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volume 6
june 2003



  The dynamics of same-sex desire in the animated cartoon
by Jeffery P. Dennis
  On the treshold of the 1950s and 1960s there were many animated cartoons featuring same-sex couples like Hanna-Barbera's famous Yogi Bear and Booboo. The relationships between these characters were always kept vague and unclear. Were they just buddies, relatives or lovers? Taking a long-term view on its history, sociologist Jeffery P. Dennis here describes the presentation of same-sex desire in the animated cartoon, ranging from Bugs Bunny and Yogi Bear, by way of the Smurfs, Ren and Stimpy, Pinky and the Brain and Spongebob Squarepants, to the Simpsons, South Park and Dexter's Laboratory.
1 Left: Spongebob Squarepants and his next-door neighbor Patrick, paired with erotic intensity (Studio: Paramount)

Same-sex desire in Toonland. In the polarized, essentialized and sanitized worlds of movies and television, dreary recapitulations of hegemonic heterosexuality are the rule: desire flows incessantly and inevitably from husband to wife, horny adult male to women in general, and horny teenage boy to girls in general, while the occasional gay or ambiguous character, curiously desexed, pops in from time to time only so that the heterosexuals can congratulate themselves on their tolerance of oddities (Gross, 1989: 1994). The animated cartoon, however, has always carried the potential for subversion: animated beings move between, merge, and ultimately deconstruct the divisions of human / animal, naked / clothed, child / adult, and male / female, playing both and neither as the situation warrants. The characters' fluidity allows not only for transgressive readings of gender roles, as Sam Abel (1995) argues, but implicit or explicit articulations of same-sex identity, behavior, and desire.

  As Barthes notes, every image is polysemous, capable of practically limitless meanings; the author's job is to embed the image in enough context to delimit it meanings, to "fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs" (Barthes, 1993: 20). But signs are necessarily unfixed, especially in cartoons, which build upon inference: a few loops and squiggles, a few lines of dialogue, must suffice to establish cartoon characters' basic identities, life histories, and current crises. For anything more subtle, audiences must contend with a series of vague, unstable, and often contradictory signs (Condit, 1994: 431). They are not permitted to construct any meaning, certainly; they construct likely meanings based on "a hierarchy of familiarity" (Wilson, 1993: 181), their "recognition" of signs of identity, role, relationship, and act from sediments of texts and memories.
  Before the 1990's, it was extremely rare for animators to deliberatly introduce same-sex desire into their characters or plotlines. Heterosexual desire resided — and to a great extent still resides — in the very construction of sentient beings: to be alive and conscious meant to desire persons of the "opposite" sex, and the only way to even conceive of gay people was to so thoroughly align their gendered behaviors with those of the opposite sex that their desire, too, became arguably heterosexual (Gross, 1989; 1994). But we do not require conscious intent. Dines (1995) notes that cartoons must be approached through three separate though interconnected areas: production, audience response, and textual analysis. In sophisticated eras, animators can introject, and audiences can decode, overt signs of same-sex desire, and even specifically gay-identified characters. But even when desire must be submerged into subconsciousness, and identities closeted to the point of invisibility, a cultural product is still "structured like a dream, a network of representations that encodes wishes and fears, projections and identifications" (Garber, 1998: 9), and in the arena of textual analysis, we can locate the wishes and fears, the instabilities and anxieties surrounding same-sex desire and identity.
2 Right: Bugs Bunny mocking and luring his antagonist Yosemite Sam (Studio: Warner Bros)

Pre-Code animation. In the days before the Hayes Code (1935) restricted potential themes and characterizations, animators frequently presented same-sex desire as an ordinary part of human — or sentient being — life; several cartoons based on the popular Krazy Kat comic strip portrayed the unequivocally male cat courting the unequivocally male Ignatz Mouse; and the 1914 Little Nemo in Slumberland, also based on an early comic strip, suggested, somewhat more subtly, that the intimacy between dream-wanderer Nemo and Flip, the cigar-chomping nephew of the Guard of the Dawn, transcended the more conventional quest to reach the Princess of Slumberland. Same-sex couples occupied the backgrounds of flapper Betty Boop's adventures in Minnie the Moocher (1933) and I Heard (1933); for some reason, they were always ghosts.

