first time, stating that the show reflected the "diversity of the real world," noting that one of the show's protagonists, Garnet, is "the physical form of two female-presenting Gem beings who are in love"[54] as shown in the Season 1 finale, "Jail Break" which aired on March 12, 2015. Some critics called the episode "one of the queerest episodes of a children's cartoon in the history of television" as it involved Ruby and Sapphire, the two Gem beings, celebrating their relationship.[55] Sugar began working on the episode in 2014, with Cartoon Network recognizing that she was "LGBTQIA+ characters and themes into the show" and warned her the show would be cancelled if conservative countries noticed and objected to those themes, so she avoided, at the time, certain questions about the show's queer representation.[56] This mentality also gripped Adventure Time as well. The voice actor for Marcy, Olivia Olson pulled back her response that Bonnie and Marcy dated, with some noting that saying that international versions of Cartoon Network have censored Adventure Time episodes, with small moments in the show creating stories for characters "that exist outside of the heavily gendered norms of children's television."[57]

On January 19, 2015, a non-binary and intersex character named Stevonnie, a fusion between Steven and Connie[58] debuted in the January 15th episode Alone Together, using they/them pronouns.[59] A few months later, a pansexual character named Rose Quartz was introduced, April 9, in the episode "Story for Steven." The same year, UK broadcasters censored an episode with Pearl and Quartz dancing together in a romantic fashion, deeming that the song was "too risque,"[60] those working on Steven Universe began planning for what would become the end of the show, even a Steven Universe movie.[61] Sugar proudly highlighted this representation. She talked about how the show played "with the simiotics of gender" in children's cartoons,[62] and said that Stevonnie challenges gender norms as a "metaphor for all the terrifying firsts in a first relationship."[63] She recognized that LGBTQ+ representation allowed LGBTQ+ people to see a "reflection of themselves...in mainstream entertainment," with LGBTQ+ representation in media for children increasing in recent years.[64][65] The following year, Sugar, come out as bisexual[56] at the show's panel at that year's San Diego Comic-Con, become more vocal about "the need for LGBTQ narratives in children's television," translating to the show itself, beginning to push for more episodes.[49] On January 4, the episode "The Answer" aired,[53] focusing on how the romantic relationship between Ruby and Sapphire, who were in a permafusion named Garnet (an embodiment of their love), developed, leading some to say the show has "heavy queer undertones."[2] Others note that the show had other LGBTQ+ characters, like Pearl, who had feelings for Rose Quartz, the mother of the series protagonist, Steven, and a genderqueer character, Stevonnie, in a show which focuses on embracing difference.[66][67] The same year, Sugar spoke about her desire to create an LGBTQ show, which had gained a cult following largely made up of LGBT kids and young adults, that was accessible to young children.[68] Additionally, "The Answer," an episode depicting the romantic meeting of two female characters, Ruby and Sapphire, earned the show its second Emmy nomination, one of the six for the show, along with an Emmy later granted in 2018 for the episode "Jungle Moon" centered around Stevonnie, a non-binary character.[69][70]

In 2017, a Steven Universe storyboarder stated that Harold Smiley and Quentin Frowney were a gay couple which was also confirmed by official artbook released the same year, titled Steven Universe: Art & Origins which showed that episode concept art for "Future Boy Zoltron" indicated that Mr. Smiley and Mr. Frowney were in a relationship.[71][72] Apart from Mr. Smiley and Mr. Frowney, in March, a minor show character, Kiki Pizza, was shown as a pansexual character in the comics, level 2 canon for the show, when she asked out Stevonnie on a date.[73]

In the summer of 2018, Steven Universe would make headlines with a gay wedding between two characters: Ruby and Sapphire, challenging the Cartoon Network's history of "not overtly depicting same-sex marriage"[14] as Sugar struggled to get any LGBTQ+ representation on the show, with the network ultimately accepting her reasoning.[74][51] The episode, "Reunited," which aired on July 6, which she and the crew had worked on for years,[75] was praised as an example of the network's frank portrayal of "sexuality and gender identity in children's programming," and positively received by the LGBTQ+ community and fans.[21][76][14][77][78]

This episode made Steven Universe the first kid's show on U.S. television to feature a lesbian wedding[79] and it broke down the assumption that same-sex romance is "inherently more adult," in Sugar's words.[19] The creator of Gravity Falls, Alex Hirsch, believed that because of this episode, it meant that Sugar was moving everyone in kid's programming forward in terms of LGBTQ+ representation while Noelle Stevenson praised the episode as "bold and courageous," serving as a moment which "knocked down so many walls" for other storytellers.[6][77] Despite this, Sugar criticized the casual absence of LGBTQ+ representation, but praised the effort by various shows to increase "LGBTQIA content...in G-rated entertainment."[6][75]

