In March, after nearly seven years on the air, Steven Universe officially ended with the final episode of its epilogue series. Throughout its run, creator Rebecca Sugar and her team made bold strides in LGBTQ representation. When the show first premiered, all-ages animation was pretty bereft of queer characters. While shows like Adventure Time had whispers of past queer relationships, in 2013, cartoons just didn’t center on visibly LGBTQ characters.
But in 2020, Steven Universe not only ended joyously, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power wrapped up with a world-saving kiss between two female leads. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts had a beautifully understated coming-out moment. And Disney Channel’s The Owl House featured a swoon-worthy, romantically charged dance sequence between two girls.
And older cartoons got in on the act as well. Adventure Time: Distant Lands — Obsidian turned the spotlight to Marceline and Bubblegum’s romantic relationship, which the show only made explicit in the final seconds of the final episode. Meanwhile, The Legend of Korra — with its brief yet definitive hand-holding scene — debuted on Netflix, bringing a hallmark of queer representation in cartoons back into the conversation. 2020 was a bummer of a year, but when it comes to all-ages animation, it was a culmination of the many small steps building up to the current state of queer representation: a glorious gay celebration that was unheard of just five years ago.
Looking back, some of these big moments seem small. After all, when compared to Adora and Catra’s world-saving love confession and smooch in the series finale of She-Ra, the chaste hand-holding at the end of Korra seems inconsequential. But then again, compared to Amity’s obvious romantic interest in Luz in the very first season of The Owl House, the lack of explicit romantic intention in the first seasons of She-Ra might not resonate the same way. To a younger audience that’s been blessed with the chance to see these unquestionably queer characters at the forefront of shows, it might be surreal to think of a time where two women holding hands was a momentous development in media.
It’s beautifully fitting that Steven Universe and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power — both shows that not only focused on queer relationships, but also dismantled Chosen One expectations and highlighted the importance of healing and rejecting abusive cycles — ended within a few months of each other. The shows shared a lot of overlap in fans. Their finales leave fans looking for the next animated show with similar themes — and unlike in past years, these fans have the luxury of expecting there will be more. Steven Universe and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s legacies have allowed new cartoons to take up the mantle and take even bigger strides in representation. It’s a boon for fans, who might not be aware of the opposition showrunners and writers faced when trying to include queer characters, even in small ways.
“They think this is easier than it is,” She-Ra and the Princesses of Power creator Noelle Stevenson told Paper Mag about young fans. “I love that. I think that optimism, that expectation where every time, it’s like, ‘Look, here’s this thing, this character, this relationship,’ it’s gay, they’re like ‘Cool, do more now, do better.’ And I’m like, ‘You don’t even know how hard this was, you don’t know how impossible this was up until less than 10 years ago,’ and that’s kind of awesome, actually.”
When The Legend of Korra hit Netflix this summer, it was a chance to look back on just how far representation has come. Before Korra’s 2014 finale, the idea of Korra and Asami getting together within the canon of the show felt impossible. Fans wished for it, but even they had some awareness of how little of the romantic relationship could be shown on screen.
As Legend of Korra creator Bryan Konietzko wrote in a blog post confirming the Korrasami relationship after the finale premiered, “While [the network was] supportive there was a limit to how far we could go with it, as just about every article I read accurately deduced.”
The gesture Korra was allowed to make — with Korra and Asami in a pose specifically designed to mirror the romantic end of Avatar: The Last Airbender — is a small one, especially compared to the grand romantic moments in more recent shows. But it’s still undeniable in the text of the show. (And if anyone had doubts, Konietzko’s blog post confirmed the romantic intention.) It’s a small moment, but a fundamental one in an industry that until recently only acknowledged gay characters with the faintest shading and coding. “The leaps that have been made since 2014 are astounding: Korra’s finale wouldn’t be nearly as groundbreaking today as it was back then, and that’s a good thing,” Palmer Haasch wrote for Insider.
Working on Adventure Time gave Rebecca Sugar some perspective on fighting for representation in cartoons. Adventure Time executive producer Adam Muto cites her as one of the instrumental voices in pushing for Marceline and Bubblegum’s romantic relationship. They were originally written as friendly rivals, but their relationship eventually evolved to be romantic — though they didn’t share an onscreen kiss until the series finale in 2018.
