Queer characters in animated shorts and features have been around ever since live-action queer characters have populated the screen; however, because of the nature of cartoons being sometimes unfairly associated as children’s entertainment, these characters are exceptionally elusive and not too easily found. But they do exist and I’m here to out a bunch of them!
So to begin, I want to quickly talk about the first stock gay male character in movies and certainly the most popular of the Golden Age – the sissy. The sissy was a commonly used archetype in movies during the twenties, thirties and forties, and they were permitted screen time during the height of the Production Code because they didn’t seem to have any kind of overt sexuality and were always presented as non-threatening clowns. These pansies remained the eternal helper character usually found in comedies or backstage musicals; usually depicted as thin, well dressed best friends to the heterosexual leads. However, their own personal lives were never explored or examined. These men were fey, epicene, sharp, witty, bitchy, nervous wrecks who fluttered about helping the straight characters. You’d usually find sissies fussing over Fred Astaire and teaching him how to dress and how to win the heart of an ingénue, or giving advice to Astaire’s common love interest and dance partner Ginger Rogers or as the queer lapdogs to aging screen sirens.
These characters were benign and had their prescribed charms in place and generally there for laughs – so they became the perfect fodder for cartoons. Sissies populated a lot of pre-code films and remained active throughout the latter part of the thirties and into the forties and they popped up later in animated ventures. Two very popular Disney feature-shorts Ferdinand the Bull (1938) and The Reluctant Dragon (1941) both featured sissy characters as the lead. Instead of being part of the fabric and one of the supporting players, these two celluloid sissies – an ultra-effeminate bull and a poetry- reciting prancing dragon – were the main stars, which is quite incredible seeing that this would never be the case for live-action films at the time. Being animated shorts the concept of the sissy character as the central protagonist is easier to swallow and the fact that these cartoons queers are not human makes it far more acceptable and distances the audience from any real threat.
The Reluctant Dragon tells the story of a young anxious boy who dreams of becoming a brave knight in shining armor and he understands and believes that dragons are monstrous sinister beasts hellbent on destroying small villages. When he finally meets a dragon he is completely let down, because what he finds is a queer fey creature who shudders at the thought of capturing fair maidens and terrorizing peasants. In Ferdinand the Bull, young calf Ferdinand is not at all interested in roughhousing with his peers. Instead, this gentle beast with his long feminine eyelashes and swishy demeanour prefers to smell the flowers and disassociates himself from the masculine antics of his counterparts. This behavior is something he never outgrows, as the cartoon skips a few years and we find him exactly the same – a nice acute commentary on the ideology that this is something children will not “grow out of”.
A major theme regarding sissyhood is the inability to run with the pack or the anguish caused by difference. There is a perpetual narrative device where the odd horse is not able to fit in or live up to expectations – straight expectations. This is reflected in a lot of movies of the time – even in the extremely popular The Wizard of Oz (1939) our heroine Dorothy meets three characters who somehow become representations of pre-liberation gay men and who are all missing something, and troubled with being not quite right – the Scarecrow can’t live up to expectations (he fails at frightening the crows)therefore he is unable to be who he is supposed to be, the Tin-Man is without a heart, therefore, denied the permission to love and the Lion who is a cowardly sissy explains to Dorothy, “It’s sad you see dear Missy when you’re born to be a sissy, without the fim and ferve” cementing his confirmed queerness – more on the Cowardly Lion later as he comes to be a major influence on one of the biggest queer-coded cartoon characters ever from the Hanna-Barbera canon. But these friends of Dorothy reflect the struggles of gay men during an era where the closet was the most “comfortable” place to live.
However, what happens in shorts like The Reluctant Dragon and Ferdinand the Bull is that the intelligence that grows from these sissy leads helps fellow characters, and these pansies are labelled heroes by the end of the story. And this is something that fantasy allows; queer cartoon dragons and bulls can grow into heroes, but live action sissies must disappear into the background come the final reel.
