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Animated shows are leading the way for LGBTQ+ representation—but will that continue?

As The Owl House and Dead End: Paranormal Park return, here's how YA animated shows have dialed up representation, and why that progress could be at risk

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Collage image with screenshots from Dead End: Paranormal Park and The Owl House
(From left) Dead End: Paranormal Park, The Owl House
Image: Netflix / Disney Channel

If you want to see some examples of great LGBTQ+ representation on television, take a look at just about any animated show made for young adults in the past 10 years. These shows have been flying under the radar of the mainstream media, stealthily giving queer characters and their creators a much greater voice and visibility than is often found in other sectors of entertainment. But there are signs that trend could be on the decline.

This week brings the return of two animated series that are prime examples of how YA animation has been stepping up efforts to include LGBTQ+ characters. On October 13, the second season of Dead End: Paranormal Park will premiere on Netflix. Then, on October 15, Disney Channel will release the first of three specials that wrap up the final season of The Owl House. Both of these shows put queer characters front and center, and make no apologies about it.

But while fans are very much on board with this trend, the companies behind these series may not be. The Owl House only got two seasons and three specials before being canceled. And Dead End: Paranormal Park creator Hamish Steel got so little promotional support for season two that he took matters into his own hands.

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How Netflix made diversity a priority

Netflix has been historically ahead of the curve when it comes to inclusion in its animated shows. Nearly every original animated series on the streamer in the YA category has at least some kind of LGBTQ+ representation, including The Hollow, DreamWorks Dragons, Voltron: Legendary Defender, and The Dragon Prince. The animated film The Mitchells Vs. The Machines, which premiered on Netflix in 2021, includes a lesbian main character. And 2020’s Kipo And The Age Of The Wonderbeasts features a gay main character as well as his love interest. But when it comes to the sheer volume of representation, She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power takes the crown. The series, which premiered in 2018 and ran for five seasons, has 23 characters that qualify, either explicitly or implicitly, as queer.

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She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
Image: Netflix

When Dead End: Paranormal Park first premiered on Netflix earlier this year, it was positively received (the show still has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and praised for its inclusivity. Not only does it feature a trans protagonist (voiced by trans actor Zach Barack), but it also showcases characters who are racially diverse and neurodivergent. Based on a series of graphic novels that were later developed into webtoons, it follows the adventures of Barney and Norma (voiced by Kody Kavitha), two teens who work in a haunted theme park.

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Although the stories are generally based around whatever supernatural force is making trouble in each episode, it doesn’t gloss over the fact that Barney struggles with being accepted by his family, particularly his old-fashioned grandmother. Meanwhile, Norma, an autistic Pakistani-American girl, has a crush on another girl who works at the park. Other characters have been introduced who fall along multiple areas of the gender and sexuality spectrum. The overarching theme of found family is one that anyone can relate to, but it’s especially meaningful for kids who may feel unseen because they fall out of what’s considered the norm. In this show, there are no norms (just a Norma).

Disney’s checkered past—and present

In contrast to Netflix, Disney doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to queer representation. The studio has been notoriously coy with its inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters in the past, doing the bare minimum of throwing in a line about a same-sex spouse or a two-second shot of a happy couple. That may check a box, but it hardly counts as quality representation. Especially when that line or shot can be easily edited out without losing anything from the story.

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Disney employees, however, have stepped up to champion LGBTQ+ causes when executives dropped the ball. After the studio cut a same-sex kiss from the recent Pixar film Lightyear—not great optics in the wake of its missteps over the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida—protestors within the company threatened to walk out. The scene was eventually put back into the film.

Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch has talked about how hard he had to lobby to include confirmation of the long-hinted-at relationship between two minor characters, Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland. That show was one of the first to launch the golden era of YA animation, so even though it was hard-won, the inclusion of a gay couple is still significant.