Steven Universe famously took giant strides in representation, but achieving that came only after many uphill battles. When it came to the big reveal that Crystal Gem leader Garnet was actually made up of two Gem characters in a loving, queer relationship, Cartoon Network point-blank told Sugar that she could not depict the relationship as romantic. At that point, though, Garnet was heavily ingrained into the show — and the episode was already in production.
“Back in 2014, 2015, 2016 I was told that I couldn’t discuss it publicly,” Sugar said in conversation with Stevenson for Paper Mag. “They basically brought me in and said ‘We want to support that you’re doing this, but you have to understand that internationally if you speak about this publicly, the show will be pulled from a lot of countries and that may mean the end of the show.’”
Sugar attributes Steven Universe’s survival to the fan reaction — and Stevenson says that pointing to that fan response became instrumental in fighting for the queer representation in She-Ra. After the 2016 election, while She-Ra was still in the early stages of production, Stevenson said her team was told not to include romance whatsoever. Stevenson still wove relationships and queer themes into the show, but says her crew really banked on fan reactions to make those relationships a reality. It was a reality that Steven Universe had already shown was possible — and good for building a loyal, invested audience.
“The conversations that we were having at the beginning of our plans for including queer characters and relationships was only possible because Steven Universe had done it first,” Stevenson said in that same Paper Mag conversation. “We can point to Steven Universe, what [Sugar was] doing there and be like, ‘Look, this is working, this is getting support, fans are into this and it’s getting this reaction.’”
Looking at early seasons of She-Ra, Catra and Adora clearly shared a strong bond — dancing together with a romantically charged dip during the show’s prom episode — but no romantic intention was made explicit. That really puts 2020’s DreamWorks Animation show Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts into perspective. Only two years later, Benson, a central character in the series, got to come out on screen and utter the words “I’m gay.” His romantic focus wasn’t just lip service, either: his crush on Burrow resident Troy burgeons into a cute romance, and some of the lead-up to Kipo’s prom episode centers on Benson faltering over whether he should ask Troy to be his date. Though Benson and Troy’s romance isn’t the central storyline, the two do go together as a couple, their relationship coloring out the world of the show.
Prom-themed episodes are, apparently, a recurring theme when it comes to queer representation in animation. Season 1 of Disney Channel’s The Owl House features a dance called “Grom,” and in that prom-themed episode, former rival Amity reveals her crush on main character Luz, and the two share a romantic dance sequence. After it aired, showrunner Dana Terrace took to Twitter to announce that yes, the characters are queer. Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch, who voices a character on The Owl House, chimed in to note just how far support at Disney Animation had come.
“Back when I made [Gravity Falls] Disney FORBADE me from any explicit LGBTQ+ rep,” Hirsh wrote on Twitter.
Terrace similarly said on Twitter that when the show was first greenlit, Disney leadership told her not to include any queer relationships. But Terrace was always open about her intention to have bi and gay characters in her show — and that persistence paid off. While Disney’s live-action series Andi Mack did feature a coming-out storyline, both Disney television animation and theatrical animation divisions have historically gotten poor to failing grades from GLAAD’s studio responsibility index. It’s almost a running gag at this point for Disney to include one minor background character making an offhand comment about a same-sex partner, and leaving it at that.
But Luz and Amity weren’t just one-note side characters. They were always written as bi and lesbian. Unlike the leads of The Owl House, Adventure Time: Distant Lands — Obsidian’s central characters weren’t originally written as LGBTQ. And much like with The Legend of Korra, when the show was on air, the creators weren’t able to depict them in a romantic relationship until the very end. Obsidian has more space to explore Bubblegum and Marceline’s relationship, past, present, and future, in an undeniably romantic way.
It’s the perfect end to this big gay year in animation. What were once just small moments — hands held, T-shirts kept — slowly over the years became joyous songs, sweeping kisses, weddings (even PBS Kids’ Arthur tossed a hat in the ring last year, with long-time character Mr. Ratburn getting married), and dances. (Seriously, what’s up with prom?) Finally, gay couples in animation are getting the same experiences as their straight peers, from world-saving love confessions to small self-defining moments, with the familiar pining, blushing, and so much more. Pointing to one and comparing it to another undermines how interconnected these shows have been in breaking ground and pushing boundaries. 2020 was the year a few thin early threads came together into a greater tapestry. The work is far from done, but looking back and seeing just how far all-ages animation has come in the past few years promises a grand future. Fans are always looking forward to the next show that promises positive, nuanced LGBTQ representation, and nowadays, that’s less of a hopeful wish than a soft certainty.