In live action motion pictures of the fifties and sixties, sissyhood and feminine behaviour and characteristics were under great scrutiny and no longer seen as a funny affectation. Now it was a menace, something to fear and something to destroy – linked to varied social ills or read as communism and social dysfunction. Sissies and queer characters were no longer charming urbane creatures of twilight whose funny antics were loved and tolerated, they were troubled angst ridden depressives who had to be killed such as Sal Mineo in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), or kill themselves like Shirley MacLaine in The Children’s Hour (1961) or “cured” like John Kerr in Tea and Sympathy (1956). However in animated films, sissies were still best friends and helper characters to their beloved straight protagonists. Their pansy behaviour was completely accepted, but sometimes monitored and managed by heterosexual peers.
Directed by Vincente Minnelli and based on a play by Robert Anderson, Tea and Sympathy tells the story of a sensitive young teenage boy who is referred to as an “off-horse” and a “sister boy” because of his effeminate behavior. As noted in his excellent survey of homosexuality presented in film, Vito Russo’s book “The Celluloid Closet” makes note of something that links this Minnelli adaptation of Anderson’s play with something that pops up in Disney’s Cinderella (1950), which came out six years earlier. In a scene from Tea and Sympathy, we find young Tom Lee hanging around the wives of the headmasters of his private boarding school sewing buttons onto shirts, much to the disgust of his all-male classmates. Then, in Cinderella, we find Cinderella’s friends, the mice, planning to make a lovely dress for their poor put-upon human friend. Two queer-coded mice Jock and Gus-Gus are told by a well-meaning female mouse to “leave the sewing to the women”. Both movies employ this notion of what makes up a sissy and what makes up a sissy is what we as a society associate what makes up a girl or a woman – ultimately, both films are saying sewing is women’s business and therefore not the job for a real man. (Or a mouse.)
The homosexuality of Gus-Gus and Jock comes out more explicitly in a later scene from Cinderella, which is very sweet and embodies the notion that sensitive queer boys will forever understand the dreams, desires, and personal anguish of their straight female counterparts. Here, we find Cinderella sharing her experiences of the ball with her animal friends – and when she talks about how handsome and charming the Prince was, Jock and Gus-Gus get cozy and romantic, until one of them reacts nervously and looks suss at the more out and proud “gay mouse”. When we first meet Gus-Gus the mouse, Cinderella presents him with a dress, the other mice laugh, but already there is a feminizing of this little fellow who is completely comfortable with his girly manner. Cinderella is in tune with this from the get-go and supports it.
As an aside, Disney princesses and the female leads in Disney features are vitally important in the history of gay men’s relationship with cinema. For many years, young gay men gravitated to these stories and films and related to these heroines because they subconsciously or consciously understood their endless plight. Most Disney princesses from Cinderella to Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989) to Belle from Beauty and the Beast (1991) are oppressed either by strict parental figures, poverty or some form of hardship and only through struggle and sheer determination as well as believing in something good, they rise above it by the end of the story and are granted a “happily ever after”. This is something that gay men for many years have associated their own struggles and plights with, since the first Disney feature of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937); these lovely Disney girls with their pure hearts who solely relate to the sweetness and innocence of their animal familiars become reflections of gay male sentimentality, as well as personal and political struggle – both these fair maidens and closeted gay men throughout the decades, are perpetually struggling outsiders, longing for that happy ending. It is interesting to note, however, that on the flip side of this, gay men for years also loved and reveled in the glamorous and high camp antics of the female villains. Cruella De Ville from 101 Dalmations (1961), Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Ursula from The Little Mermaid became queer boy favorites possibly because they interrupted the heterosexual union of the princess and a handsome prince – and of course, all the Disney male villains can be completely read as gay (more on them later). It’s as if Disney studios painted all their male villains as homosexual and their female villains as Joan Crawford!
