As much as the subversive Bugs Bunny inverted the common thought that for a male to don a dress it is a “step down” in class, generally speaking, a male character in drag is almost always a joke – a commodity or used as an elaborate getaway plan as seen in many cartoons. However, when a female character dresses up in masculine attire, it isn’t funny – it’s somewhat classy, exotic and almost always enchanting like Garbo in Queen Christina (1933) or Dietrich in Morocco (1930) – this is because our society makes a mockery of the feminine and sissyhood but somehow tolerates tomboyish behavior. Up to a certain point. Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1953) is tolerated up until the other characters insist she put on a dress and gets herself a man. Day’s characterization of the famous Western icon is a cartoon in itself, an endearing one but one that will have to submit. However, in animation, lesbian characters or coded lesbian characters are completely accepted by their straight peers and never forced to soften or be like the other girls.
Lesbian cartoon characters are a rare breed, however, tomboys do populate the world of animation and are almost always part of a collective or group that completely admires them, accepts them and never alienates them. In Hanna-Barbera’s much loved cartoon series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (1969-1970) Velma is part of a group of seemingly alienated teens and a dog – there is this solidarity within the Mystery Gang; Velma’s intelligence and bravery is never questioned or ridiculed; she is respected among her peers who are made up of fellow misfit 60s teens – the pretty trouble-prone Daphne, the no-nonsense ideas man Fred and the nervous beatnik wreck Shaggy.
Velma is the intelligent one of the group who is compassionate and quick smart. She has been read as a lesbian character possibly solely for the way she looks. Hanna-Barbera has a long line of wonderful female characters, fully developed and beautifully designed, however, they are all usually thin, leggy and traditionally “beautiful”, Velma is completely different from that mold and instead sports a cropped haircut, dresses rather frumpily and sports smart spectacles. She has become a lesbian icon possibly because of her appearance but also because of her independence and bravery. She is part of a supportive team, but she is the one that ultimately leads them.
Along with Velma, the other two famous lesbian cartoon characters, or lesbians-to-be, are Peppermint Patty and her sidekick Marcie from The Peanuts. Peppermint Patty is the quintessential tomboy. She loves sport and is very good at it, she knows how to fix things and is completely headstrong and although at one point she had a crush on Charlie Brown, it’s her relationship with Marcie that is far more compelling. Marcie, who refers to Patty as “Sir” is bookish and sycophantic, she is completely obsessed with pleasing the domineering Patty and this is a rare example of female on female buddy relations in cartoons. However, much like Velma from Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, Patty and Marcie are part of a community that includes all kinds of misfits, but namely heterosexual ones. Lesbian cartoon characters are part of a unity dominated by straight counterparts but accepted, admired and loved all the same.
The Peanuts are also children and therefore all the social and personal quirks are accepted with open hearts – Peppermint Patty and Marcie are just as much part of the gang along with the pathetic but loveable Charlie Brown, the artistically inclined Schroder, the bossy Lucy, the sweet imaginative Sally and the forever cool pooch Snoopy. Peppermint Patty and Marcie, lesbians-to-be, are part of the fabric and part of a collective; and Velma is also part of a group of misfit kids that all work together at a common goal.
Tomboys continued to hit the small screen and big screen throughout the years – Sunni from the Disney series The Gummi Bears (1985-1991) is a rough and ready medieval bear with a Calamity Jane haircut and once again integrated within a straight community and Princess Merida from Disney/Pixar’s Brave (2012) is a coded lesbian character who has a continual conflict with her mother about fitting in and being a real lady which most certainly would have been completely relatable to many gay girls having had to deal with that issue throughout their lives.
In Disney’s stunning Alice in Wonderland (1951), the Queen of Hearts is a boisterous big butch woman who has a pathetic minuscule husband who she completely ignores and she is completely obsessed with grilling young Alice, commanding her to bow and curtsey at her feet. Bullying is a common theme in quasi-queer characters and this illustrates it perfectly. However, the Queen of Hearts in all her bullying thuggish butch glory is nowhere near as explicit as all the male villains of the Disney feature film canon who are all completely and totally gay.
