ParaNorman’s Mitch: The First Family-Friendly Gay Animated Character
In an interview Sarah Smith was asked if Bryony was intended as a lesbian character, her response was: “There wasn’t a particular decision to try and make any point about that other than to make her look like a little female soldier 12.” The fact that they the film didn’t make any point about Bryony’s sexuality is part of why she pinged some people’s gaydar, because it is so rare to have a female protagonist who is not overtly heterosexual. It is not to say that the lack of “potentially lesbian” characters is something actively going on in the production process, it is simply a numbers game. There are on average more male characters in American animated movies than female.
Author Shannon Hale looked at all of the American animated theatrical releases in 2011, 73% of the 163 characters were male 13 (numbers drawn from the top billed characters as listed in their cast overviews). Her study overlooked one movie, Winnie the Pooh, which when added only emphasizes her point since 9 out of the 10 characters in this movie were also male, bumping the percentage up to 74. Because there are more male characters, there is more room for ambiguity (intended and unintended), and more types of manhood can be explored.
In this way both Merida and Bryony stand out, because not only do they explore different types of womanhood, they do so without having a romance. There is room for ambiguity there. Do either of them show interest in women, no – but equally they don’t show interest in men (which is rare for an animated female protagonist of an acceptable age to date).
To summarize Adam Markovitz’s article about Merida: it’s not that she is a lesbian; it’s the fact that she could be 14. The increase in animated movies being produced and the wider variety of stories being told has begun to make the types of characters we see more varied, and viewers who would like to see LGBTQ characters are asking for confirmation on ambiguous ones. At the same time viewers who are less receptive to such characters are becoming less vocal.
In a much quoted article that has now been pulled from publication, the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) warned that Shrek 2 was promoting cross-dressing and transgenderism 15. This conclusion was drawn from three specific scenes. Doris, referred to as an ugly stepsister, is voiced by a man, has masculine features paired with flashy makeup, wears a dress and is presented as a female character in the movie. She hits on a male character, Prince Charming. The Big Bad Wolf is referred to as “gender confused.”’ Pinocchio is discovered to be wearing woman’s underwear.
The TVC drew the conclusion that “Shrek 2 is billed as harmless entertainment but contains subtle sexual messages.” This is undeniably true, but it is also the case for the majority of the G and PG animated movies released, because coded sexual and adult humor is included for the adult viewers. The lack of credence given to the TVCs review might be why the article was pulled, and they issued no further complaints over Shrek the Third or Shrek Forever After, which employed similar humor.
When ParaNorman was released there were very few complaints made about Mitch. It is telling that the few review sites that negatively pointed out his sexuality also spoke about witchcraft as equal moral concerns 16 17. There is an increasing divide between what certain conservative religious sects see as a threat for children, and what the majority of American families are concerned about in their viewing. To many Mitch as a gay character was seen as no more a danger to child viewers then a character like Harry Potter would be as a wizard. He is simply another type of protagonist and another type of narrative.
Having a character like Mitch on the big screen speaks to cultural changes. Since the majority of animated movies are now rated PG, there is more room in the type of content allowed. More movies released means the potential for more risk taking in the types of characters and stories, and gay-tinged humor and gay-coded characters have increasingly been met with approval by audiences or at the very least acceptance by viewers who care less about the sexuality of the characters and more about the narratives.
ParaNorman did have some things going for it. Coraline had already helped define the animation studio, LAIKA, as being edgy, artsy, and willing to take risks. So, LAIKA did not necessarily face the same pressures that a studio like Disney might have (a brand built on “family values”). Mitch was also very safe. His boyfriend was never seen on screen, his sexuality was introduced at the end of movie after viewers were already invested in his character, and he was outed in a humorous way (but without the punch line being at his expense).