In January 2019, Steven Universe completed its final season with the finale named "Change Your Mind,"[14] including characters like Fluorite, the representation of a polyamorous relationship,[19] with some calling the show "the most inclusive and most influential" animated show of the 2010s.[80] This finale was praised by some fans for its "transgender subtext," with some reviewers pointing out how Steven's struggles were similar to those trans people face.[81] On September 3, 2019, Steven Universe: The Movie was broadcast on Cartoon Network,[51][49] attracting over 1.5 million viewers.[61][5]

In 2020, a writer for Paper Magazine, Matt Moen, stated that conversations that year about LGBTQ representation would not have happened without the show, noting that the show had a unique ability to "tackle complex and nuanced topics like mental health, family and relationships made it beloved among both younger and older audiences," building a huge following at "the peak of the Tumblr fandom era."[10] Moen also stated that Sugar set a precedent with the show that queer characters and queer stories were "valid but viable and even desirable by viewers." Sugar said that she was able to do with Garnet, Ruby, and Sapphire, noted how they used the idea of fusion to explore relationships, including those which were queer, with the studio telling them they couldn't have the characters in a romantic relationship, and that she was told that she couldn't discuss it publicly, which made her extremely stressed.[10]

Steven Universe Future[edit]

Uzo Aduba voiced Bismuth in the episode "Bismuth Casual"; She had also voiced Bismuth in the Steven Universe: The Movie and in nine episodes of Steven Universe.

In late 2019, the limited epilogue series, Steven Universe Future began airing on Cartoon Network.[74] The series included one-time non-binary characters like Shep, the romantic interest of Sadie.[82]

On March 27, 2020, the four-part finale of its limited epilogue series of Steven Universe, Steven Universe Future, aired on Cartoon Network. Ideas about the series end dated back to drawings in 2013.[61] Sugar argued that the series made a point about shoune anime and kids cartoons, with the aftermath of victories generally not explored, stating that the series explores the aftermath of the victory in the Season 5 finale, with the protagonist, Steven, having to face his problems head-on.[61][83][84] The series showed a character, Bismuth, have a crush on another character (Pearl) in the episode "Bismuth Casual."[85] The same year, a storyboarder for the show stated that Peridot was asexual and aromantic,[86] despite her reservations that she is only a secondary creator on the show,[87] pleasing fans, even though she said that she didn't believe Peridot was autistic.[88][89] Before (and after this point) fans had shipped Peridot with various other characters, specifically Lapis Lazuli and Amethyst, some reviewers even seeing Peridot and Lapis in a "close, loving relationship" in 2018.[90]

When Steven Universe Future ended, Sugar said she would take a break from the characters,[49] with some saying that shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power would continue moving forward LGBTQ representation in animation.[50] For her part, the series creator of She-Ra, Noelle Stevenson, stated that she is interested in "telling central queer stories," with queer characters just as supporting characters, but having stories built around them, adding that there is still progress to go on that front, while acknowledging the strides are "in no small part due to Steven Universe."[50] Others hoped for "more queer-friendly animated shows" like Steven Universe in the future[58] and described Sugar as the "guiding force behind bringing LGBTQ+ visibility to children's cartoons" from 2010 to 2020.[5]

Other animations[edit]

Clarence[edit]

Some time later, in September 2014, Spencer Rothbell, a writer, head of storywriting,[91] and voice actor of multiple characters, for the show Clarence said that they had to change a scene in the episode "Neighborhood Grill", which showed two gay characters after pushback from Cartoon Network executives.[92][60][59] According to Rothbell, the original scene showed the two characters kissing on the lips, noting that "originally the guy had flowers and they kissed on the mouth." Later he lamented that the scene in the episode is "better than nothing," adding that "maybe one day the main character can be gay and it won't be a big deal." Despite this step back, there were some moves forward.

On January 15, 2015, EJ Randell and Sue Randell were introduced as Jeff's mothers in the episode "Jeff Wins" of Clarence.[93][13]

Craig of the Creek[edit]

In April 2018, two lesbian characters were confirmed in Craig of the Creek In their debut episode, "The Curse", Tabitha refuses to go college and wants to spent a few times with Courtney, making Courtney blushed and they're holding hands in the end.[94] In "The Haunted Dollhouse", they have feelings for each other, which is confirmed, and they kiss. In December 2019, Craig of the Creek confirmed they had a non-binary character named Angel. Their voice actor, Angel Lorenzana, who also uses they/them pronouns, an angender storyboard artist for the show, confirmed this.[95] In later tweets, they added that their "cartoon self" used they/them before themselves, gave a shout out to the show's crew, and said that while this is a small contribution to LGBT representation, they hope "fans can take comfort knowing that there's also non-binary people working behind the scenes" on every of the show's episodes.