  Betty Boop also frequently encountered stereotyped "pansies" several times. In Dizzy Red Riding Hood (1931) a deep-voiced "pansy" helped Betty — as Little Red Riding Hood — pick flowers. In Betty Boop for President (1932), one of Betty's campaign promises is prison reform: she sends a tough prisoner to the electric chair, where he is transformed into a mincing "pansy" who exclaims "Goodness gracious me!" Similar homophobic jokes occur in many other pre-Code cartoons, including Soda Squirt (1934), Fire Fly (1935), and Mary's Little Lamb (1935).
3 Classic movie cartoons. While characters informed by same-sex identity all but vanished from the animated screen in 1935, romantic or erotic desire is available to everyone, and present to a degree in every interaction, albeit often ignored or suppressed, and there are countless ways of imagining, modeling, and acting upon same-sex desire without expressing gay or lesbian identities; indeed, the imperative to present heterosexual desire as the only possibility has traditionally made gay characters appear as asexual, not interested in anyone at all. Nevertheless, same-sex desire often intrudes into the cartoons of the 1940's and 1950's, in spite of every attempt to ensure that the characters were "really" heterosexual.
  Movie cartoons of the era were dominated by the Warner Brothers stable of continuing characters. There was usually no standard back story of biography: Bugs might become the antagonist of Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd, or Daffy Duck. Porky Pig may be paired with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, or Sylvester — who may be sentient or not. The ambiguity in personalities and relationships led, in spite of the Hayes Code, to moments of recognition of same-sex desire, as in the gay-vague mice in Tashlin's A Tale of Two Mice (1945), or Pepe LePew's discounting of gender in romancing a faux skunk in Chuck Jones' For Scent-imental Reasons (1949). In perhaps the most blatant example, Tashlin's Pig's Feat (1943) has Porky Pig and Daffy Duck sharing a hotel room. When they prepare to leave, they are presented with a bill which includes a service charge for removing "love spots". One can only imagine what was meant by the term.
  Much has been made of Warner Brothers' characters' forays into drag. Sam Abel (1995), for instance, believed that the drag routines of Bugs Bunny and others were "ways of addressing problems of masculine domination" and question gender roles. However, Bugs frequently engaged in transgressive behavior without adapting drag; for instance, after humiliating or evading an enemy, he kisses him full on the lips. This act does not transgress gender roles, since there is no "male" and "female" role in a kiss. Within the context of the cartoon, it seems to signify that Bugs is is joking, that he has no malicious intent.
  It does not always work, of course: when Bugs, out of drag, proposes marriage, Elmer joyfully accepts, arriving in a wedding gown. An object of ridicule, Elmer is ineffectual as hunter and easily duped into revealing his "true" feminine nature. Elmer's lisp is similarly a gay stereotype, just as Bugs' Brooklyn tough-guy accent recalls hypermasculinity.
4 Left: Hanna-Barbera's famous cartoon dyad Yogi Bear and Booboo (Studio: Hanna-Barbera)

Television cartoons of the 1950's and 1960's. Where no characters are specifically identified as gay or lesbian, we can locate same-sex desire in an interaction between two characters of the same sex which might elsewhere be coded as romantic, but is not an obvious parody of heterosexual desire: for instance, sharing a living space or a bed; participating in social activities as a couple; being accepted as a couple by others; failing to pursue other substantive relationships, especially those with the opposite sex; rejecting romantic overtures from others; or overtly expressing desire through flirting and sexual talk.

Cartoon dyads became the trademark of the Hanna-Barbera studios, which dominated television cartoons in the 1950's and 1960's. Most baby boomers can name dozens of such partnerships, generally divided into apollonian and dionysian members, the one who concocts wild schemes and one who expresses the voice of reason: the mice Pixie and Dixie on The Huckleberry Hound Show (1958-1962); Yogi Bear and Boo Boo (1958-1961); the Western sheriff-horse Quick Draw McGraw and Baba Looey, his burro sidekick (1959-1962); Lippy the Lion and Hardy Har Har (1962-1963). Other studios followed suit, with zoo residents Tennessee Tuxedo and Chumley (1963-1966), and most famously Jay Ward's Rocky and Bullwinkle (1961-1963), a moose and squirrel who, when not involved in witty adventures, participate as a couple in the civil life of Frostbite Falls, Minnesota. Are these dyads friends? Relatives? Lovers? There is no definitive answer, as they transgress each of the permissible constellations of signs for same-sex dyads in the 1950's — and to a great extent even today. They cannot be mere buddies, as they share homes and take vacations together. They are not blood relatives, or coworkers, or antagonists. They present, in fact, contradictory or vague contexts that do not fix any particular sign, and allow for the reading that they are none of the above, that they are in fact romantic partners.

