ParaNorman’s Mitch: The First Family-Friendly Gay Animated Character
Similarly at the beginning of Arthur Christmas when Santa returns from his mission, two elves in the background of a crowd mimic the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt's Kissing Sailor picture. Because most of the elves are fairly androgynous it is hard to know the gender of those kissing. One review mentioned it as a gay kiss 7. Another review (from a Christian site) reminded viewers that because elves like to keep their hair short there is no reason to presume the two are men 8.
In this way gay coding works to a studio’s advantage. Family targeted animation might not overtly deal with LGBTQ themes, but by including characters that aren’t explicitly straight there is room for multiple readings; ambiguity is used to be inclusive. Studios can reap the benefit of different audiences reading a character or a scene in the way that is most pleasing to them, without the risk of ostracizing any of their viewers. Studios are further protected from risk because there is no way of proving intent. In all of the examples given there is no way of distinguishing between a viewer’s unintended reading of a character and a film’s attempt to speak to multiple audiences, unless an official statement is made.
Viewers have begun to recognize LGBTQ characters and humor from a history of cultural double coding in American cinema. It isn’t always clear whether the intent of a creator is to portray an LGBTQ character, or if they are simply using tropes and humor that have become a part of our cultural narratives removed from their original roots. Whether or not it is the intent, viewers are becoming aware when an animated movie drops clues that historically have been used to hint at a character’s sexual orientation. Ambiguity in male characters, particularly male duos, has become a wide enough recognized trope that it bares the same name as the popular Saturday Night Live sketch, the "Ambiguously Gay Duo."
Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King, Spongebob and Patrick from Spongebob Squarepants the Movie, and Tulio and Miguel from The Road to El Dorado all received questions about their character’s sexuality. Sometimes these questions were negative, as was the case when various Christian review sites called out the Spongebob movie for making the title character and his best friend more effeminate, and for the movie’s multiple “nods to sexual uncertainty 9.” Other times the questions came in the form of jest, like the Daily Show sketch that poked fun at a gay reading of the El Dorado characters 10. Either way, the fact that a gay reading of these characters was brought up at all speaks to increasingly perceptive viewers.
Normally outing occurs of male characters, but recently two female characters have faced questions about their sexuality: Merida from Brave and Bryony from Arthur Christmas. It’s worth noting that Arthur Christmas was a British American coproduction and had a female director, Sarah Smith (the first female director for Aardman Animation Studio). Similarly Brave was created by Pixar’s first female director, Brenda Chapman, although she was pulled off the film halfway through production and replaced by a male director, Mark Andrews 11.