Analysis: Amid 'Lightyear' Kiss, Here Are Major Milestones In Bringing LGBTQ Characters Into Animated Film, TV Series

Zinger Key Points
  • The first animated character that could be considered gender-fluid was in the 1967 Japanese television series “Princess Knight.”
  • Matt Groening’s “The Simpsons” finally broke the taboo on openly LGBTQ character with the 1997 episode “Homer’s Phobia.”

Walt Disney Co. DIS is making history with the upcoming release of its Pixar animated feature “Lightyear” by having a same-sex kiss between two female characters.

The kiss was originally cut from the film, according to a Variety report, but was restored in the wake of the controversy concerning how Disney CEO Bob Chapek handled the corporate response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation on the teaching of sexuality in public schools.

The company was also at the center of more controversy when former executives of its now-defunct Blue Sky Studio accused corporate leadership of stopping production on the feature “Nimona” while it was three-quarters completed due to objections of a same-sex kiss and the gender-fluid nature of the film’s central character.

The breakthrough in “Lightyear” represents a long odyssey of how animators depicted LGBTQ characters. Over the decades, progress was made in fits and spurts, with a greater awareness and acceptance of these characters coming relatively recently.

Related: Dirty Disney: Milestones In The Mouse Factory's Move Into Grown-Up Content

The Early Days: The first known example of same-sex activity in an animated film was in the silent short “Buried Treasure,” which was created by unidentified artists in the late 1920s to be screened at a private animation industry party. The unapologetically pornographic film featured an extremely well-endowed protagonist named “Eveready Harton,” and one of his carnal adventures included an accidental encounter with an unsuspecting man on a beach. "Buried Treasure" was never meant for theatrical exhibition and remained unknown until prints started circulating in the 1970s.

Broad gay stereotypes turned up in several Pre-Code cartoons. One of the most notable examples is an unnamed effeminate man who appeared in the 1933 Flip the Frog title “Soda Squirt.” This character, complete with a handkerchief that he daintily waves for attention, orders a malted in a soda shop that briefly turns him into a wildly ferocious monster — only to transform back to his swishy self once the malted’s unexpected transformative power wears off.

Gay humor would occasionally appear in the classic Warner Bros. cartoons, evading Hollywood’s censorship taboo of depicting homosexual activity on the screen. In 1944’s “What’s Cooking, Doc?”, Bugs Bunny receives an Oscar-style award and declares his love to the newly-won statuette by saying, “I'll even take youse to bed wit' me every night!" The statuette abruptly comes to life, announces “Do you mean it?”, kisses Bugs on the mouth and strikes a seductive pose.

In 1944’s “Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears,” Bugs fends off the sudden burst of sexual attraction from Mama Bear with a gay vibe in insisting, “It's purely platonical, honest! I feel like a sister to you!”

Of course, Bugs would often dress in drag to outsmart his predators — most of whom fell instantly in love with this cross-dressing rabbit — and two of his most outrageous disguises, as a mermaid in 1944’s “Hare Ribbin’” and as the Valkyrie Brünnhilde in 1957’s “What’s Opera, Doc?” were featured in a 2020 U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp series honoring the cartoon character, marking the first U.S. postage stamps featuring a drag performance.

Early Milestones: The first animated character that could be considered gender-fluid was in the 1967 Japanese television series “Princess Knight,” which was adapted from a popular manga. The title character is a pre-teen princess named Sapphire, who was born with the blue heart of a boy and the pink heart of a girl. Sapphire presents herself publicly as male to ensure her kingdom’s throne does not fall into the wrong hands. Sapphire is aided by a male angel named Choppy, although his role is strictly as protector.

“Princess Knight” was submitted to NBC for syndication in the U.S., but the network was uncomfortable with what it dubbed a “sex switch” and rejected the series. It was briefly syndicated on U.S. television in 1972 and later repackaged as a television film called “Choppy and the Princess,” with three episodes combined into a single feature-length story, but it never gained wide popularity with American viewers.