  Yogi Bear illustrates the arguably erotic tensions inherent in the cartoon dyad. In the earliest cartoons, such as "Pie Pirates" and "Foxy Hound Dog", Yogi is an anarchic, Falstaff-like character involved primarily in outwitting the conformist Ranger Smith. Boo Boo appears only occasionally to denote the bear community's disapproval of Yogi's antics. During the first season, Ranger Smith is gradually demoted to a minor nuisance, and Boo Boo becomes integral to the plotlines. By the end of the first season, in "Lullaby-Bye Bear" and "Daffy Daddy", Yogi and Boo Boo are constant companions and domestic partners, sharing a cave and a bed. Have they fallen in love? In the second season, as if to defuse such a reading, the character Cindy Bear was introduced as Yogi's "girlfriend". However, she was mostly consigned to dropping hints and handkerchiefs, to batting her eyes while Yogi walked, oblivious. She appeals to Boo Boo for seduction advice, and while the "sidekick" may well have known how to pique Yogi's interest, he offered only half-hearted and ineffective suggestions. Because he and Yogi were already involved? The same-sex relationship certainly triumphed over the incursion of heterosexual desire: today almost everyone can identity Yogi and Boo Boo, but few have ever heard of Cindy Bear.
5 Right: Hipster Shaggy and Scooby Doo: no signs of romantic interests (Studio: Hanna-Barbera)

Television cartoons of the 1970's and 1980's. During the 1970's, the increasing visibility of gay identities in the external culture added romantic partnerships to the conceivable codings of same-sex dyads; that is, many viewers had the contextual tools to speculate about whether the partners were "really" gay, forcing producers to defuse the possibility through continuous demonstration of heterosexual desires. As a consequence, same-sex dyads all but disappeared from animation, replaced by characters involved in heterosexual romances (Underdog), by solitary figures battling antagonists (The Pink Panther), or by groups of rock musician/detectives who never split into dyads (Josie and the Pussycats). Some commentators have suggested romantic links on the long running Scooby Doo (1969-1986) between female leads Daphne and Velma, [1] or between hipster Shaggy and the semi-coherent eponymous Great Dane (Burke and Burke, 1999); and it true that the latter pair often hunted monsters together. However, they never shared a living space, engaged in social activities as a couple, or expressed any romantic interest in each other; they did have the habit of leaping into each other's arms at the first sign of danger, but such an action usually denotes cowardliness, not affection.

Schmidt finds a "homotopia" in The Smurfs (1969-1986), a group of small blue humanoids named after their primary personality characteristics ("Hefty", "Brainy", "Clumsy"), because all but one was male, and because the Smurf named Vanity was a self-absorbed dandy who might be read as a homophobic stereotype. [2] However, male Smurfs never developed exclusive or even close relationships with each other, whereas they often developed goofy crushes on Smurfette. The back story reveals that an evil wizard created Smurfette to introduce discord into the all-male village; more likely the character was introduced specifically to provide an object for the Smurfs' heterosexual desire and defuse conjectures that they might be "really" gay.
By the 1980's, most cartoon characters had become aggressively heterosexual. Saturday morning afforded the gender polarized, girl- or boy-crazy alternatives of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-) or Strawberry Shortcake (1980-1985), Lady Lovelylocks (1987-), or G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1985-1992). Characters whose relationships were amenable to romantic readings in a previous generation were either infantalized into asexuality — The Muppet Babies, The Flintstone Kids, A Pup Named Scooby Doo — or heterosexualized via marriage and parenthood. Popeye and Bluto replaced the passionate attraction that bonded them through violence and competition with singularly uninteresting but fertile unions, to respectively, Olive Oyl and someone named Lizzie (Popeye and Son, 1987-1988). Goofy, the erstwhile partner of Disney's Mickey Mouse, [3] transmutated into a single father with an eleven-year old son, and Mickey nowhere in sight (Goof Troop, 1992-93). Even the revived Chipmunks (1983-1991), though children and therefore presumably excused from speculations about their gayness, played it safe by getting girlfriends.
6 Left: Ren and Stimpy — not not gay (Studio: Paramount)

