Why we still love queering cartoon characters
LGBTQ+ representation on children's TV has come a long way, but nothing beats the subversive DIY fun of taking an ostensibly sexless cartoon and transforming them into an out-and-proud icon.
Queer representation in film and television is higher than it has ever been. According to GLAAD, roughly 10.2 per cent of the characters on broadcast television this year identify as LGBTQ+, with woman and non-white roles surprisingly making up the bulk. Yet despite the plethora of ready-made queer portrayals to choose from -- from Sex Education and its cornucopia of identities, to Pose’s huge ensemble cast of trans actors -- LGBTQ+ Twitter still loves to take a seemingly sexuality-less cartoon character and turn them into the loudest, queerest icon out there.
We saw it in the spring of 2017 when Australian horror film The Babadook was mistakenly added to Netflix’s LGBTQ+ films section, setting the internet ablaze with memes about the top-hat wearing monster (who honestly did spend a large amount of time in closets) finally coming out. The subsequent Pride season saw the internet joke make the crossover to IRL, with Babadook cosplays, signs and flags. Then earlier this month, we saw it again as a Pride tweet from Nickelodeon that contained a picture of SpongeBob was jokingly taken as him coming out as unequivocally queer, leading the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and being true to his authentic self.
Queerness has historically played a deep role in cartoons, from Ursula in The Little Mermaid being heavily influenced by the drag queen Divine, to the covert queer undertones of characters like Fred and Velma in Scooby-Doo. Writers of SpongeBob SquarePants had previously stated they considered the title character to be asexual (presumably meaning they didn't conceive a romantic life for him, rather than that they wrote him with the intricacies of the ace identity in mind). However, it didn’t matter, once the tweet was out, Twitter ran with it, editing pictures and documenting a queer narrative and history for the good-natured sea sponge.
Rumours that SpongeBob was, you know…, have surrounded the character since his creation. In 2005, a promotional video of the character calling for tolerance and diversity was accused of advocating for homosexuality by US evangelical groups even though sexuality was never mentioned in the clip. Gabe, a 26-year-old cartoons fan, says “growing up in the Bahamas you would often hear SpongeBob was gay or a sissy”. This is also why queer fans loved him so much. “I always thought he was so free and spontaneous because he would just randomly do things that weren’t very ‘masculine,’’ Gabe points out. “It was refreshing to see he didn’t care about gender norms like that’’.
SpongeBob, as a personality and a sentient sponge, has an air of innocence about him. It’s what makes him instantly loveable but also the perfect queer icon, one that will never let us down. We’re never going to see SpongeBob open a fracking empire and start spouting anti-trans rhetoric. His animated innocence means he can move with the times and the community, malleable in a way no human queer icon ever could. However Dr Sean Grattan, an academic in the field of affect theory, would like to stop the Squidward erasure. He argues that, as a grumpy, cynical, art and classical music loving, phallic-looking octopus: “Squidward is queer as fuck but in the same way the older gay men I knew as a teen in the AIDS epidemic were. It’s funny to think of SpongeBob as being at Stonewall protests but there is no way he would ever be that person. He represents what people want to associate with Pride: positivity and fun.”
In truth, revolution and revolt is integral to queerness and always has been. In the book The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam argues that children’s animations covertly revel in queer themes by undermining heteronormative, patriarchal norms. That might take the form of the stateless, borderless, all-female utopia dreamed of in Chicken Run, “motivated by survival, pleasure and the control of one’s own labour.” Or Dory’s forgetfulness in Finding Nemo disconnecting her from her traditional family and forcing her into “contingent relations to friends and improvised relations to community”, kind of like the chosen families queer people often enter into. As queerness and transgression is essential to the growing up process, it becomes a major part of the fantasy worlds marketed to children.
But it’s 2020, and now we expect more from representation than undertones. Sometimes the responses to these calls for diversification fall flat. Like when Disney proudly billed their first ever LGBTQ+ film character, an out lesbian cyclops cop in Onward (2020), but failed to mention she appears for only one scene and her ‘open’ sexuality was only visible in a throw-away comment about her off-screen girlfriend. Or when writers, who shall not be named, tweet after-the-fact queer details about their wizard characters in a cynical attempt to make the books they finished over a decade ago feel more inclusive.
Nevertheless as Gabe, the cartoon superfan tells me, in the last few years there have been a growing number of authentic queer cartoons out there amazingly telling LGBTQ+ stories -- from Steven Universe and its lesbian, non-binary and polyamorous characters, to the fluidity of the recent She-Ra remake or the openly gay Black kid in Kipo. So why in 2020 are we holding onto a made-up narrative of SpongeBob being queer when we already have some pretty amazing representation?
Maybe because it’s more fun. As Sean Grattan points out, “Visibility is amazing and it’s wonderful that those characters exist but there is something totally different in the act of queering SpongeBob. It’s an outpouring of love.” Queer SpongeBob becomes our creation, how we as a community want to be represented. One of the best runways in Drag Race history was when Crystal Methyd made over herself and her superfan as a lesbian couple version of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. It was weird, it was camp and it was rebellious, but it was also incredibly loving and sweet.
There’s only so far we can expect a TV corporation or Hollywood studio to go within the limitations of 'family-friendly' content. While storytelling is getting better and much more diverse, it doesn’t overtly represent the rebellious beauty of queerness. But maybe it never can and that’s okay. There’s something much more fun and far more revolutionary about offending homophobes by taking a children’s TV character and using photoshop and social media to D.I.Y turn it into a tongue-popping, duck-walking, death-dropping, boots the house down ‘yes GAWD’ queer icon anyway.