There’s a heartening trend of lesbian representation in contemporary American kids’ cartoons. The most recent and obvious example is the Adventure Time finale, when Princess Bubblegum and Marceline’s series-long subtext finally made its way into canon. But the long arc of the medium has been pointing in that direction for a while now, between Legend of Korra ending by pushing the main girls as a couple as hard as they could get away with (Dec. 2014) and Steven Universe’s escalation from eye kisses (March 2015) to full-on lesbian weddings (July 2018).
Unfortunately, creators are still fighting a very active battle against studio censorship. Absurd as it may seem, the idea that queer content is somehow inherently inappropriate for children is still alive and well, part and parcel with the notion that queerness itself is sexual and predatory. And while cartoons for adults such as Archer and The Venture Bros can get away with overtly queer characters—albeit rather stereotypical ones—kids’ cartoons have much higher hurdles to clear. A notorious example of this is the “Love God” episode of Gravity Falls, in which the original plan to have a couple of cute old ladies get together was struck down by the hand of Disney.
Between the fact that a lot of people working in the field are queer—or at least earnestly invested in the idea of genuine queer representation—and the ever-looming threat of censorship, it’s easy to get caught in that strange gray area I discussed in my last essay, where everything looks a little like queerbaiting. The best example of this currently on air is OK K.O. Let’s Be Heroes!, the least heterosexual show to never establish any of its characters as explicitly queer.
From my homosexual perspective, there is not a single straight character in OK K.O. I find it hard to see how anyone could watch Lord Boxman’s desperate eagerness to impress fellow villain Professor Venomous, or Enid’s danger zone date with time traveler Red Action, or Nick Army and Joff the Shaolin Monk doing just about anything, and read it as anything other than very, very gay. Enid and Red Action have even been confirmed by the creators as gay and bi respectively.
And yet, there’s a certain frustrating insistence on referring to these potential couples as friends. It’s not just the terminology that stings—in a vacuum, it wouldn’t matter, as it’s not as though saying “friend” instead of “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” changes anything about the way these characters interact with each other. What’s irritating is knowing that people will use this language to deny that there’s anything romantic between these characters, contributing to the erasure of queerness.
On Enid’s page on the OK K.O. fan wiki, male coworker Radicles is listed as a former love interest—but neither Red Action nor Enid’s “best friend” Elodie are, despite her having relationships with them that would be read as unambiguously romantic were they heterosexual, even in the absence of creator confirmation. The message is clear, even if unintended: same-sex love is really just friendship.
Even so, looking at the show itself and the creators’ comments it seems clear enough that the people behind OK K.O. are acting in good faith. The show often pushes the emphasis on friendship to the point of absurdity, where it seems more like “friends” is just another term for couples in this universe, as though to wink at a potentially disappointed audience and say “we know, we think it’s ridiculous too.” There’s even a scene where protagonist K.O. completely fails to realize that his mom has a boyfriend until he sees them kiss, an obvious nod to how onscreen kissing is taken as the point of confirmation for queer couples. That’s hardly enough, of course, but it’s worth keeping in mind that even if Steven Universe and Adventure Time managed to overtly and unambiguously depict similar couples, both of those shows are/were more popular than OK K.O, meaning they’re likely allowed more leeway in terms of what they can and can’t portray.
Like Yoshiya Nobuko, contemporary creators of children’s media have decided that even flawed, compromised representation is better than no representation at all, and that the importance of laying that groundwork to normalize queerness—even subtextual queerness—outweighs the risks of it being used as a method of erasure. Looking at the ways in which this bargain has paid off over the years, it’s hard not to agree with that assessment, as frustrating as it can be in the short term.
This need for plausible deniability is likely part of the reason why it’s lesbian representation that’s been making the most headway, as opposed to gay men. The fact that female friendship is perceived as having a relatively high level of physical and emotional intimacy is a double-edged sword, both making it easier to include liminally queer elements that will be recognized by a queer audience, and enabling those who would be inclined to deny the existence of queer romances to write any sort of intimacy off as mere friendship.
By comparison, nearly any sort of emotional or physical intimacy between men tends to be read as gay, a result of toxic masculinity ruling that men must never show vulnerability, least of all to each other. This results in less gray area, and by extension, greater difficulty getting anything on air. The only example in recent memory is Voltron: Legendary Defender’s attempt in its seventh season, which blew up in the creators’ faces when the announcement that Shiro was gay and had a fiancé back on Earth only made it into the show proper as a couple of ambiguous scenes and a reunion with a tombstone.
Fans were furious, and it sparked debate about the “bury your gays” trope and trend of announcing characters as queer ahead of time to build hype. It’s understandable why fans felt like they’d been had. But again, it’s important to keep creator intent in mind in cases like this. Voltron’s creators had been fighting to portray Shiro as queer since season two, and even if his fiancé didn’t make it, they’ve established a basis for him to enter another, more explicitly established gay relationship in the future—especially now that it’s been made so clear to executives that it’s something the fans want.
Being queer and wanting to see yourself reflected in the media you love is hard. It’s even harder for queer kids, who might not even know why they feel so ignored by works targeted towards them and have nowhere else to turn for representation even if they do. Queer children deserve to see themselves in media, in ways that make it clear that they’re perfect just the way they are. When this is still so rare, it’s hard to be patient. But OK K.O. is still airing, and so is Voltron—and there’s every reason to believe that they’ll manage to give fans the representation they want us to have.
Steven Universe and Adventure Time didn’t start with lesbians—it took time. Sometimes, all we can do is keep supporting earnest creators, keep holding up the representation we do tear from the hands of thousands of years of deeply-ingrained homophobia, and remember that history is on our side.