Cartoons of the 1990's. In the early 1990's, animated cartoons began to make sly references to the presence of same-sex desire. The trend began with Ren and Stimpy (1991-1995), an overt parody of the early 1960's cartoon duos, starring a manic, violent Chihuahua and a big, stupid cat. They reflected the Hanna-Barbera era of presenting signs without sufficient contextual markers to fix the dyads as friends, siblings, or coworkers, but with the added awareness that there was another possibility: as Provenzano (1994) states, the two are "not not gay." However, neither are they gay: same-sex desire is portrayed as anomalous and perverse.

Critics have similarly made much of the images of Ren and Stimpy as an overtly romantic couple. They share a house and a bed; they reminisce about their wedding, and Stimpy gives birth to a sentient fart, a product of their sexual union (Scolfield, 1999). In some episodes, Stimpy is a stereotypical 1950's wife, passive and nurturing, responsible for cooking, cleaning, and ironing Ren's underwear. Ren is socially and sexually the aggressor; in "Son of Stimpy", he tries to seduce Stimpy into the bedroom, but is rebuffed with "is that all you ever think about?" Some of these signs may adhere into a reading of a sexual relationship; however, it is a not a gay, or even a romantic relationship. They are instead presenting a parody of heterosexual relationships, supposedly funny because they are both men, yet one of them is acting like a woman. Elsewhere, the duo may be read more appropriately as coworkers, friends, enemies, and house pets. Oddly, Yogi and Boo Boo present a more consistently gay relationship.

While Ren and Stimpy allowed for an awareness of same-sex desire and even homoerotic activity, it is not until Pinky and the Brain (1993-1999) [4] that we see same-sex identities coded into the cartoon duo. In early episodes, the intelligent lab rats shared a cage and collaborated on schemes to take over the world, but they were coded as coworkers and bunk mates, not as lovers. Both had outside love affairs; Pinky was especially promiscuous, falling in love with a horse, a sea lion, and children's book heroine Pippy Longstocking. In the heterosexualization of same-sex relationships familiar from Ren and Stimpy, they went undercover invariably as husband and wife; in a cameo on Animaniacs, they scurry onto Noah's Ark with Pinky in a dress — Yacko as Noah sees through the ruse and is somewhat surprised, but only shrugs in resignation.
Erotic desire, however, is part of their relationship from the beginning. In a running gag, Brain has a sudden insight and asks Pinky "Are you pondering what I'm pondering?" Pinky replies with a nonsequiter that can often be read as sexual, or at least dirty, such as "I think so, Brain, but how can we get seven dwarves to shave their legs?" or "I think so, Brain, but isn't a cucumber that small called a gherkin?" Of seventy-five recorded "pondering" responses, thirteen concern transvestism or fetish costumes — "I think so, Brain, but this time you wear the tutu" — and twelve evoke sexual double entendres — "I think so, Brain, but apply North Pole to what?" [5] Some of the ponderings are distinctly homoerotic; for instance, "how are we going to find chaps our size?" Chaps refer to both the Western-style pants with open crotch often worn in gay leather circles, and, in Pinky's British dialect, to men — lab rats with homoerotic interests in a world of human men might indeed have trouble finding "chaps their size." The tag line of each episode, after the most recent plan for world domination has failed, similarly allows for a sexual reading:
  Brain: Let us go back to the lab and prepare for tomorrow night.
  Pinky: Why, Brain? What are we going to do tomorrow night?
  Brain: The same thing we do every night, Pinky. [Pause, while we ponder just what it is that they do every night] Try to take over the world.
  Right: Ren and Stimpy, sharing a bedroom (Studio: Paramount)

When Pinky and the Brain moved to prime time in 1995, plotlines became more complex, with movie and television parodies and recreations of the basic scenario in various historic periods. The writers also added what Warner Brother's head of programming referred to as "family and romantic elements" (Stanley, 1996). Potential heterosexual partners did appear occasionally, and Brain was somewhat swayable, but Pinky steadfastly chose the Brain over any other love. Most of the romantic elements, however, involved the duo's attraction to each other, which Pinky celebrated and the Brain grudgingly admitted. In "Just Say Narf", Pinky sings and flirts with a despondent Brain: he bats his eyes seductively, lays his head cozily in Brain's lap, and twirls him about in a waltz before Brain finally cheers up. Even when the Brain takes up smoking, Pinky's attraction does not diminish: "Hello there, stinky smelly smoky boy," he says with a leer, "Do you have a monkey in your pants?" He "means" to say "Do you have a monkey on your back?", a metaphor for addiction. When he says "pants" instead, the "mistake" produces a striking metaphor that is not not sexual.

