I love cartoons. I adore them. I like North American cartoons for their candy colours, predictable plot lines, over-the-top villains and their constant affirmation that good always triumphs over evil — and that if you don’t believe it, you can go choke on a spandex cape.
Saturday mornings, there is nothing more nostalgic, nothing more fun, than making myself a big bowl of cereal, bananas floating on the top, and snuggling down on the couch to watch Spiderman battle with Venom or listen to Rogue in X-men talk with the most botched Southern accent known to man.
Cartoons, I think, are a good social indicator, an almost sub-conscious, surreal image of society as we see it, or as we would like it to be. Cartoons have been racist when society is racist, sexist when society is sexist, paranoid when society is paranoid.
When Buck Rogers of the 25th century battled the Mongol empire, it was a clear nod to paranoid US feelings about Asia. The ’70s produced the Super-Friends, featuring stereotypical and racist Native American super-hero Apache Chief and the more positive black super-hero, The Falcon.
Mary-Jane of Spiderman went from fainting heroine in the 1967 technicolor version of the cartoon, to a more modern, independent woman in the 1994 version. More recently, the popular cartoon Avatar, The Last Airbender features a Messiah-like main character who battles an evil Empire bent on taking over the world. Why? Because their culture is experiencing an unprecedented time of prosperity, so the plot goes, and they want to “share” it by taking over other nations — a clear nod to American imperial interests. Cartoons have come a long way in the last 50 years, becoming more inclusive as society has progressed along the same lines.
Given this, I have to ask: Where are the gay and lesbian super-heroes?
Hetero relationships are generally played out as semi-platonic sub-plot lines in many cartoons. In the aforementioned Spiderman, Mary-Jane is the constantly just-out-of-reach object of Spiderman’s desire. Superman has Lois Lane, Batman has (to a lesser extent) Catwoman and so on. Gay characters — or even the suggestion of gay characters — simply do not exist. While other minority groups, including racial ones, women and even the handicapped — Professor X, leader of the X-Men, is in a wheelchair — have been represented in cartoons, homosexual, transsexual or even bisexual characters are unheard of. (This is, incidentally, in contrast with comic books, where queer plotlines have been boiling up for years.)
The implication is that the creators of such cartoons feel that homosexual are inappropriate and not acceptable material for children ages seven to15. Or 21 year old lesbian writers who discreetly view their programming as a guilty pleasure.
A 2007 study by the American National Institute of Health looked at queer content on TV. The study is somewhat cumbersomely named Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Content on Television: A Quantitative Analysis Across Two Seasons. It points out television programming has been called “compulsorily heterosexual.”
Surveying more than a thousand shows from 2001-2002 and 2002-2003, the study found only 15% of shows contained non-het content at some point, but the “rates of occurrence were low.” It’s damaging to queer adolescents, who often look to TV for sexual instruction, and to straight youth who, not seeing any positive homosexual interactions, are left without positive media-based information on the subject. The most common place where gay relationships occur is in comedy shows — apparently we are amusing, but not good role models.
In cartoons, where everything is a symbolic parody or metaphor of reality — super-powers, good versus evil, love and heartbreak, acts of selflessness and betrayal — the conspicuous absence of homosexual characters in this sort of universe suggests there is no place in a “perfect” hetero world for us. Homosexual characters, therefore, are not only not heroes — we are not villains, either. We are occasionally comical relief, but we never to appear to children as people, capable of either heroism or villainy. In not being portrayed in a superhuman universe, we are portrayed as sub-human in reality.
In British Columbia, there is a continuing clash over a gay couple’s insistence they be included in planning the school curriculum. The board agreed to add homosexual content to the curriculum and some parents were opposed. Likewise, there is ongoing debate about the merit of children’s books featuring same-sex couples. Old-school conservatives and religious groups feel that by not exposing children to the reality of homosexuality, they can keep it a secret forever — perhaps they feel they limit the behaviour this way.
And that, creepily, is something they appear to have in common with Saturday morning cartoons.
Wouldn’t it be incredible if, 10 or 15 years from now, we could be eating our cereal and watching Super-heroine X saving her girlfriend from the clutches of Super-villain Y? Wouldn’t it be absolutely perfect if, at the end of the show, the villain vanquished, the two heroines join their friends, gay and straight? That’s the kind of cartoon I want my children to watch, and the kind of world I want them to grow up in.