By Jordan Currie
How modern children’s cartoons are becoming more visible with LGBTQ+ representation
When Marceline and Princess Bubblegum from Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time kissed on screen for the first time in the series finale in September, I immediately texted my friend in pure excitement, eager to talk about how cathartic it was to watch. She replied, “Yeah, I thought it was a fake edit at first. I can’t believe they really did it.”
Adventure Time is a colourful and surrealist cartoon loved by children and adults alike, spanned 10 seasons over eight years. It revolves around the adventures of Jake the Dog and Finn the Human.
Marceline and Bubblegum are two central characters, worshipped by fans as sapphic icons who dubbed their will-they-won’t-they relationship “Bubbline.” It’s the irresistible trope of opposites attract: Marceline, the punk, bass-playing vampire queen and Bubblegum, monarch of the Candy Kingdom with her all pink everything and occasional temper. The best friends turned lovers exuded a casual and effortless relationship. Producer Adam Muto hinted at the two having been in a relationship in the past, something the writers were hesitant to confirm even in the finale.
I’d seen a few episodes back in its heyday but admittedly felt intimidated by its scope and didn’t watch it consistently. Still, intrigued by Bubbline, I’d occasionally check in on the fandom to see what was up with their relationship.
I saw the clip of Marceline and Bubblegum’s triumphant kiss during the show’s climactic final battle and had a similar reaction to the message from my friend — in disbelief but pleasantly surprised. Like many LGBTQ content consumers, I had become accustomed to the same tired tropes: deaths of queer characters, coding queer characters as villains and queerbaiting. But this time, Adventure Time made it real. They became canon, meaning they were officially confirmed by the show as a couple.
I remember viewing cartoons in ways they perhaps didn’t intend for me to —
or, perhaps they did, but could only be subtly slipped into subtext in fear of backlash. The Teen Titans episode “Switched,” when heroines Raven and Starfire switch bodies, was one of my favourites in the series. I wanted Raven and Starfire to spend more time together, but as something beyond friendship, something I didn't understand how to articulate with a child’s vocabulary. Two women? More than friends? Was that possible?
Quinlan Green is a 19-year-old student at Concordia University who identifies as gay and is a fan of Adventure Time. He says internalized homophobia prevents kids from even noticing subtext, just as it had done to him when he watched the show at age 14. “I don’t think their [Bubbline] relationship had been that defined at the moment...I kind of thought it was a stretch to say that the two characters could be in a relationship,” he says.
“When I was growing up, I could have used a show like Adventure Time to normalize a same-sex relationship,” says Green. “Getting older, it was interesting to see Bubbline being more affectionate.”
I saw characters like Shego from Kim Possible and Velma and Daphne from Scooby Doo — more so in the terribly spectacular live-action films — as queer in some way growing up. Sailor Moon, a favourite of mine and well ahead of its time having aired from 1991 to 1997, paired heroines Haruka Tenou and Michiru Kaioh as a couple in the original Japanese language version. The English dub disappointedly turned them into relatives instead of lovers — though the amount of times the two would tenderly call each other “cousin” is equally as hilarious as it is cringy.
Twenty-six-year-old cartoonist Maggie Gallagher loved cartoons of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but she felt guilty watching shows that were pegged “girly,” like The Powerpuff Girls.
“I guess with me...I am trans, and I was identified as male when I was a child,” she says. “I remember that feeling of repression and almost shame that I’m watching this.”
This summer, the PC Party axed the 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum and reverted to the outdated 1998 program. Omitted are references to same-gender relationships and gender identity. In a desperate time for LGBTQ youth in Ontario, children’s programming can play a role in educating children on sexuality and gender if their own schools won’t.
“It’s not just a sex education document, it is a health and physical education curriculum that includes sex education,” says Marni Binder, an associate professor of Early Childhood Studies at Ryerson University. She says LGBTQ children’s programming affirms the identities of LGBTQ children and teaches them to remain open-minded, as homophobia is a learned behaviour in society and comes from many different people in their lives and institutions. This can challenge such societal issues and learned behaviours and open up important conversations.
“Children are not born racist, homophobic nor initially see people through stereotypes,” she says. “It is a learned behaviour.”
Without clear labels, fans draw from subtext and make their own headcanons —
a belief about a character that is accepted by some fans but has not been confirmed by the show.
“There’s just so few characters that they can actually identify with,” Gallagher says. “I think the audience have just as much of a part in crafting the character as well in a lot of ways.”
Green says films like Love, Simon which include LGBTQ teenagers are as necessary as any young adult media. “It would’ve made me feel more included and that my feelings for other guys were natural and accepted. Because you already sort of know, but you just don’t have the movies that you watch telling you the same thing.”
If Sesame Workshop can announce in a now-deleted tweet that Bert and Ernie “remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation,” why do Miss Piggy and Kermit get to be a beloved heterosexual couple?
Thankfully, there are modern cartoons that include unrestrained LGBTQ representation such as Steven Universe, The Legend of Korra, and The Loud House. I don’t believe our children’s programming is where it needs to be, but I can say not all hope is lost. I haven’t seen all of the weird and wonderful Adventure Time, but knowing fans who rooted for Bubbline were given what they hoped for, I’m inspired to go back to the beginning and explore the Land of Ooo in its entirety. Hopefully next time fans won’t have to wait until the finale to witness their victory.