The internet is full of nostalgia-porn for the golden era of 1990's cartoons. From Rugrats to Hey Arnold, kids who grew up with the oddly shaped and often crudely drawn animated characters from Nickelodeon normally have an abundance of fondness for their colorful cultural icons. But it seems only now are these cartoons being seriously taken as important factors in the psychological growth of the millennial generation. In what ways were we affected by these cartoons?
For queer kids, a lot of these shows meant something very different. Picking up both consciously and unconsciously on the coded messages in various children's programming, it seems like we responded to different stimuli than our straight friends growing up. The ways that artists expressed queerness back then was much more cautious; balancing the desire to explore queer relationships in children's media with the fear of conservative backlash and censorship was a careful line many creators found themselves towing. In fact, the topic of sexuality in children's media is always a complicated one: should media aimed for children even begin to explore romance--sexual or otherwise?
Take, for example, the recently released Vice short documentary on the LGBT fanbase of Sailor Moon:
Detailing the ways that queerness was both revealed and hidden in the sometimes-censored relationships of the Sailor Moon characters, the documentary shows how gays and trans people held on to various cultural signifiers of the show – from the pure campy, ass-kicking glamor of the heroines to the subtle same-sex embraces of various characters.
But Sailor Moon isn't the only example of coded and/or repressed queerness in cartoons. Rich Juzwiack of Gawker explores the subject in detail in a post from 2014. In it, he says: “...It seems to me that having positive, openly gay characters in children's culture could make a difference to impressionable minds. If nothing else, it shows kids that being gay is no big deal. It's not anything to be ashamed of. Other people's sexuality is no threat. Given the alternatives of stereotyping, maligning, and all-out bashing, I think animation is in a good place now, and it's getting better.” Juzwiack points even further back from Sailor Moon, tracing the unfortunate history of the “sissy” villain from Captain Hook in Peter Pan to HIM in Powerpuff Girls.
The not-so-hidden adult double entendres in 90s cartoons like Rocko's Modern Life (which at one point featured a jokey gay wedding ceremony), Spongebob Squarepants (which always innocently hinted at a relationship between Patrick and Spongebob), Cow and Chicken, and Ren and Stimpy are easy to catch now, but back then I found myself even more drawn to protagonists who, although not overtly queer, felt dejected or somehow different from their classmates. Take, for example, Daria Morgendorffer, Lydia Deetz from the Beetlejuice animated series, or many of the characters in the X Men animated series, all now lovingly remembered as archetypes of social outcasts. It shouldn't be surprising that themes of pier rejection resonate with young LGBT kids who often find themselves most vulnerable to bullying.
Cartoons aimed at adults often veer on the side of conservatism in this arena (see: the constant transphobia of Family Guy), although some have fared slightly better in recent memory. In 1997, The Simpsons aired a groundbreaking episode that confronted Homer's homophobia (smartly titled “Homer's Phobia”) head on. Featuring explanations of the very concept of camp from John Waters himself, the episode anticipated the gay progressivism of the 2000's by a few years. The Boondocks, even more controversially, frequently attempted to address homophobia in hip hop culture.
Luckily, the tides are changing in terms of what can and can't be depicted on children's television. Just recently, the delightfully progressive series Steven Universe (the first female-created show Cartoon Network has ever aired) was renewed for 2 more seasons. In this show, a sort of reimagining of the magical girl genre (starring a chubby, optimistic Jewish boy instead of a clumsy Japanese schoolgirl), many characters openly trade in same-sex romance. Perhaps more surprising than that is the complete lack of backlash the series has received, even when it goes as far as depicting it's eponymous hero in drag:
Cartoon Network doubled down on their attempts at inclusivity by also continuously offering gender swapped episodes of their hit series Adventure Time and heavily implying (although, unfortunately, never explicitly portraying) the gay relationship of two female main characters on the series, Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen. Similarly, Nickelodeon's Legend of Korra ended with the heroine choosing a female suitor in the final episode; despite it baffling and outraging many fans, creators have stuck to their guns and refused to apologize for the creative decision.
Even Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune are getting a second shot: in upcoming versions and newly released/restored versions of Sailor Moon, the romance between the two will be restored from the original series – thus ending the ludicrous idea that they were ever just “cousins”.
The cultural exchange works in reverse too, with various drag queens recreating the looks of cartoons, anime, and manga. From RuPaul's Drag Race alums like Phi Phi O'Hara and Dax Exclamationpoint to New York club kids like Erika Klash – it's becoming increasingly impossible to ignore the influence of nostalgia-tinged cosplay and comic culture on queer nightlife.
Ultimately, social progress is a weird, tenuous, often elusive category. While it often seems like we're in a constant state of two-steps-forward-one-step-backward, sometimes it's the small victories of representation that are the most heartwarming. While adults still rebel at depictions of gays, seeing kids today being given openly LGBT heroes without the shrouds of subtext and without the nasty protestations of “family values” groups -- it at least feels like a victory for LGBTs. While our generation still seems locked in battles over essential rights like healthcare and access to bathrooms, perhaps with these characters in mind, the kids of the future will do better than we have.