In the masterpiece that is Pinocchio (1940), our young heroic puppet is seduced by queer villains Honest John and Gideon. These lascivious theatre lovers successfully lure innocent Pinocchio and force him into show business. Honest John is a morally bankrupt fox who uses flowery words to manipulate Pinocchio as well as his sidekick Gideon. Gideon, the “assigned bottom”, is a mute cat and completely obsessed with Honest John. This kind of pairing will soon be seen throughout Disney features where domineering queer villains had sycophantic partners racing after them ready with a compliment and a friendly ear – Smee is smitten by Captain Hook in Peter Pan (1953), Sir Hiss fusses over Prince John in Robin Hood (1973) and so forth.
From another masterpiece of film animation Peter Pan, the quintessential cartoon sissy Captain Hook, with his fanciful affectations, is so obsessed with Pan that it completely consumes him. It’s as if he, as well as Tinkerbell, Wendy, the mermaids from the mermaid lagoon and Tiger Lilly, all want a piece of the boy who refused to grow up. Hook in fact uses Tinkerbell and her rivalry with Wendy Darling to capture Peter – and when you revisit the film you will notice that Hook’s obsession drives him insane as if this unrequited love has completely and utterly destroyed him. In Robin Hood, Prince John voiced by Peter Ustinov is a cowardly queen dominated by the memory of his mother and always suckling at his thumb. His devoted queer partner is Sir Hiss, a snake voiced by Terry-Thomas.
Aladdin (1992) from Disney’s Renaissance Era, employs two queer characters: one a demented evil sorcerer and the other a throwback to the sissy helper characters of yesteryear. Jafar is a treacherous villain, once again unhealthily obsessed with the hero Aladdin and constantly there to interrupt Aladdin’s romantic union with the princess Jasmine, while the genie voiced by the energetic Robin Williams, constantly fusses about offering advice to our straight hero and his ultimate goal is to come out, to be freed from the lamp that enslaves him. This shape-changing jinn gets into drag at the drop of a hat, lips, and flutters about like a butterfly in heat constantly telling Aladdin how handsome he is. Ironically, the most heart-warming element of Aladdin for queer audiences is the heterosexual romance between Aladdin and Jasmine – these two characters trapped by poverty in Aladdin’s case and boredom in Jasmine’s, find each other, fall in love and together experience “a whole new world” – a world free from the suffocating closets that imprison them.
Gay rights group Act-Up, the same group that protested the film Cruising back in 1980, rallied against three major motion pictures of the 1990s. The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Basic Instinct (1992), and the breathtakingly beautiful The Lion King (1994).
Act-Up protested against the representation of transgendered people in The Silence of the Lambs and bisexual women in Basic Instinct, before turning on the lascivious, camp, sinister Scar as a homophobic character that they felt Disney delivered far too often. With his British accent voiced by Jeremy Irons, Scar is even more evil – remember that a lot of American action movies during the 80s and early 90s employed foreign actors to play cold-blooded villains, and to have them be both foreign and gay just makes them all the eviler.
Scar lives outside the much talked about “circle of life” and uses his cunning to win the throne as king of the jungle. His brother Mufasa is the epitome of the heterosexual fixed-hero and all the straight (aka good) characters seem to thrive in honoring decency, warmth, and heart whereas villains like Scar are cold and fundamentally all about intellectual posturing. Scar is marked as different, foppish, nonchalant, and completely morally bankrupt. Zazu the bird remarks, “There’s one in every family”; a clear reference to every family having that one person different from the others – evil queens being no exception. Ultimately, Scar is the perfect queer villain; deadly and vicious and being an outsider, he soon enlists and exploits fellow outsiders – the hyenas.
Most Disney features that were male-centric such as Aladdin or The Lion King featured gay male villains which heightened the queerness, however in the female-centric Pocahontas (1995), an extremely underrated film when looking at this period for the company, the villain of the piece is also a fey fop. He is a fancy, frilly menace who is also painted out to be completely racist.
In Beauty and the Beast (1991), which became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the villain is the muscular, hulking Gaston. Here is a character who is totally in love with himself – he constantly pouts and flexes, admiring himself in the mirror and has a sycophantic dwarf-sized companion who ogles at his muscles throughout the film. Although Gaston is superficially interested in the pretty and virtuous Belle, it is clear from the get-go that he is preoccupied with his own beauty. The film’s central theme is a true beauty and the Beast, who through understanding compassion and love shown by Belle, becomes a sensitive and gentle spirit, something that frustrates Gaston when he finally confronts him at the climax of the film. Masculinity is a complex notion in Beauty and the Beast and the sexuality of both Gaston and the Beast himself is injected with the perplexities on how a real man should behave. And also look.