OK K.O.!: Let's Be Heroes[edit]

Ian Jones-Quartey at San Diego Comic Con 2013 with other creators from Cartoon Network

In August 2017, OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes began airing on Cartoon Network. The show has various LGBTQ characters. For instance, series antagonist, Lord Boxman not only has feelings for Professor Venomous, who was his loving partner in the past,[96][97] He was also confirmed as pansexual by series creator Ian Jones-Quartey.[98] Apart from Lord Boxman, Radicles "Rad", one of the series protagonists and heroes, was confirmed to be genderfluid.[99] Enid, one of the show's heroes and protagonists, was a bisexual secret witch and ninja[100] who is in love with Red Action.[101][102] In the episode, "We Messed Up", when Enid sees Mr. Gar has a picture of KO's mom when she was younger, she eagerly asks who the babe is, and when Enid and K.O. are biking to Rad's house in "Hope This Flies", Enid's helmet has a peace sign sticker colored like the bisexual pride flag. Enid also has possible romantic feelings toward Elodie.[103] Red Action and Enid shared a kiss at the end of the episode, "Red Action 3: Grudgement Day", in the show's final season. When it came to Red Action, she was a lesbian, unlike Enid, with Yellow possibly as her ex-girlfriend.[104][105] Enid and Red had their first date in the episode "Back in Red Action,"[106] becoming a more committed couple as the show progressed.[107] Boxman, Rad, Enid, and Red were not the only LGBTQ characters. Professor Venomous, another series antagonist, was confirmed as bisexual, although not non-binary.[108][109] A number of secondary characters were also LGBTQ characters. Nick Army and Joff were a canon gay couple[110] who marry in the show's final episode, "Thank You for Watching the Show," while Gregg was a minor non-binary character usually loitering around the plaza with Red and Drupe,[111] Bobo was implied to be agender, and The Hue Troop, which Red was once part of, are all LGBTQ characters.[112]

In October 2020, Ian Jones-Quartey confirmed that Professor Venomous and Lord Boxman of OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes were married at the end of the series.[113] He further stated that Red Action and Enid, in the same show, "run a dojo together and kiss."[114]

Assorted animations[edit]

The same month that "What Will Be Missing" aired, in 2011, Young Justice writer, Greg Weisman, confirmed two LGBTQ+ characters in the series: Marie Logan (lesbian or bisexual)[115] and Kaldur'ahm (polysexual).[116] In 2017, Greg Weisman, creator of Young Justice got angry at fans who didn't want LGBTQ+ characters in his show[117] while Kenyan officials banned shows they saw as "pro-gay," such as Legend of Korra, Hey Arnold!, Steven Universe, The Loud House, Gravity Falls, and Clarence.[60] In July 2019, Young Justice introduced Wyynde, a gay character[118] and Harper Row, a bisexual friend to Violet Harper and Fred Bugg.[119][120][121][122]

In December 2018, a writer for Transformers: Cyberverse confirmed that a character named Acid Storm was genderqueer, saying they like to switch between male and female genders.[123] Not even a month after Steven Universe Future ended, another Cartoon Network show had a LGBTQ character. On April 17, 2020, the DC Super Hero Girls episode #HouseGuest premiered online, featuring the two mothers of Jessica Cruz, also known as Green Lantern. When asked about this by Taimur Gur of ComicsBeat, series creator Lauren Faust said that everyone was "on board with this idea" and that she was glad it was approved.[124] Some even claimed that the villain of Cartoon Network's Powerpuff Girls, Him, was transgender, or otherwise LGBTQ+.[59][125]

Another Cartoon Network show, Summer Camp Island had various LGBTQ characters. First of all, Ghost the Boy, a ghost and Betsy's ex-boyfriend, has two dads as his parents, introduces in a July 2018 episode.[126] Secondly, Puddle is a non-binary alien who uses they/them pronouns and their husband, Alien King, is the king of their planet.[127][128] The show We Bare Bears featured various lesbian couples as background characters, while in the episode "Bear Lift", Grizzly, Panda, and Ice Bear act as the taxi cab carrying the newlywed brides.[129] In another Cartoon Network show, Victor and Valentino, Xochi Jalapeño, Don Jalapeño's rebellious teenage daughter who sometimes babysits the protagonists,[130] has a crush on her friend, Amabel as shown in the episodes "Band for Life," "Escaramuza," and "Carmelita."[131][a]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Sam Cleal of BuzzFeed calls her "LGBTQ" but never explains more than that.

References[edit]

Citations[edit]

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