Now, Jock and Gus-Gus in Cinderella are an absolute exception in terms of queer cartoon characters having an onscreen relationship. Characters like the reluctant dragon and Ferdinand the bull are rendered both sexless sissies much like their live-action counterparts. Sissy characters’ sex lives existed off-screen, it was never discussed and most certainly never depicted. These cartoon queers are also not permitted a functional or meaningful relationship with another gay dragon or bull, instead, they struggle to find acceptance throughout the cartoon short, eventually winning the hearts of those who mocked them. Their love lives, however, are completely non-existent. However, a more explicit romantic union, far more explicit than Gus-Gus and Jock’s, was delivered by Warner Bros. with their famous Looney Tunes who gave us a famous queer coupling in the Goophy Gophers. These two were incidentally modeled on staple sissy character actors such as Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, Clifton Webb, and so forth. The Goophy Gophers are proper and fussy and have a loving relationship where they constantly complement each other, rather than the usual bitching that comes from their human counterparts. They are urbane and sophisticated and just love to set up houses as seen in cartoon shorts such as The Lumber Jerks (1955).
Of course, the Goophy Gophers come from a long line of same-sex buddies in cartoons. This was a trope used for many years and is still used today. This trickles down into live-action movies where you would find the most meaningful relationships shared by men as seen in many Westerns and then later, the descendent of the Western, the action movie. In these films, however, there is this underlying awareness that suggests a kind of “Yes we love each other but we’re not fags!” But in cartoons, this same-sex buddyhood is allowed to be more playful without that deep-rooted anxiety or fear. If you look at the fun shared by the likes of many Hanna-Barbera same-sex duos such as Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, Quick Draw McGraw and Baba Looey and so forth, there is a sense of irresponsible foolish fun, and their connection to one another is never questioned or scrutinized. These cartoon same-sex buddies share a natural affection for one another without the worry of being accused of anything “unnatural”.
Before Fred and Barney and Quick Draw McGraw and Baba Looey there was Yogi Bear. One of Hanna-Barbera’s most popular characters, Yogi Bear was the first in a long line of cartoon characters in same sex buddy relationships. He and his sidekick Boo Boo were constantly together and in the feature film Hey There It’s Yogi Bear (1962) Cindy Bear, a flirtatious southern belle, is completely in love with Yogi and being a strong willed bear she has a wonderful number which unfortunately doesn’t win the heart of Yogi, Yogi races to the embrace of Boo Boo. Later in the film, and in many of the Yogi Bear Show episodes, Cindy enlists the help of Boo Boo to get to know the true Yogi and ultimately to understand what turns Yogi on – which is namely the contents of a “pic-a-nic basket”, but it is through Boo Boo’s admiration, dedication and devotion to Yogi that Cindy comes to get closer to her bear beau and then what happens is the three of them become inseparable and completely devoted to one another.
Yogi, Boo Boo and Cindy become a threesome of sorts, a trio bound together by love – and in my personal opinion, their union is far more fun and far more interesting than the threesome shared by James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood in the teenage melodrama Rebel Without A Cause (1955).
But buddies in cartoons were never truly effeminate, they may have been late bloomers like Yogi Bear who doesn’t understand the heterosexual advances of Cindy, but these characters were ultimately straight (Fred and Barney of course have Wilma and Betty and so forth). However these macho males are also completely in love with one another, and in love with the tomfoolery they get up to. Just quickly on Yogi being a late bloomer, the late bloomer becomes another much-used character attribute in quasi-queer characters and it is epitomized in every single role Bob Hope ever played who was in the ultimate buddy films along with co-star Bing Crosby. And if you watch a bunch of those films you’ll see a lot of gay subtext there believe me.
But sissies in animation were still alive and well. They populated loads of fifties and sixties cartoons and this time in human form. And no other character ran into more effete sales clerks, shop assistants, hairdressers and so forth than Jane Jetson of The Jetsons (1962-1963). There is a wonderful episode where the always glamorous Jane is rushing to get to her hairstylist and she remarks “I mustn’t be late, those hairdressers can be very temperamental!”
