In part one of our roundtable, we discussed the season finale of The Legend of Korra. In this second part, our crack team of cartoon commentators will contextualize the episode by discussing the wider world of queer representation in cartoons and children’s media.
Now that it’s officially confirmed by the creators that Korra and Asami are bisexual and a couple, how does it feel to have two queer women of color in a mainstream children’s cartoon?
Desiree: For me, personally, it feels amazing. I realized I was attracted to both men and women romantically after I graduated high school. Like many other queer people, I always had that inkling in the back of my mind that I was different. I wasn’t the same as other girls who only seemed to show interest in boys. I noticed girls too. It was really troubling since growing up there were only two types of gays on TV or in movies: villains and tragedies.
At least, that was what was available in adult movies. As a child, I had nothing except the heavily censored characters in Sailor Moon. But now children have something. Not only children, but young girls of color have something. While the show can certainly appeal to a larger audience, it’s still so important to have more media that focuses outside of the straight, white, cis male point of view. Avatar and Korra have both brought that to the table and have now included another point of view that will help so many people, both children and adults, so much.
Rebecca: As an abstract, I’m happy. I hope this opens even more doors. And one of those characters is one of my favorite “superheroines” of all time, so that’s a bonus. It’s also nice to see it happen to two main characters, whereas even in children’s entertainment with queer characters, like ParaNorman, said character is usually minor.
Jamie: I think it’s terrific. I don’t happen to be queer, but I know people who are, and, as cliché as it sounds to say it, I have queer friends. I’ve always thought people love who they love, and I think it’s great to see a twofer token minority main character and her love options expanded to anyone she finds interesting, even if they’re the same sex.
Some fans have called the ending with Korra and Asami queerbaiting, akin to the documented queerbaiting in shows such as Supernatural. Would anyone say, given the lack of confirmation, that it’s similar? And if it’s different what specifically makes it different?
Desiree: People need to understand the difference between queer baiting, queer subtext, and queer coding. Asami and Korra had queer subtext surrounding their relationship all season long, from the letters, to Korra blushing when Asami complimented her hair, to their final hug and handclasp. In Agents of SHIELD, when Fitz and his subconscious version of Jemma admire Mack’s “impressive physique,” that was queer subtext. Queer baiting is what Supernatural and BBC’s Sherlock do.
Dean is often teased as being possibly bisexual, such as in the episode “Everybody Hates Hitler” where Aaron flirts with Dean and Dean later tells Sam, “He was my gay thing.” There’s also the constant jokes thrown at Dean and Castiel’s “profound bond.” When asked about the pair’s relationship, both the actors and creators have repeatedly discredited or brushed aside the assertion.
Same with BBC’s Sherlock, though there have been plenty of instances where other characters comment on Sherlock and John’s relationship. It’s repeatedly treated as a joke, or John will quickly assert the fact that he’s straight like in the episode “Scandal” where quite literally John says to Irene, “If anyone still cares, I’m not gay,” even though throughout the same episode Irene comments on their close relationship.
It’s a tease, playing on what fans want and desire for canon queer representation: dangling a carrot in front of them and then snatching it away with a no homo joke.
So, I don’t see how the situation with Korra and Asami applies at all. They ended up together, with heavy romantic symbolism backing them. It showed that the writers supported a romantic relationship between them. It wasn’t a joke, they didn’t tease, and they gave us all they feasibly could.
Now if the writers behind Agents of SHIELD don’t follow through on that moment between Fitz and Mack then I’ll call that queerbaiting. Strictly because it’s a tease of queer representation that has been brushed aside and treated as a one off joke in favor of reaffirming the characters hetreosexuality. In Agents of SHIELD’s case, it’s too soon to tell, but in The Legend of Korra’s case I wouldn’t even say it’s up for debate.
Rebecca: To be honest I’m pretty bad at determining what is and isn’t “queerbating.” I haven’t watched any Supernatural. I watched the first two BBC Sherlock seasons, and while I don’t really want to go into my complicated feelings regarding the “We’re not queer, but…” jokes, especially considering one of the writers is gay, I definitely don’t think that’s what The Legend of Korra is doing. Personally, if the ending hadn’t happened I would have interpreted their previous interactions as non-romantic, and if platonic interaction on its own is considered queerbating, then, well, I don’t know what to tell you.
Jamie: This was not baiting to me. This was a genuine (if a little too subtle) leadup, along with as genuine an ending for the two girls as they could possibly get away with.