Also a lot of good guys in Disney films had queer leanings –
The Prince Charming characters in the golden age of animation were interchangeable and not so distinct after all these films were the stories of the leading lady, the prince was simply a prize for these deceptively feminist tales, however, come the late eighties and in the brilliant The Little Mermaid (1989), Prince Eric is ultimately the first prince who is not only given a strong design and personality but is objectified in his beauty for the straight female and gay male gaze. Eric is also the first in a line of slackers – princes who don’t live up to expectations much like the Scarecrow from Oz.
As mentioned in the first installment of this piece, gay boys for years grew up relating to Disney princesses and their oppression such as Cinderella’s mistreatment at the hands of Lady Tremaine, Belle’s need for adventure outside of the mundane and so forth, but soon enough male characters in male-centric films started to exhibit similar outsider yearnings. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) Quasimodo wishes to be just like other men, as noted in the song “Out There” which is completely reflective of queer struggle and longing for acceptance among these ordinary (aka straight) men that the disfigured martyr sings about.
Regarding other queer characters from Disney, horror movie legend Vincent Price lends his voice to the gay villain Ratagan in The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and in the same year, Steven Spielberg and Don Bluth delivered a lascivious queer cat in An American Tail. The sea witch Ursula from The Little Mermaid was modelled on drag queen performer Divine and has a sexual ambiguity to her much like Tweety from the Looney Tunes and Flower the skunk from Bambi (1942). There is cross-dressing in Mulan (1998) and in Lilo and Stitch (2002) and in Disney’s Tarzan (1999) a tomboy gorilla rough houses with our vine-swinging hero.
Now also, throughout the eighties and nineties, a lot of coded homosexual characters riddled popular TV cartoon shows –
The Smurfs (1981-1989) featured a fey character known as Vanity Smurf who minced about and fretted about his looks, Vernon from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996) was a complete throwback to the Hollywood sissy of the 30s and 40s; he was lanky and effeminate, wore a pink shirt, his wrist constantly limp and was entirely cowardly, constantly hiding behind intrepid reporter April O’Neil. He was the sissy helper character whose pansy nature was exaggerated to heighten the courage of his female counterpart.
In He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-1985), sexuality and hyper-masculinity ruled – muscle-bound heroes and villains paraded around in near to nothing. At the show’s core was a sick obsession the villain Skeletor had for He-Man and there was this intense dance between the two that bordered on homoerotic. Also, He-Man’s alter-ego Prince Adam was sensitive and childlike in his bright pink outfit. Two variants of gay visibility existed in that Filmation hero. In the eighties the visibility of gay culture and gay subcultures influenced cartoons like Masters of the Universe; if you think about the cult of muscle worship, the potency of the leather scene and the donning of the hyper-masculine, finally shedding the dead skins of sissyhood and girliness – all of this is in He-Man.
Machismo ruled and during the eighties it definitely influenced Saturday morning cartoons. Of course, sissies still found their way in there, Hoist and Grapple from The Transformers (1984-1987) were a bickering couple, constantly sniveling and fussing about and practically still helper characters to the straight robots in disguise.
In the nineties Ren and Stimpy (1991-1996) revolutionized the buddy relationship by exuding incredible amounts of sexual innuendo, a cloud of sardonic lesbianism loomed in Daria (1997-2002), there was an intense camp sensibility in SpongeBob Square Pants (1999-2013) and then later cartoons introduced out and proud gay characters as part of the mix as seen in The Simpons (1989 – ), South Park (1997- ) and Family Guy (1999 – ).
Personally, these latter day cartoon shows don’t do much for me; I am after all a creature of the past and love my cartoons from yesteryear. And yes, sometimes it’s very hard having such good taste. But I do hope you’ve all enjoyed this trip to the lavender ink and paint department and come to appreciate animation and cartoon characters a lot more. This is beautiful stuff and extremely important to the culture.
“Exit, stage left even!”