In today’s entertainment, queer representation often drags a flood of controversy alongside it – often due to the backlash it faces from homophobic individuals. Despite this setback, however, television programs continue expanding their outreach to queer children at home. The Loud House, Gravity Falls, and The Legend of Korra are only a few of the LGBTQ+ inclusive cartoons present in children’s shows, proving that the past few years have brought a critical reformation in representation.
LGBTQ+ cartoon representation traces back to before the legalization of gay marriage in 2015 – with characters such as Bugs Bunny dressing in drag during the 1940s. Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated aired from 2010 to 2013, subtly displaying one of the main characters, Velma, as gay. Although the show never directly addressed her sexuality, co-creator Tony Cervone clarified years after the show’s end that Velma was a lesbian. Although Velma pursued a relationship with Shaggy in the series, she appeared awkward and uncomfortable while they were dating – which was a nod towards her closeted attraction to women.
The practice of hinting at queer sexualities, rather than confirming them in an outright manner, deprives the LGBTQ+ community of proper representation. As a result, queer-baiting becomes an issue in many shows. According to BBC, queer-baiting involves utilizing the queer community as a marketing tool, by alluding to LGBTQ+ relationships without angering homophobic viewers. For the purpose of monetary benefits, teasing LGBTQ+ viewers with gay hints – without providing substantial queer representation – is offensive.
On the contrary, shows in recent years have drifted away from subtle gay references and publicly declared characters as LGBTQ+ instead. For example, Dreamworks Animation’s reboot of She-Ra and the Princess of Power remains a monumental show in LGBTQ+ entertainment history. The 2018-2020 cartoon, based off of a 1985 Filmation, revolves around an intricate romantic relationship between two female characters – who share a kiss during the final season. The show’s writer, Noelle Stevenson, is part of the LGBTQ+ community as well. Adventure Time and Steven Universe are two other remarkable cartoons in regards to queer representation, both shamelessly featuring same-sex romances along with non-binary characters.
The transformation to more direct representation is crucial for young minds, according to Psychology Today. Visibility instills self-esteem in viewers, which is essential for children. Kids develop an idea of self-worth quickly and early; therefore, exposure to cartoon characters similar to themselves validates children’s identities, especially if their identities are part of a widely-oppressed minority.
Although they may not come out until much later, many children notice differences between their sexuality and the sexualities of others from a young age – which makes acceptance important early on, according to KidsHealth. The presence of queer characters in shows, Today stated, inspires sexuality-related conversations at home.
Feeling a sense of belonging during childhood prevents severe internalized homophobia later on in adulthood, according to the National Center of Biotechnology Information. Internalized homophobia occurs when LGBTQ+ individuals apply homophobic prejudices to themselves; for example, a bisexual woman may intake homophobic stereotypes – such as the false belief that bisexuals experience equal attraction to two genders – and invalidate her own sexuality, because she does not fit such stereotypes. Internalized homophobia may also affect how gay individuals feel towards each other, The Rainbow Project states. For instance, a masculine gay man may display hatred towards a feminine gay man, believing that his femininity is too flamboyant or obnoxious. Stereotypes perpetuated by internalized homophobia are often damaging, false, and enforced by society. These ‘insidious’ messages, as Psychology Today states, divide the queer community and influence self-hatred. Self-hatred then influences mental health issues – which the LGBTQ+ community experiences at a higher rate compared to straight individuals, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
The prevention of extensive internalized homophobia starts with fighting harmful prejudices through representation. When the queer community is normalized through children’s entertainment, gay youth can grow from the sturdy foundation of normalization and affirmation.