  Pinky and the Brain share more than physical attraction, however; they begin to represent themselves as a closeted gay couple. A prospective employer asks Brain, "Are you married?" After a brief, awkward pause, he responds "No. I do have a ... roommate." Considering various responses and then deciding on "roommate" is — or was — a familiar strategy for hiding same-sex partners from potential homophobes. Brain gets the job and enters corporate culture as a closeted gay man — or mouse — clumsily rejecting a female suitor and inventing a lame explanation for the picture of Pinky on his desk.
  When Brain's parents visit, Brain again introduces Pinky as "my ... um ... roommate." The liberated 1990's parents are not fooled, however; while constantly criticizing Brain for his poor housekeeping, poor cooking, and unrealistic career goals, they never nag him to "meet a nice girl" and get married; obviously they are aware that he already has a partner. At the end of the episode, Mom and Dad invite the two to visit as a couple at Thanksgiving.
No other cartoon of the 1990's portrayed same-sex relationships so overtly, but several presented same-sex desire as an ordinary part of everyday life. On Rocko's Modern Life (1993-1997), the relationship between twenty-something Rocko — a wallaby — and Heifer — a steer — is often coded as unrequited same-sex attraction. Heifer expresses no interest in women, easily chats with the female knockouts that turn heterosexual Rocko into a bumbling idiot, and never dates; [6] but he becomes jealous whenever Rocko makes a new friend. In "S.W.A.K.", mailman Heifer keeps "accidentally" thwarting Rocko's attempts to send a love letter to a girl he admires. In "Yarn Benders", they takes turns telling a rambling, disjoint fairy tale: knight Rocko sets out to rescue "a beautiful princess," but Heifer interrupts and becomes the princess; when Rocko tries to steer the tale back to adventurous exploits, Heifer insists that they marry and embark on a honeymoon.
  Same-sex desire is neither perverse nor necessarily heterosexual, as in Ren and Stimpy. In "Yarn Benders", Rocko seems embarrassed by the turn of events in the fairy tale, not because same-sex desire is repellant, but because he simply has no romantic interest in Heifer. In "S.W.A.K.", a rough-looking elephant with a Mike Tyson voice intercepts Rocko's love letter and assumes that it is for Heifer. "You mean you two ...?" he begins, drawing the obvious conclusion. The two quake in terror, expecting a homophobic assault, but instead the bruiser exclaims "Ain't that bee ... u ... tiful!" and embraces them. The joke is not on the possibility that Rocko and Heifer might be lovers, but on the stereotype that muscular, blue-collar men are necessarily bigoted.
  Left: Patrick, Spongebob Squarepants and Squidward (Studio: Paramount)

Spongebob Squarepants (1999-) frequently portrays same-sex desire as valid and important. Spongebob, a square yellow sponge, has a female friend named Sandy, a squirrel in a diving suit who shares his love of karate; but no one in their undersea town of Bikini Bottom mistakes them for lovers, or ever makes such an insinuation. However, Spongebob and his next-door neighbor Patrick are paired with arguably erotic intensity. In "The Bus", Spongebob is trapped in the alien suburb of Rock Bottom; Patrick rushes to his aid in a panic, as if he cannot bear to be separated from him. When Patrick mistakenly believes that Spongebob has forgotten his Valentine's Day gift, he goes on a rampage, exclaiming "Patrick needs love, too!" The gift turns out to be a chocolate heart so enormous that it must be transported like a hot air balloon.