Other shows have included queer characters, but only revealed their sexuality after the show had finished airing. TVTropes even includes a specific page on the subject “Word of Gay.” Censorship has been credited as a front-running reason for these aftermath reveals. The go-to example being the relationship between Haruka and Michiru in the original English dub of Sailor Moon. Is censorship still a major problem within our media, particularly in children’s media? Is it more harmful to reveal that a character’s non-hetreosexual after the fact or leave it ambiguous and up to subtext? Do you find Bryke’s aftermath reveal to fall under this trope as well? What are some other examples of specific shows or movies that have been forcibly censored or fallen under this trope?
Desiree: This is a tough question because while I think there’s some merit in subtext, especially given censorship, it can be increasingly frustrating to have things so ambiguous. Plus subtext gets you Dumbledore, which was just insulting.
I don’t think their confirmation falls under this device only because, for me, it was obvious what that final scene between Korra and Asami implied. Everything read romance and their responses only appeared to be a history behind the pair, how the ending came to be, and denouncing any possible arguments against their canon status within the fanbase of Korra.
Korra and Asami are sort of like an updated version of Haruka and Michiru—for America at least. When the dub of Sailor Moon was first released the two were remade into cousins of all things, their relationship heavily edited, and references to invisible boyfriends kept appearing. They suffered heavy censorship and while we all knew something wasn’t right, many didn’t know officially until much later. Which is a shame because how awesome would that have been to see a powerhouse, complicated lesbian couple after school beating up bad guys in pretty sailor suits. Or the gay couple of the first season, Zoisite and Kunzite—the complicated villains in love.
Korra and Asami were still regulated to only being able to hold hands, and their romance wasn’t explicit, but their romance challenges viewers to rewatch the series through a lens not clouded by believing everyone is automatically straight.
Rebecca: Definitely the first. Don’t get me wrong, I was certainly happy to hear that Dumbledore or Lexington from Gargoyles were meant to be gay, but on-screen, even if non-explicit, is definitely better than the latter. Although Korra and Asami are probably the most explicit on-screen couple in children’s programming I’ve seen yet, even though something like Marceline and Bubblegum are somewhere in the middle, so in some ways it’s like comparing apples to oranges.
There are levels where I think the two pairings are similar and are different. I think Uranus and Neptune’s relationship, while not overtly stated, was more explicit and also more obviously present. On the other hand, they’re still something of a side couple. Sailor Moon remains a show about the straight-aligned lead (although her relationship with Seiya could be interpreted as having queer elements) and her group of straight friends. All of the “Outer Senshi” were side characters in a way. Korra and Asami benefit from one of the characters being the lead. So, in terms of representation that’s an advantage Haruka and Michiru don’t have.
Jamie: There’s genuine truth to that: because of censorship, standards and practices, editorial fiat, executive meddling or what have you—it’s still not acceptable to write it as just one more relationship.
Harry Potter was written from Harry’s point of view, and at what point would it have been appropriate for an adult teacher to discuss his sexual preferences with a minor student? If there had been some scenes not from Harry’s point of view, that would have been different.
But then the thing about Anthony Goldstein? That could’ve been mentioned with no ripple whatsoever. I’ve seen people criticize this as wanting to get the credit for being progressive without doing the hard part. I have to agree that this complaint is not entirely without merit.
Gargoyles is an even tougher case, because interspecies romance was considered cool, but same-sex romance is still frowned upon. Gravity Falls is guilty of the queerbaiting too. “The Golf War” episode has a homophobic moment. Soos has his shirt off to cut it to current fashion trends while he and Stan are waiting for the kids to finish playing mini golf. When he finishes with that, he reclines in his seat, turns on his side toward Stan and says, “Sure are a lot of stars out tonight,” while the music is gentle piano that definitely would be described as “romantic.” Stan immediately says, “This is getting weird,” and gets out of the car, leaving Soos looking after him like he doesn’t understand what was weird. But the whole thing is played for laughs, and a few episodes later, Soos gets a girlfriend, but in the same episode, it’s again played for laughs that he can’t tell the gender of a nonconforming person. This is almost certainly the media clinging to the idea that they must appeal to “everyone” not just “special interests.” And it’s wrong.
Desiree: I can’t really speak on other country’s laws and regulations, but I know censorship is still an issue here in America. There have been many instances where showrunners wanted to include queer characters, but were forbidden from doing so.
