July 1, 2014

Is He or Isn't He? Let's Talk Gay Characters in Children's Films

Yesterday the hubby and I took the afternoon off to enjoy the newly released and highly anticipated How To Train Your Dragon 2.


I had a lot of reasons to be excited for this film. First of all, dragons. Second of all, I adored the first film. Third of all, dragons.

Among my other  reasons, though, was a bit of a last-minute pique of interest my brother let slip after he'd seen the movie. As it happens, there's a sly wink within the story indicating one of the beloved characters might actually be gay.

(Mild spoiler under the cut...don't worry, it's really, really mild.)

  During a scene where a married couple is having a bit of a lover's spat, the character of Gobber (this hefty cherub of a blacksmith here), turns to the film's main character and quietly notes, "See, this is why I never got married.  Well, that and one other reason."

Well, that and one other reason.

Six words here give audiences a clue that good ol' Gobber might well in fact be gay.  Kinda neat, huh?

When my brother first mentioned this to me, like I said, it piqued my interest.  I always like to see those little hints dropped in here and there that tell folks these films might not be quite as "sterilized" from the reality of LGBT as we think they are.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a Dreamworks film, and I don't have to tell anyone what a big studio Dreamworks is. Reflect for a moment on the phenomenon which is quite possibly the only animation studio out there currently capable of rivaling Disney/Pixar. Dreamworks has had scores of wildly popular films praised both for their entertainment value and -- more importantly -- for their strong capability to inspire audiences, tackling relevant issues with honesty and emotion.  In How to Train Your Dragon alone--the original film, not the sequel (no more spoilers here)--Dreamworks asked children to open their eyes to issues of being an outcast, conflicting with your parents, trying to find your place in the world and, my favorite, how to get along with others despite overwhelming differences.

So it's pretty cool that, among those other relevant issues, they also tip a sly wink towards issues of sexual identity and the gay community, right?


Perhaps you've heard of another recent "sly wink", as well.  This one comes from Disney's Frozen.

I doubt anyone will argue with me that Frozen was a decently popular movie. A $400 million dollar, multiple-award winning powerhouse of a popular movie. This film was huge, and it's got a huge following.

So perhaps you've already been tipped off to the "maybe-he-is, maybe-he-isn't" gay character?

The trader Oaken, this mild-mannered, soft-voiced, cherubic gentleman here, has generated lots of discussion. During his scene, he gives a wave off-screen to his family: a family which notably does not include any adult female character.

Lots of folks across the internet have seized this fleeting moment in the film as a wonderful nod to homosexual individuals. See that, Gay Community?  Disney does see you! And they are normalizing their depiction of you, making it perfectly reasonable for a non-threatening, comedic support character to maybe be gay. 

Maybe. Disney never said he was. They'll just let you, the audience member, come to what conclusions you will.

(Frankly, I think this family here is full of plenty of "are-they, aren't-they" female characters, just in case Disney were to receive any sort of flak over the depiction. Check out the character furthest to the right, under the big dude's arm. That could definitely be an adult female. Completely hetero-normative, in case anyone's looking to pin Disney down to a definite answer on the question of this endorsement.)

You might have guessed by now that my excitement over a "maybe-gay" character in How to Train Your Dragon 2 was a bit short-lived. That's not to say I didn't find the cute little hint endearing. It's not to say I couldn't completely accept our bumbling blacksmith or soft-spoken wilderness trader were gay.  But it didn't take me very long to realize something about these "sly winks" we seem to be picking up in children's movies.

They're bullshit.

Disney and Dreamworks are HUGE studios.  HUGE. Millions upon millions of children and families see their movies every day. They tackle topics like the deaths of loved ones, familial betrayal, ostracism, even black magic, on a regular basis. Heck, Angelina Jolie recently publicly pointed out that a scene in Disney's new Maleficent is a (not-so-subtle) metaphor for rape. Rape by a trusted loved one. Through use of roofies.

Disney/Dreamworks aren't afraid to tackle some really damn big issues. When it comes to LGBT issues, though, they only seem to be able to manage a vague, maybe-maybe-not, no-one-can-say-for-sure glimpses. And let's talk about these characters who may or may not be gay. Both characters, you might have noticed, I've constantly described as "cherubic". So they're chubby, adorable, pink-cheeked, non-threatening men. Both are also depicted in manners that one could argue makes them appear slow. Or just perhaps incredibly innocent. Gobber's actually kind of endearingly obnoxious and Oaken is your friendly neighborhood sasquatch  Neither one of these men would win your classic kid's-movie princess (let alone a Prince Charming).

There's nothing wrong with the fact that these two men don't fit a "Prince Eric" ideal...except that it's a bit insulting, I think, that the "maybe" gay characters are both portrayed as, let's face it, oafish and not too witty. Even if Disney or Dreamworks found themselves in a rock-or-hard-place situation and had to admit that yes, these characters were truly homosexual, they've still relegated the 'gay' role to characters easily dismissed, forgotten, and not likely to be idolized by any impressionable young children.  They've neutralized any "threat" these characters might have to a hetero-normative society by making sure the characters wouldn't be taken seriously anyway. It's a shame, really. An insulting shame, when you really think about it.

Now, let's talk about another studio, another children's movie, and another gay character.

  Meet Mitch.  Mitch was in a 2012 PG-rated family film released by Laika Studios. The film was called ParaNorman.