  Even though the two are not consistently coded as romantic partners — they live separately and interact with separate groups of friends — the possibility of same-sex desire is never excluded. Spongebob's pet snail, Gary, starts purring at Patrick, following him around, and crawling seductively all over his body, while summarily ignoring Spongebob. Spongebob is heartbroke, and tries to win the snail back with food and emotional displays, but to no avail: Gary obviously prefers to cuddle with Patrick, and moves in with him. Their discussion of the situation obviously evokes a gay romantic triangle:
  Spongebob: [To Gary] I'm a wreck without you!
  Patrick: How pathetic! I'm sorry, Spongebob, but Gary is with me now. Face it, you're only hurting yourself. It's what Gary wants, and what Gary wants is me.
  When it turns out that the snail was simply fixated on a sandwich in Patrick's pocket, Patrick exclaims: "He just wanted me for my pants!" One could hardly be more sexually explicit on a children's cartoon. Now it's his turn to be heartbroken: "Gary, I thought what we had was special!"
7 The Simpsons. About a dysfunctional but essentially loving nuclear family and their surreal friends, relatives, and associates, The Simpsons (1989-) was the first modern animated cartoon series to include overtly gay characters, and nearly every episode alludes to same-sex desire, the codes are complex and constantly in flux (Hall, 1997). What are we to make of Marge, who in "Homer Phobia" has a gay best friend, but in "Brother's Little Helper", a later episode, has not a clue that gay people even exist?" Or Homer, who in "Bart Gets Famous" and many other episodes openly expresses homoerotic desire — "Oliver North was just poured into that uniform!" — but in "Screaming Yellow Honkers" refuses to drive his new Canyonero SUV because it might imply that he is gay. He pleasantly reflects on a new acquaintance, "What a nice guy. I wonder if he's gay?" but threatens violence at the thought of a cartoon cat and mouse kissing. Virtually every male character has both expressed homoerotic desire and made homophobic comments. The female characters generally avoid both; only Lisa, destined to become the first straight female president of the U.S., is consistently both knowledgeable and positive about same-sex relations. [7]
  Right: The Simpsons — homoerotic desires mixed with homophobic comments (Studio: Twentieth Century Fox)

The key to this paradox is a juxtaposition of desire and identity. In order to be hip, The Simpsons must admit the existence of gay people and at least pretend to be tolerant — although gay walk-on characters are always fey stereotypes. However, it must also reinforce the hegemonic idea that only heterosexual desire can possibly exist, so characters constantly joke about how ludicrous same-sex desire might be — just as Milton Berle could don a dress on his 1950's TV show only because the possibility that there might be real transvestites in the world was absurd. Thus, Barney can keep a pinup of Homer in his locker, Homer can get "lost in the eyes" of a teen-dream acquaintance, and Grandpa can be courted by nursing-home buddy Jasper, while still reinforcing hegemonic heterosexuality: they are mocking the possibility of same-sex desire. Only Waylon Smithers "really" expresses homoerotic desire, and his is ludicrous because the object of his affection is the ancient, hideous, and monstrously evil Mr. Burns. Obviously no one could "really" be in love with such a person. In "Summer of 4 Foot 2", Lisa bemoans her lack of popularity with other girls, oddly, by evoking a desire for boys:

  Lisa: My only friend is Gore Vidal, and even he has kissed more boys than I ever will.
  Marge: [In this episode, unaware that gay people exist] Girls, Lisa. Boys kiss girls.
  As, indeed, they must.
8 Contemporary toons. The mid-nineties saw a flood of animated prime-time sitcoms in which we see a similar denial of same-sex desire coupled with more or less tolerance of gay identities: The Critic (1994-1995), Dr. Katz — Professional Therapist (1995-1999), Family Guy (1999-), Home Movies (1999-2000), and many others. British imports Bob and Margaret (1998-2000) encountered two romantically involved — or at least very chummy — crooks. The twenty-something slackers of Mission Hill (1999-2000) often interacted with their elderly gay neighbors, Gus and Wally. In an interesting take on Marge's admonition to Lisa that "Boys kiss girls," single Mom Paula on Home Movies (1999-2000) consoled her son, Brendan, for his lack of popularity:
  Paula: Someday you'll be with a woman or a man who likes you for you.
  Brendan: [Teasing] Or both.
  Paula: Brendan, the point is ...
  Brendan: I'm young. Don't pigeonhole me ...
  Left: Boy genius Dexter and his sister Dee Dee from Dexter's Laboratory (Studio: Hanna-Barbera)

However, in the late nineties, with the cancellation of Pinky and the Brain and Rocko's Modern Life, Nickelodeon introduced a number of naturalistic, teenager-oriented shows that avoid coding either same-sex desire or identity: Doug (1991-1994), Hey, Arnold! (1996-); The Wild Thornberries (1998-), Pelswick (2001-). One would expect room for queer references on Catdog (1998-), about a cat and a dog who are attached at the waist — the two presumably share genitals, after all. But the two spend most episodes flirting with and falling in love with members of the opposite sex. In "Winslow Falls in Love", the duo decide that their tenant, a blue mouse named Winslow, needs "a soul mate — someone to share his life." The verbal indeterminancy makes it sound as if they will be looking for potential soul mates of either sex, but when Cat and Dog sit on a park bench to rate possibilities, they consider only women. Men don't even appear as passersby.