Alex Hirsch (Gravity Falls) said in a reddit thread that he wanted to include queer characters in the show, but was forbidden by the network. Greg Weisman made various statements about how he was forbidden from including queer characters (such as Kaldur on Young Justice) on his shows forcing him and his team to rely solely on subtext. Dwayne McDuffie made a statement that Ritchie from Static Shock was gay, but they weren’t allowed to acknowledged it in show so he too was forced to rely on subtext. Maggie Sawyer (who is a lesbian in the DC comics) made an appearance in Superman: The Animated Series, but the writers weren’t allowed to formally acknowledge her sexuality, so they slipped in a scene where she’s visiting her girlfriend in the hospital. Even the famous Marceline/Princess Bubblegum pairing have faced down the censorship block. While the creators have acknowledge they dated, as far as I know in show any mentions of a romantic relationship have been stringently cut.
Given that Konietzko himself implied they were only allowed to go so far with showcasing that Korra and Asami were a couple, it shows that networks are still censoring content to appease the “protect the children” crowd even though those so-called protections can be potentially harmful for their children by making them feel abnormal and shamed.
Rebecca: There’s few I can remember right now, beyond obvious historical stuff like the Mystique/Destiny relationship being hidden from readers in the X-Men comics of the silver and bronze age. I think most of the history of the media has been a back and forth between network restrictions and creators wanting to get stuff in under the radar (remember when I Love Lucy thought “pregnant” was too offensive for television). That’s always a danger, although I feel like another big problem we’re seeing lately is networks squashing media for queer and other minorities on the basis of them not being sellable, and while I think people are becoming more open-minded, studios seem less and less willing to take risks and are making safer, more homogenized choices in what gets accepted or greenlit. You could certainly say Korra became a victim of that given that she had to be tested before Nickelodeon greenlit a show with a female lead and in the “online only or TV show only” kerfuffle in season three.
Jamie: Definitely. Aside from the examples Desiree mentions above, Batwoman’s gayness has been downplayed significantly in the comics. While Northstar still appears monthly in Amazing X-Men, his husband is almost never present. I was shocked to see the Anole story get an entire issue to itself, because Anole, as it turns out, is gay as well. Storm’s bisexuality as relates to Yukio was not even touched on in her recent solo title.
There are queer characters in adult cartoons such as Stewie from Family Guy or Ray from Archer; however, there is a distinct lack of any queer characters in children’s cartoons. What would you say is the importance of having non-straight characters in children’s media?
Desiree: Shows like Family Guy and Archer are specifically aimed at adult audiences, and, given what I’ve seen of both, they don’t really do much for queer representation anyway. The ironic thing is that we’ve had queer characters in children’s media before; they just weren’t allowed to be open about it. Forced into an animated closet so to speak.
I grew up watching Static Shock; it would have meant a lot to be able to see that Ritchie was gay in the show. I didn’t know being gay was a thing until I was in high school, and what I learned was that it was a bad thing at that. So, struggling with my attraction to both girls and boys growing up with no outside sources telling me it was okay while my inside family based sources and friends were telling me it wasn’t—lets just say it was difficult. And I think many other people can relate to that as well. Wanting to see yourself reflected in the media you consume is a very basic desire a lot of people feel. So, having any sort of queer cartoon character growing up would have meant a lot to me.
I’m sure the same stands true for today’s children. Bigotry isn’t nature, it’s nurture. We have to nurture children to be accepting, compassionate, and empathetic, but also let them know if they’re a little boy who likes another little boy, or a little girl who likes another little girl, or if they feel their bodies aren’t their correct bodies, that’s okay. That’s normal. Cartoons can’t have all that responsibility of course, but they can help at least a little if not a lot.
Rebecca: Blech, I hate Family Guy, and I’ve never seen Archer. I don’t know, the sort of Paul Lynde/Charles Nelson Reilly-esque “Hey, I think these effete guys are ‘More than just funny’” type of characters have been around for decades. It’s something that perhaps the parents are supposed to recognize, but I don’t think it’s particularly progressive. I thought South Park handled Mr. Garrison coming out and gay issues pretty well, although what I heard of their transgender episode sounded terrible.
But I think having more queer representation in children’s shows is very important. I’m not lesbian/bisexual, but as a Jewish woman I’ve always wanted to see more people like me on television and been frustrated that most children’s media seems aimed at little boys expected to grow up to be straight men. Furthermore, my father is gay, and with greater acceptance of LGBT people having and adopting children while being out, I think it’s important for children of both orientations who have LGBT parents to see more characters and families who look like their parents on television.
Jamie: I despise Family Guy, and I’ve never watched Archer either. It doesn’t matter. Representation matters. It’s that simple. I am just plain old heterosexual, so I’ve rarely had to watch with dismay the type of relationship I want for myself being absent (interracial relationships still have some way to go too). But anyone with empathy needs to consider how isolating and painful it must be to wonder as a child “is it normal to feel this way?” or “is something wrong with me?” and to have the media either ignore the existence of such feelings or to actually firmly enforce that “yes, something IS wrong with feeling like that, and no it’s NOT normal.” No child should be living through that, wondering why TV, books, cartoons, and movies say they’re abnormal and bad and should be invisible, if they have to exist.
