Author’s note: This article will thoroughly spoil important aspects of Adventure Time and Steven Universe. I would like to thank Andy Connor for reminding me to add this note at the beginning and for being a constant wealth of insight into all of these texts.
Growing up, I adored Sailor Moon: the outfits, the transformations, the kitschy cut scenes, the storylines about girls kicking ass. It wasn’t until years later, when I was grown, queer and on the verge of coming into my trans-ness, that I learnt that Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were not (as I had thought) cousins, but were actually in a lesbian relationship. I had grown up watching the dubbed American version where the characters had suffered the ‘gal pals’ label.
Looking back, this erasure enrages me. It seems unfair that some homophobic prude in a foreign censorship office saw fit to overrule the writers, animators and director of a show in order to deny me, the intended audience, access to a depiction of a healthy lesbian relationship. Even today – let alone back then in the nineties – positive queer models are so spartan in popular children’s entertainment, that to deny one scrap of representation feels particularly spiteful.
Sure, the signs were all there in Sailor Moon, but the erasure of Uranus and Neptune’s relationship felt like a hangover from the 1930s when the Hays code strictly forbade ‘any inference of sexual perversion’ on moral grounds, forcing writers and directors to only ever allude to queerness.
When Harry Potter author JK Rowling confirmed that Dumbledore was gay, progressive mainstream society celebrated it as a triumph of diverse representation, but there was dissent in the queer community. Many felt that it was a hollow representation of queerness; that Dumbledore’s homosexual relationship with the dark wizard Grindelwald ought to have been openly discussed in the books, not alluded to and confirmed so long after the series had concluded.
It’s common for authors and creators to downplay their queer characters’ relationships, and like most viewers, I learnt to assume characters were straight unless overtly stated otherwise. This meant that, until recently, another queer fictional relationship had slipped under my radar.
Marceline the Vampire Queen and Princess Bubblegum are two female characters on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. In hindsight, it is clear that they have a heavily alluded to romantic history. Despite their constant bickering, there is a history of closeness. Bubblegum sleeps in a shirt Marceline gave her. In one episode she wakes up, presses it to her face and inhales the smell. In another episode, the tension in their relationship comes to a head in what feels very much like an ex-lovers spat.
Though it’s obvious to many viewers, the truth of their relationship was technically all hearsay and speculation until Marceline’s voice actor, Olivia Olson, confirmed it. Olson says the show’s creators chose not to include any overt references to Marceline and Bubblegum’s relationship, because Adventure Time is shown in countries where homosexuality is illegal. Apparently, a strongly-implied lesbian relationship that slips through the censors is better than nothing at all. This may be a valid point, but I feel for those kids living under oppressive circumstances who are as oblivious to this hidden relationship as I was (and I was watching with adult eyes). If queer relationships were shown overtly, it would assist in breaking down default assumptions about heterosexuality. Normalising queerness is a powerful tool in tackling the epidemic of violence towards nonheterosexual relationships.
Adventure Time isn’t the only children’s television series entering new territory in its depictions of sexual diversity. Steven Universe is the latest show to venture into overt depictions of queerness. The show’s four main characters, the Crystal Gems, are humanoid aliens. At the end of the first series it is revealed that one of the Gems, Garnet, is not necessarily a singular character (it’s complicated) but is made of two fused gems, Ruby and Sapphire. Fusion happens through a ritualised dance, allowing two characters to physically form a singular being.
The correlation between relationships and fusion is drawn repeatedly: Sapphire lovingly kisses away Ruby’s tears upon being reunited; and in the song ‘Stronger Than You’ Garnet directly refers to her fusion as a relationship. Despite the Gems’ stylistically feminine physical forms, it’s made clear that these are just projections that emanate from their gemstones. They are, in essence, genderless.
Gems fuse together repeatedly throughout the show, and there is no limit to how many can fuse together. Coupled with the arguably erotic nature of the dances, this creates a space to interpret the fusions as non-traditional romantic or sexual couplings. Importantly, these are conveyed in a completely non-confronting way, showing merely that there are many different ways in which to live.
For a non-binary gendered person, these sorts of characters are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world.
However, even these positive representations still have limitations. Andy Connor recently wrote for the Wheeler Centre about how frustrating it is that agender characters are almost invariably aliens, not humans. Culturally, we are still hung up on the notion that gender is inextricably linked to sexual organs or biology. The only way not to rock the boat is by creating characters whose physical presentation and manifestation lies outside that of humans.
It seems bizarre that we can suspend our collective disbelief enough to feel empathy for a range of alien creatures, but not for agender humans – even though the latter, unlike aliens, actually exist. Although gender non-conforming representations can be validating, and are an integral factor towards supporting trans folk, they ultimately fall short of advocating for agender and non-conforming trans folk in a cis-sexist structure.
Still, the nuances that Steven Universe and Adventure Time bring to our screens are educating children about things that many adults don’t possess the language to articulate. These shows’ brilliant, wild, vibrant and surreal narratives have garnered them a broad fanbase of adults and children alike. Their success proves that there is an audience hungry for depictions of people with diverse sexualities and genders. To downplay these stories strikes me as a missed opportunity to further our normalisation, and assist in reducing real-life hardships brought about by ignorance.
Eventually, this flexible approach to storytelling must surely push more mainstream entertainment to consider including a variety of complex narratives – even if this shift will only come from the next generation of young viewers who, after being exposed to these open minded texts, will demand and be compelled to create texts with greater representation, diversity and validation.