(From the left) Impasse: paranormal park, The owl house
If you want to see some examples of great LGBTQ+ representation on TV, take a look at nearly every animated show made for young adults over the past 10 years. These shows have flown under the mainstream media radar, stealthily giving queer characters and their creators a far greater voice and visibility than is often found in other entertainment industries. But there are signs that the trend could be down.
This week brings the return of two anime series that are great examples of how YA Animation has stepped up its efforts to include LGBTQ+ characters. On October 13, the second season of Impasse: paranormal park will premiere on Netflix. Then, on October 15, Disney Channel will air the first of three specials that close out the final season of The owl house. Both of these shows put queer characters front and center and make no apologies for it.
But while fans are all on board with this trend, the companies behind these shows may not be. The owl house only had two seasons and three specials before being cancelled. And Impasse: paranormal park creator Hamish Steel received so little promotional support for season two that he took matters into their own hands.
How Netflix made diversity a priority
Netflix has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to inclusion in its anime shows. Almost every original anime series on the streamer in the YA category has at least some sort of LGBTQ+ representation, including the hollow, DreamWorks Dragons, Voltron: Legendary Defenderand The Dragon Prince. The animated movie The Mitchells Vs. The Machines, which premiered on Netflix in 2021, features a lesbian main character. And the 2020s Kipo and the Age of Wonders features a gay main character as well as his love interest. But when it comes to the volume of representation, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power takes the crown. The series, which premiered in 2018 and ran for five seasons, has 23 characters who are explicitly or implicitly labeled as queer.
When Impasse: paranormal park premiering on Netflix earlier this year, it has been positively received (the show still has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and praised for its inclusiveness. Not only does it feature a trans protagonist (voiced by trans actor Zach Barack), but it also features racially diverse and neurodivergent characters. Based on a series of graphic novels that were later developed into webtoons, it follows the adventures of Barney and Norma (voiced by Kody Kavitha), two teenagers who work at a haunted theme park.
Although the stories are generally based on supernatural force causing trouble in each episode, that doesn’t hide the fact that Barney struggles to be accepted by his family, especially his old-fashioned grandmother. Meanwhile, Norma, a Pakistani girl with autism, has a crush on another girl who works at the park. Other characters have been introduced who belong to several areas of the gender and sexuality spectrum. The overall theme of found family is one that everyone can relate to, but it is especially meaningful for children who may feel invisible because they are stepping out of what is considered the norm. In this show, there are no standards (just a Norma).
Disney’s Checkered Past and Present
Unlike Netflix, Disney doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to queer representation. The studio has been notoriously coy with its inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters in the past, doing the bare minimum of throwing a line at a same-sex spouse or a two-second photo of a happy couple. This may tick a box, but it hardly counts as a quality representation. Especially when that line or shot can be easily edited without losing any of the story.
Disney employees, however, stepped up to champion LGBTQ+ causes when executives dropped the ball. After the studio cut a homosexual kiss from the recent Pixar movie Light year-no great optics as a result of his missteps on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill— the demonstrators within the company threatened to leave. The scene was finally put back in the movie.
Gravity Falls creatorAlex Hirsch talked about how much he had to push to include confirmation of the long-talked-about relationship between two minor characters, Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland. This show was one of the first to kick off the golden age of YA animation, so even though it was hard-earned, the inclusion of a gay couple is still important.
In an ironic twist, one of the best examples of representation in animation is found in the Disney Channel show The owl house. It has a gay relationship front and center, as well as a non-binary character, Raine Whispers, who uses the pronouns them/them (voiced by non-binary actor Avi Roque). The main character is Luz Noceda (Sarah-Nicole Robles), a human girl who stumbles through a doorway into a universe full of magic. When she arrives at the Boiling Islands, built on the gigantic carcass of a dead titan, she is taken in by Eda Clawthorne (Wendy Malick), an iconoclastic witch.
Hoping to learn how to become a witch herself, Luz enrolls in the Hexide School of Magic and Demonics, makes friends, and eventually admits she has feelings for a rival student named Amity Blight (Mae Whitman). It turns out the attraction is mutual and they become a couple. They hold hands, kiss and give each other animal names. It’s adorable, and no one moves an eye. Except maybe Disney; despite attracting a devoted fan base, the series ends the next year. Considering the studio has renewed shows with lower ratings and far less cultural impact, that’s suspect, especially in light of the company. recent missteps on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
In a post on Reddit, The owl house Creator Dana Terrace offered a more charitable take on the reasons for the cancellation. “While we’ve had broadcast issues in a few countries (and are simply banned in a few others), I’m not going to assume bad faith against the people I work with in Los Angeles,” he said. she writes. She wasn’t involved in the conversations – ‘I LOVE the transparency and openness here (that’s sarcasm)’ – but her view is that some executives at the top have decided the show doesn’t fit everything just not to the Disney brand because of its older target audience bias and serialized storytelling. Whatever the reason, all fans can do now is continue to support the show through these final three specials and prove to the studio that taking big risks will eventually pay off.
Creators Leading a Quiet Revolution
Representation in The owl house has always been a priority for Terrace, who previously worked on Gravity Falls and the duck tales to restart. She has been a strong advocate for LGBTQ+ issues and often participates in online fundraisers for The Trevor Project, along with other creators, such as Steven UniverseIt’s Rebecca Sugar. This is one of the main reasons we see so much inclusion in animation these days – animators themselves write from their own personal experiences. Sugar, for example, identifies as bisexual, non-binary, and “gender expansive.” You will find all those represented in Steven Universeincluding a character, Garnet, who is literally the physical embodiment of a lesbian couple.
Much has already been written about how much did it take for Sugar to bring a lesbian wedding into the show, and the brutal aftermath of that episode. It was only in 2018, not so long ago. Obviously, there is still room for improvement, but look at how far the representation is. And that’s even without counting the tastes of adventure time, Craig of the Creek, Danger & EggsWhere The Legend of Korra, all of which are great examples of how to represent well. The key is to give diverse creators a platform to tell their own stories in their own way. Few entertainment spaces currently do this as much as television animation.
If you want hard data to back up this claim, Insider has compiled a 2021 list of LGBTQ+ inclusive animated shows until the end of 2020, and tracked their trajectory over time. The interactive database is searchable, with filters to sort by character, show or network. In all, they’ve identified 259 queer characters in children’s animated programs since 1996. You can see the peak in shows over the past decade.
An uncertain future
You may also notice something else important in this graph: the decline in the number of shows since 2020. This is in part simply due to the reduction in the volume of shows produced after the pandemic at all levels . But there may be more going on. Disney’s cancellation of The owl house could be a canary in a coal mine, at a time when transphobic and homophobic discourses are on the rise.
Last summer, Warner Bros. reduced its animation division and titles removed from HBO Max. Today the company went even furthergut Cartoon Network, the home of Steven Universe, adventure time, Craig of the Creek, and a slew of other shows with prominent LGBTQ+ representation — and bringing it into Warner Bros. Animation. With animation as an industry in the face of a potential contraction, creators will have to fight harder than ever to get their shows airing.
Despite these struggles, YA animation continues to grow in popularity. If animation fans continue to expect and demand LGBTQ+ content, it will make a difference. For a younger generation of viewers, LGBTQ+ inclusion is now seen as part and parcel of storytelling. They grew accustomed to seeing stories told from different points of view, rather than focusing exclusively on one group. And the kids who watch these shows today will be the ones who watch them in the future.