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The Owl House
The Owl House
Image: Disney Channel

In an ironic twist, one of the best examples of representation in animation can be found in the Disney Channel show The Owl House. Its main character is in a loving same-sex relationship, and it features a non-binary character, Raine Whispers, who uses they/them pronouns (voiced by non-binary actor Avi Roque). The main character is Luz Noceda (Sarah-Nicole Robles), a human girl who stumbles through a doorway to a demon realm full of magic. When she arrives in The Boiling Isles, built upon the gigantic carcass of a dead titan, she’s taken in by Eda Clawthorne (Wendy Malick), an iconoclastic witch.

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Hoping to learn how to become a witch herself, Luz enrolls in Hexide School of Magic and Demonics, makes friends, and eventually admits she has feelings for a rival student named Amity Blight (Mae Whitman). It turns out the attraction is mutual, and they become a couple. They hold hands, kiss, and have pet names for each other. It’s adorable, and no one bats an eye. Except maybe Disney; despite attracting a devoted fan base, the series is coming to an end next year. Considering the studio has renewed shows with lower ratings and far less cultural impact, it’s suspicious.

In a post on Reddit, The Owl House creator Dana Terrace offered a more charitable view of the reasons for the cancellation. “While we have had issues airing in a few countries (and are just straight up banned in a few more) I’m not gonna assume bad faith against the people I work with in LA,” she wrote. She wasn’t involved in the conversations—“LOVE the transparency and openness here (this is sarcasm)”—but her take is that some executive at the top decided the show simply didn’t fit the Disney brand due to its older-skewing target audience and serialized storytelling. Whatever the reason, all fans can do now is continue to support the show through these last three specials and prove to the studio that taking big risks will ultimately pay off.

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The creators who are leading a quiet revolution

Representation in The Owl House was always a priority for Terrace, who previously worked on Gravity Falls and the DuckTales reboot. She’s been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ issues and often participates in online fundraisers for The Trevor Project, along with other creators, like Steven Universe’s Rebecca Sugar. That’s one of the big reasons we’re seeing so much inclusion in animation these days—the animators themselves are writing from their own personal experiences. Sugar, for instance, identifies as bisexual, non-binary, and “gender expansive.” You’ll find all of those represented in Steven Universe, including one character, Garnet, who is literally the physical embodiment of a lesbian couple.

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Steven Universe
Steven Universe
Image: Cartoon Network

A lot has already been written about how much it took for Sugar to get a lesbian wedding into the show, and the brutal aftermath of that episode. That was only in 2018, not so long ago. Clearly, there’s still progress to be made, but look how far representation has come. And that’s not even counting the likes of Adventure Time, Craig Of The Creek, Danger & Eggs, or The Legend of Korra, all of which serve as great examples of how to do representation right. The key is to give diverse creators a platform to tell their own stories their way. Few spaces in entertainment are doing that right now as much as TV animation.

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If you want some hard data to back up that claim, Insider compiled a list in 2021 of LGBTQ+ inclusive animated shows through the end of 2020, and tracked their trajectory over time. The interactive database is searchable, with filters for sorting by character, show, or network. In all, they identified 259 queer characters in animated children’s programs since 1996. You can see the spike in shows over the last decade.

Image for article titled Animated shows are leading the way for LGBTQ+ representation—but will that continue?
Graphic: Insider
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An uncertain future

You may also notice something else significant in this chart—the drop-off in the number of shows since 2019. Part of that is due simply to the reduced volume of content being produced post-pandemic across the board. But there may be more going on. Disney’s cancellation of The Owl House could be a canary in a coal mine, at a time when transphobic and homophobic rhetoric is on the rise.

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This past summer, Warner Bros. downsized its animation division and removed titles from HBO Max. Today the company went even further, gutting Cartoon Network—the home of Steven Universe, Adventure Time, Craig Of The Creek, and a bunch of other shows with prominent LGBTQ+ representation—and folding it into Warner Bros. Animation. With animation as an industry facing a potential contraction, creators will have to fight harder than ever to get their shows on the air.

Despite these struggles, YA animation continues to grow in popularity. If animation fans continue to expect and demand LGBTQ+ content, it will make a difference. For a generation of younger viewers, LGBTQ+ inclusion is now considered a normal part of storytelling. They’ve grown up accustomed to seeing narratives told from different points of view, rather than centering one group exclusively. And the kids who are watching these shows today will be the ones making them in the future.