ParaNorman is not a small, unknown film. For a non-Disney animated release, it holds up really well. It's also an award-winning movie. It's grossed in the tens of millions. It's rated a solid 7 on IMDB.

And Mitch is gay.

Not "maybe" gay. Not "sly wink to those in the know" gay.  Mitch is out. There's no question about it. 

Don't let the doey-eyed blonde on the movie poster fool you: Mitch has no interest in her. The culmination of their "romantic" subplot tallies up several heavy-handed hints on her part against one line from Mitch.

"You'd love my boyfriend. He's a total chick flick nut."

Laika isn't pussy-footing around with this. Mitch is out and out gay, he's in a relationship, and he's smitten with a boy who likes chick flicks.  No beating around the bush there.

And look at Mitch. He's not dumpy. He's not obnoxious. He's not non-threatening and he's not a background character with a total of one scene.  Mitch is a strong supporting character who is present for more than three-quarters of the movie, and interacts significantly with the main plot. He is a bit of a lummox, but he's moreso a kind and concerned older brother to a boy nobody else takes time for (even though he doesn't always understand his little bro, himself). He fits the mold for strong and attractive. He's a star football player. Popular. Mitch is everything you expect from a winning, identifiable, relevant character. He could easily be a male romantic lead.

And he's not afraid to tell audiences he's gay, or that he's actively seeing someone of the same sex.

As noted, ParaNorman is rated PG, just like How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Frozen. So there's no "excusing" this as something intended for "older" audiences. ParaNorman is comedic. It also follows themes of kindness, inclusion, and reaching out to others.

Mitch's sexual orientation is by no means a main plotline, and frankly, it shouldn't be. It doesn't need to be thrown right into the spotlight to be given its due. It's normal. It's matter-of-fact. It just is. Because that is who he just is.

Now, of course, we can't talk about Laika's blatant acknowledgement of LGBT sexuality without also talking about the terrible ruination of society which followed. The global embrace of the 'gay agenda'. The breakdown of 'traditional' marriage norms. All those kids who suddenly turned homosexual. The bankruptcy of community values and all those horrible, horrible uncomfortable questions parents were forced to answer.

....Oh, wait.  None of those things happened.

And none of the horses are eating each other....

So here's why my excitement over the "are-they, aren't-they" gay characters of Disney and Dreamworks fizzled out. These "sly winks" are not veiled acts of true LGBT support. If anything, they're insulting. It doesn't mean these big-name studios are making tiny baby-steps of progress towards actually acknowledging gay individuals, let alone accepting or validating them. It only means they are willing to maybe, kind of, almost include a genuine reflection of a gay individual.

Laika, on the other hand, is a not-so-big studio. They released Coraline and The Boxtrolls as well as ParaNorman. They don't have the legions and legions of screaming fans capable of supporting them through a serious case of intolerant backlash, like Disney and Dreamworks do (look at the backlash Disney gets all the livelong day. Doesn't seem to have put any sort of crimp in their sails). 

Laika still had the balls to put a gay character in their main cast and acknowledge LGBT straight out.

Come on, Disney. Dreamworks. You can do better.


  1. I've not seen any of these movies as yet, but it appears you were able to really dissect and analyze the nuances and the not-so-nuances of this topic. When I finally do see these films I'll be looking for these scenes to develop my own sense of them, but... you've got me intrigued. :) That's always a good thing for me. ;D

  2. Anonymous2/7/14 12:57

    Two things.. 1) I will direct you here: http://tinyurl.com/k3d8lju Yes it would have been better in the movie itself, but this from a red carper interview BEFORE opening week no less, is awesome. 2) iIn regards to gay characters actual looks.. While I haven't seen ParaNorman, judging based on the image you chose alone, Mitch looks completely non threatening. He looks like a towering, slack jawed meat head. He looks dim witted and genuinely mentally slow.

    That said, I agree with you. The subtle references are not good enough, but they are a START for companies who are terrified to take sides on issues. I hope that sooner rather than later, there will be wonderful fully developed Out characters, having their romances develop on screen. Maybe even a Coming Out movie!

    I guess I just choose to look on the positive side of things. I see the desire to go the (there being the topic of LGBT) coupled with fear, and the little steps taken just give me hope. It's like watching a puppy fret about how to cross a stream. He dabs his foot in, gets wet, and jumps back scared, then dips it in again, and each time he does so, he realizes the water isn't that bad nor that deep, and soon he plunges ahead wholeheartedly, and crosses the stream successfully.

    It'll happen.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts (and link!) Anon. You bring up good points. Ultimately I feel this is a weak show on the part of studios big enough to do better, while a smaller studio with more to lose gives a much stronger showing. Ultimately, though, I do still love all three movies and all three studios. I think Dis and Dre should consider Laika's move a call to action.

      Interestingly, ParaNorman came out before both the other films.

      I think your assessment of my picture for Mitch is fair, and it was unfortunate I couldn't find a better one. Allow me to say though that yes, he is a bit of a meathead and he does fit a stereotype of his own. Whether or not he is "non-threatening" I suppose comes down to the way one is employing the phrase. I'd like to be clear that while I think the physical character renditions of all three characters is relevant, it is NOT because I believe only hunky, handsome characters are worthy of representing an ideal. Both Gobber and Oaken are terrific characters. What irritates me about their representation is more that they seem to be more "joke" characters than serious representation, whereas Mitch occupies a heavily "admired" archetypal role, showing that Laika is willing to acknowledge an LGBT character in a front-and-center archetypal role.


What do you think?