ParaNorman’s Mitch: The First Family-Friendly Gay Animated Character
In 2012, ParaNorman featured the first out gay character in an American, family-targeted, animated theatrical release. Mitch was one of the secondary protagonists. He had a rounded character defined by more than his sexuality, and his jock persona played against social stereotypes. There have been very few examples of any out characters in American theatrical animation, but looking at the past twenty years we can see a change in the types of animated movies being made, and a widening of the target audiences. This has lead to an increase of gay-tinged humor and ambiguous characters. At the same time there has been a decrease in the social censorship of potential LGBTQ themes. The fact that an unabashedly gay character like Mitch made it on the big screen speaks to a shift in American culture that is reflected in its animation.
Besides ParaNorman, there have been only two American animated theatrical releases in the past two decades 1 that overtly dealt with any LGBTQ characters or themes. In South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, the characters Satan and Saddam Hussein are gay lovers; and in Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, the character Frylock declares himself a transsexual lesbian trapped in a man's body, and the end credit scene shows Frylock as a woman. These were also the only two R-rated animated films released during this time.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was created to establish a standard by which parents could judge if a film was appropriate for their children 2. In the last twenty years, 95% of the American animated films released were rated G or PG. Because in the U.S. animation is considered, by default, child or family fare, it affects the content allowed on the screen, and the type of stories studios are willing to pursue.
Although animation primarily targets the family audience, if we look at the data by decade we can see a gentle but persistent slide in what is considered an appropriate and marketable rating. From 1992-2001 74% of the films were G rated and 20% were PG. But from 2002-2012 only 27% of the movies were G rated while 68% were PG. Additionally, from 2002-2012 the number of animated films released doubled from 55 to 110.
With the PG rating gaining popularity, it has become increasingly important for animated features to speak to a wide audience in order to be successful. They must be enjoyed by not just children, but by teens and adults as well. The result is that animated movies are now primarily written for multiple audiences, with subtext and humor for adults and a wider range of content that can be explored. Because there are more animated movies being released, there is also more room for different types of stories to be told. This includes a greater potential for gay-tinged humor or gay-coded characters.
Gay-tinged humor tends to be a short punch line or reference that has a gay-reading, but doesn’t affect the world or define the sexuality of any of the characters. For example, in Gnomeo and Juliet, when two male garden gnomes (who are attached to the same molded grass) have a disagreement about which direction to go in, one gnome says to the other, “I wish I could quit you.” This is a Brokeback Mountain reference that only those adults who have seen the movie would recognize, though it was pointed out in countless reviews 3.
Gay-tinged humor can also come in the form of farcical homoerotic situations between characters that are established as straight. In Ice Age: Continental Drift two male characters, Diego and Sid accidentally kiss each other. “Why are we kissing?” Diego asks Sid. “Because cruises are romantic,” he replies. This display of homoerotic humor precedes a scene in which both characters are shown being attracted to sirens who have taken the form of beautiful animals of their respective species, and it is their attraction to these females that leads to their inadvertent kiss.
In the case of gay-coded characters, reliance on ambiguity allows for multiple readings of a character. This is something that was born out of moral-based censorship like the Hays code, and has been used in live action movies ever since. In the live action film Thank God It’s Friday (1978) Kenny Friedman added a gay male couple to a background crowd of dancing straight couples. He found in test screenings that straight viewers did not notice while gay viewers did. “Which is exactly what he wanted; he found that general audiences are unwilling to see gays and he made it easier for them. Had there been negative reaction to the scene, it would have been dropped" 4.
We can see a similar technique used in animated movies. In the end scene of Shrek there is a crowd of different characters from the movie. One of these is the Big Bad Wolf (in his grandma dress) holding the hand and arm of a knight in full armor. Later they dance together in the background. Because the Big Bad Wolf is presented as an ambiguous character, these two could be read as a gay couple - but they don’t have to be. We never see the face of the Knight (or hear the voice); there is no way of verifying the character’s gender.