But of all the cartoon sissies in history none have been more overt and flamboyant than the one and only Snaggelpuss! Here is an overly theatrical, dandy pansy, modelled on Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz who doesn’t want to be bothered, never wants to partake in any kind of stressful activity and always ends up being a reluctant hero. He is completely hedonistic and completely queer. For a time Snagglepuss was teamed up with a female mountain lion who at one point remarks in her thick Brooklynite accent “Oh Snagglepuss, I understand you can’t do it. You’re just too theatrical!” So even in that brief statement we understand that heterosexualizing this “pink pansy” just couldn’t work.
Into the sixties, seventies and eighties a shift happens in film where queer characters turn from sweet natured pansies to cold, morally corrupt villains. Queer characters became evil and monstrous and they popped up in everything from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to Cruising (1980). In animation, this was also the case. Queer characters became sinister, part cowardly sneak, part lascivious traitor and a cartoon from the thirties somehow foreshadows this shift and it is incredible in its depiction of the change from non-threatening funny sissy to evil monstrous pervert.
The cartoon is The Soda Squirt (1933) and it is a Flip the Frog cartoon. Flip the Frog was a creation of animator Ub Iwerks who once worked with Walt Disney but then went off to start his own line of ‘toons and in turn created a Mickey Mouse type character called Flip the Frog. In this cartoon, Flip is working at a drugstore in Hollywood and is flirting with Mae West of all people and into the drugstore comes the epitome of a motion picture sissy. The sissy sashays in, orders a drink and annoys Flip, like flies at a barbeque – he is a nuisance to poor straight Flip who just wants to pick up Mae West. What happens is astounding – Flip fixes him a drink that literally turns this pansy into a hideous monster – a brilliant condensation of the friendly queer turning into an aberration of nature. More prime examples of animated gay villains popped up much later such as Scratcher the reindeer from the Christmas TV movie Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979) from the legendary team of Rankin/Bass. Scratcher, who sounds a lot like Paul Lynde but is voiced by fellow gay comedian Alan Sues, is a pathetic, lecherous and conniving queen who exploits the heroic good boy Rudolph.
So villains start to pop up in cartoons, and namely as the male villains in Disney feature films. We will get into them in the next instalment, but first, I want to discuss drag and when you think of drag and cross dressing in cartoon land, you cannot NOT think of the brilliant Bugs Bunny.
Bugs Bunny comes to represent the eternal wise guy – with his thick Brooklyn accent and shifty antics, Bugs is the epitome of the trickster. The charming rabbit uses drag to heighten his mischievous ways and always uses it to foil his adversaries. In Bugs Bunny cartoons, drag becomes a recurring gag throughout his career and his ability to jump from gender to gender and successfully seduce the likes of Elmer Fudd is a thing of legend. The writers and story artists working at Warner Bros. during those years had a full understanding of vaudeville and stock theatre and drag was something that was used in both comical and political satire – drag works in animation as everything in animation is super exaggerated and over the top – drag is an extension of the blurring of gender – it examines what makes a man a man, a woman a woman and it sits at the core of what ultimately makes up a fag joke – that being, how we view women and the concept of femininity.
Bugs in drag is exceptionally subversive and intelligent – he is consistently strategic, but it’s when he is in drag that the height of Bugs’s intelligence is on show – this genius character who’s quick wit and sophistication is all the more engaging and completely seductive when he is in drag or behaving in a way that puts a spin on the usually super masculine wise guy.
Bugs is a product of an era dominated by the likes of Cagney and Bogart – quintessential real men who border on the thuggish usually populating the likes of many a gangster or film noir feature – Bugs is the lepine version of James Cagney so that when he puts on a dress and behaves like Carmen Miranda its all the more hilarious as drag was and still is used by ultra hetero or ultra butch male characters to exaggerate the gag and make it all the more ludicrous.
Stay tuned for the second part of this discussion where we take a look at tomboy ‘toons, Disney’s obsession with queer villainy, and what the eighties delivered…