The first animated character in a theatrical film to openly identify as gay was the Black crow in Ralph Bakshi's 1972 X-rated feature “Fritz the Cat,” who rebuffs the advances of several female characters by answering them in an effeminate voice — “Who do you think I am, Geraldine?” he says, referencing Flip Wilson’s outlandish drag character — while walking away in a swishy manner. The crow is on screen for less than a minute and its presentation is hardly complimentary, but it was a start of sorts.

During the 1980s, Japanese anime series including “Urusei Yatsura” and “Stop!! Hibari-kun!” had gender nonconformist characters, but stopped short of openly identifying them as LGBTQ. The English-language dubbed versions of these productions obscured much of the content related to sexuality.

Television Breakthroughs: Into the 1990s and the 2000s, more openly LGBTQ characters began to appear in anime television series, but American producers were only beginning to tiptoe into this aspect of character, albeit in a coy manner.

In 1996, the animated shorts series “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” by Robert Smigel and J. J. Sedelmaier debuted on Dana Carvey’s short-lived ABC variety show before migrating to NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

A spoof on the chatter by comic book fans about the sexual orientation of long-running superhero characters, these cartoons followed Ace and Gary (voiced by Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell) who conducted their superhero activity while generating confusion from villains and impartial observers over the exact nature of their relationship.

The 1991-1996 run of “The Ren & Stimpy Show” only vaguely hinted that the title characters were more than friends, although in a 1997 interview series creator John Kricfalusi acknowledged the characters’ true feelings. He didn’t expand on that until 2003’s “Ren & Stimpy ‘Adult Party Cartoon.’”

Matt Groening’s “The Simpsons” for Fox Broadcasting FOXA finally broke the taboo on openly LGBTQ characters with the 1997 episode “Homer’s Phobia,” with Homer coming to terms with the discovery that his friend John (voiced by filmmaker John Waters) is gay. Fox initially kiboshed the episode, but changed its mind. The episode would win an Emmy Award and a GLAAD Media Award.

“The Simpsons” would revisit LGBTQ themes and present recurring characters as gay and lesbian characters, including Marge’s sister Patty, Dewey Lago and Waylon Smithers. Subsequent long-running animated series including “South Park” and “Family Guy” incorporated LGBTQ characters, situations and humor into many of their episodes.

In 2000, the Showtime series “Queer Duck” was an animated production where LGBTQ themes and characters were the central focus. Into the 21st century, animated television productions were increasingly populated with LGBTQ supporting characters, ranging from the edgy Adult Stream “Morel Orel” to the kid-friendly PBS “Arthur,” although shows with LGBTQ characters in the central spotlight such as the 2007 “Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All the World” on LOGO TV were less common. In Japan, male same-sex romance productions proliferated to the point that they generated a genre known as Yaoi.

On The Big Screen: Progress in bringing openly LGBTQ characters to theatrical releases has been slower than on television. The 1999 “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” brought the show’s exuberant Big Gay Al into the movie mix with his own musical number while imagining a same-sex union with Saddam Hussein and Satan.

But into the 21st century, the major Hollywood animated studios mostly shied away from LGBTQ themes, offering ambiguous situations, quiet hints or throwaway references such as Officer Specter making a very brief mention of her girlfriend in Pixar’s “Onward” (2020) or the end-of-film reference to Katie’s girlfriend in the Oscar-nominated “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.”

Pixar made its first film with an LGBTQ theme in 2020 with “Out,” a short about a gay man struggling to come out to his parents. The film played on the Disney+ streaming service and was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject.

Outside of the U.S., animated features are less common — and so is the uneasiness in addressing LGBTQ issues. The French “Persepolis” (2007) is rather matter-of-fact regarding its gay male characters, while the cheerfully vulgar Canadian “Sausage Party” (2016) included LGBTQ characters in its zany carnal antics.

Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s 2021 “Flee,” a feature-length animated documentary about a gay man from Afghanistan recounting the journey from his homeland to a European safe haven, is nominated in three Academy Award categories: Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature Film as Denmark’s entry.

Whether the kiss in “Lightyear” will be an anomaly or the beginning of a trend remains to be seen. Also unclear is how certain political groups opposed to LGBTQ rights might respond to the film. Nonetheless, it begins yet another chapter in animation history.

Photo: Big Gay Al's musical number in the 1999 film "South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut," courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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