Given that we’re discussing queer characters in media, it would be remiss of us if we didn’t also discuss the queer coding of villains and antagonists in children’s media as well. Can we discuss some examples and how these depictions are harmful for children?
Desiree: I’ll say one thing, oh Disney.
Rebecca: Oh, Disney indeed. Actually, I remember people saying something similar about Tahno in season one (he was Korra’s waterbending rival on the Wolfbats and based off a “heel” fighter or wrestler that Bryan Konietzko saw getting primped before going into the ring). It’s kind of hard to determine how much subtext can influence negative perceptions, because I’m sure many straight people go through life not realizing that Scar’s uh, mannerisms and lack of interest in the lionesses are traits that plenty of non-evil people in their lives share or whatnot. And the stereotypes that are often employed in these characters aren’t ones that many queer people (I imagine) would want to see reproduced in good characters. I enjoy the over-the-top personalities of characters like Tahno and Scar, although I’ll fully admit that it’s lazy writing and something creators should examine in our more-inclusive future.
Jamie: Even in this latest season, the vain and prissy Prince Wu was played as “gay for laughs,” but at least he wasn’t a villain. Disney is one of the worst offenders, for sure. Jafar was another example. They kind of played up his interest in Jasmine only after he saw marrying her as his path to power. Before that—stereotype all the way. They’re getting better, though. Yokai from Big Hero 6 didn’t get coded as gay. Nor did the Duke of Weaselton in Frozen. But absolutely, the portrayal of gay people as evil is harmful and needs to be called out and stamped out.
To wrap this up, what are some final hurdles we face for seeing more queer characters in children’s media, and what sort of strides towards better diversity and inclusion do you hope to see in the future?
Desiree: There’s still a lot of negative stereotypes surrounding queerness that need to be addressed and corrected. One of the reasons for the lack of queer characters in children’s media is the hypersexualization of non-straight sexualities. While Mako and Korra could kiss on-screen or Aang and Katara, Asami and Korra aren’t afforded that same privilege due to the fact they’re two women. Reminds me of how As the World Turns used to censor their gay couple Luke and Noah by cutting out kisses or panning off screen during intimate moments.
Queer people still face a lot of real world discrimination in part due to vicious stereotypes used to dehumanize them. Better representation in the media is one way we can start making strides in showcasing queer people in a positive and humane light. This includes children’s media as well given the negative queer coded portrayals of various villains in their movies.
What I hope now is that Korra’s finale will lead to more discussion on censorship and including queer characters in children’s media. I hope that Korra will get her own comic where it will be explicit that her and Asami are dating. I hope that we will see more queer characters in cartoons that are positive portrayals within the next five to ten years. I don’t want to die before seeing a cartoon starring my favorite all queer Young Avengers team.
Rebecca: I’m definitely looking forward to comics. Although I hope that whoever writes the Korrasami relationship makes it explicit and more satisfying to me as a reader. Also, can poor Mako get a new girlfriend or boyfriend? I really wanted to see him happy at the end, being stuck in a bad job with a frustrating boss (Sorry, Wuko fans) and not having dated for the last three years and all?
I’m happy for the strides that are being made for queer people in the media, and I hope as more changes politically and in the world at large that those strides will be reflected in children’s media and all media in general. There seems to always be backsliding though. For every piece of media we get that’s not centering around a cisgender, straight white guy we get five more that are. And it doesn’t help that the few that get through have such a pushback. Anyone remember that recent interview with Matthew Klickstein where the “Slimed!” author said Nickelodeon’s current crop of shows weren’t as great as the television of the past that had all white people and that no characters should be anything other than white and Christian unless there was an explicit story purpose? I’d hope he wasn’t indicative of the viewing public at large, but I’m sure there’s some people that still have these backwards viewpoints to which networks seem willing to cater.
I still wish this historic event had happened with a pairing I could get behind, but thankfully even most Makorra fans who are heartbroken recognize this as good for queer representation. I hope it continues.
Jamie: I wish for the sake of viewers to whom this was personally important that the kiss could’ve been there. But I fear that money and merchandise, plus laws and hidebound parents groups will slow the roll of the forward progress. But it will still move forward, one inexorable step at a time. In twenty years, hopefully, we’ll be able to look back at this conversation and smile at how far we’ve come.