  One would similarly expect at least gender-bending wordplay in Fairly Odd Parents (2001-), about a ten-year old boy named Timmy and his wacky fairy godparents, but instead we find that heterosexual union is essential to the fairy godparent business: Cosmo and Wanda are ineffectual as fairies unless they combine their male and female energies. Timmy's real parents have no existence apart from their heterosexual relationship: they are named "Mom" and "Dad", even in a flashback to their childhood. When a space monster materializes in Timmy's room, even he is explicitly heterosexual, developing an instant crush on Vickie the Babysitter.
South Park (1997-), about foul-mouthed 3rd graders, seems open to same-sex desire, but portrays gay male identities as inherently noisome. [8] Of the two gay characters, Big Gay Al, who fans call "the best South Park character yet" [9] is an outrageous stereotype, and the other, teacher Mr. Garrison, a psychotic — and equally swishy — closet case. However, same-sex desire is accepted as an ordinary part of life. In "Two Guys Naked in a Hot Tub", two of the fathers decide to masturbate in front of each other. They worry that this moment of same-sex passion means that they are gay, but the other South Park men reassure them that all men masturbate in front of each other. Sure, that is a gay activity, Jimbo explains, but "everybody is a little gay." Homoerotic desire is acceptable as long as it does not lead to a gay identity, which threatens the heterosexual imperative to reproduce, and evidently requires lisping and mincing.
  Perhaps the most non-stereotypical gay character on South Park is Satan, who appeared in the feature-length movie, South Park, Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999), as well as in two 2000 episodes, "Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?" and "Probably" Satan is torn between two same-sex lovers, the caring but tepid Chris and the abusive but passionate Sadam Hussain. Satan and his relationship problems are treated as normal and inevitable by the other residents of hell — which includes almost everyone, since only Mormons go to heaven. Yet after all, he is Satan, the Prince of Darkness, and the joke is about how a muscular, threatening figure is really an ineffectual swish.
  The new crop of Hanna-Barbera cartoons on the Cartoon Network moves beyond South Park to present same-sex identity as both loathesome and inherently undesirable, as with the "creepy androgynous devil-headed thigh-high-spiked-heel-boot-wearing Him" (Lloyd, 2000), regular nemesis of The Powerpuff Girls (1998-), and also as simply silly. When Elvis clone Johnny Bravo (1997-) is caught looking at muscle magazines at a news stand, he stammers, "I want to look like them, not at them. I have nothing to be ashamed of." Clearly, a desire to look at muscular men would be something to be ashamed of.
Johnny occasionally engages in same-sex romantic behaviors, but only to demonstrate how stupid he is. In "Blarney Buddies", Johnny chases a horrified male leprechaun around, trying to kiss him, in the belief that this will increase his efficiency at attracting girls. In "A Wolf in Chick's Clothing", Johnny dates a woman who turns into a werewolf at night. He patiently endures the date, hoping for a goodnight kiss when she reverts to human form at dawn. Unfortunately, on Wednesdays she mutates into a "fat man named Melvin who collects stamps." Melvin still wants his kiss, but Johnny runs away in disgust. Juxtaposing a hip, attractive woman with an unhip, ugly man is cheating: are we to believe that Johnny would have finished the date if Melvin were a muscled bon vivant? [10] Probably not: in his universe, men's bodies are by definition disgusting.
  Dexter's Laboratory (1996-), the Cartoon Central series about a boy genius / mad scientist, generally excludes same-sex desire altogether. Dexter frequently falls in love with female baby sitters and teachers, and program his computer to speak with an unusually sultry female voice, and his arch-nemesis, fellow boy genius Mandark, stiffens into full-body orgasms, eyes transmuting into hearts, whenever he catches a glimpse of the bodacious Didi. In "Surf, Sun, and Science", Mandark enters a surfing contest and attracts the attention of a young surfer dude. He looks perplexed at this obvious interest, then but suddenly he understands, brightens, and invites the boy back to his lab. The two walk off into a literal sunset, arms around each other's waists. Is this a touching tale of love blossoming between the two boys, or is it a ludicrous parody of beach movie happy endings? Mandark is evil, after all.
  Nor are Fox's adult shows any better. On King of the Hill (1997-), middle-class Texan Hank Hill is horrified by any gender transgression, no matter how trivial. In "A Beer Can Named Desire", the gang descends upon an ancient, decaying mansion in Louisiana. One of the denizens is an effete and thoroughly unwholesome dandy, who pops up as a voyeur at importune moments, makes Tennessee Williams-ish witticisms about enjoying sin, and seems unable to make the most innocuous statement free from sexual double entendres. Hank is horrified when he takes Bobby under his wing, attempting to turn him into "a proper Southern gentleman," in other words, a pervert.
9 Right: The vile opponents of The Powerpuff Girls, including Mojo Jojo (left) and Him (right) (Studio: Warner Bros)

Queer toons. Early animated cartoons frequently presented same-sex partners involved in relationships coded as romantic; however, as same-sex desire and identity become more overt in the external culture, and the question "are they really gay?" entered the universe of possibility, same-sex desire became easy to mock as ludicrous, or to eliminate altogether, creating an animated world where to be sentient is to necessarily desire the opposite sex even when self-identified gay and lesbian characters are present. However, animated sitcoms tend to present gay and lesbian identities as acceptable, and same-sex desire as ludicrous, repellent, or simply non-existent, while animated programs in the "funny animal" genre, featuring anthropomorphized beings and surreal situations, tend to exclude gay and lesbian identities altogether while presenting same-sex desire as ordinary, even valid and worthwhile.

  One reason for this disjunction may be the sparseness of detail in the funny animal genre. On animated sitcoms, back stories detail biographies, kinship networks, spatial structures: The Simpsons live in the same house in every episodes, with the same details — the same cornrow-curtains in the kitchen, the same jazz festival poster in Lisa's bedroom. When more details are provided, space, time, and relationships all become heterosexualized. Gay-identified people may occur, but the desire that is antecedent to the identity is patently impossible. We know little about Spongebob Squarepants, however, and the details are inconsistent. How big is his house? How many rooms? How many people live in his town of Bikini Bottom? The fewer details provided, the less opportunity to heterosexualize the production of the cartoon world, and the more places available to validate same-sex desire.
1. The link between Daphne and Velma is mostly wishful thinking — the two barely acknowledge each other's existence. However, I have been unable to locate any other example of lesbian desire in any animated cartoon, unless one counts strong, powerful women by default, and virtually no references to lesbian identities other than some dyke jokes on The Simpsons. Return to text
2. See: Schmidt (1998). Return to text
3. In cartoons, Goofy was mostly absent; Mickey Mouse was a suburban bachelor, saddled with two nephews and a steady girlfriend, Minnie Mouse. In the comic strips and comic books, however, Mickey and Goofy were invariably paired together, and Minnie was mostly absent. Return to text
4. They began as a supporting feature on Animaniacs, and spun off onto their own show in 1995. Their popularity among adults is attested by a brief stint on prime time in 1996. Return to text
5. The complete pondering list is compiled and maintained by Brian Norman at The Complete "Pinky, are you pondering what I'm pondering?" List [http://www.sph.umich.edu/~rwatt/ponderin.htm]. Return to text
6. In one episode, his adopted family of wolves insists that he bring home an elk, and he complies by making a date. However, they are not interested in proof of Heifer's heterosexuality, but in proof that he is "wolf" enough to hunt down an elk "for dinner." Return to text
7. No female character has expressed homoerotic interest except Patty, a stereotypic "dyke", who has visited a burlesque house. A list of all of the references to "homosexuality" in The Simpsons is maintained by Jordan Eisenberg as Homosexuality References in The Simpsons [http://www.snpp.com/guides/homosexuality.html]. Return to text
8. The kids of South Park use "gay" as a synonym for "lame" or "stupid". Return to text
9. On the now defunct fan page: A South Park Experience [http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Academy/7175/]. Return to text
10. Of course, chubby people are not inherently undesirable. Melvin might be the object of desire for many men and women. Return to text
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