In 2020, Queer Women Are Finally Front and Center in Animated TV

More mainstream cartoons are embracing queer women's love stories -- particularly on shows in which younger viewers can see themselves.

queer relationships in cartoons
Emily Carpenter/Thrillist

When The Legend of KorraAvatar: the Last Airbender's successor series, aired its finale in 2014, it made shockwaves with its final moments. After defeating the big bad, the Korra walked into the sunset -- well, the spirit world -- not with her ex-lover Mako or a new male love interest, but with her friend Asami.

As the two women joined hands and romantic music swelled, viewers were meant to intuit that their relationship had crossed into romance -- after all, the last shot directly mirrors the kiss between Aang and Katara that closed out Avatar. Although many fans were quick to recognize Korra and Asami's newfound romance, the ending was ambiguous enough that co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino publicly distilled its meaning a few days later, in a blog post titled "Korrasami Confirmed."

"Our intention with the last scene was to make it as clear as possible that yes, Korra and Asami have romantic feelings for each other," he wrote. "The moment where they enter the spirit portal symbolizes their evolution from being friends to being a couple."

Korra's other creator, Bryan Konietzko, echoed DiMartino's statement in his own post. "We approached [Nickelodeon], and while they were supportive [of Korrasami], there was a limit to how far we could go with it," Konietzko noted.

While hand-holding and gazing may not seem like groundbreaking queer representation today, Korra -- which hit Netflix on August 14 -- broke down major barriers at the time, particularly in animation. By ending with two women of color entering into a relationship, the series ushered in a rapidly growing era of LGBTQ visibility in cartoons.

legend of korra finale
The final scene in 'The Legend of Korra' | Nickelodeon

There's an enduring homophobic notion that kids are "too young" to see LGBTQ characters and relationships onscreen, as though such representations are inherently sexualized. Even Konietzko acknowledged that, while Nickelodeon allowed Korra to have a female love interest, showing Korra and Asami kissing or professing their love for one another was pushing things too far in 2014. Luckily, Korra's legacy has led to more mainstream animated television placing queer women's love stories front and center -- particularly on shows in which younger viewers can see themselves.

In the years following the Korra finale, LGBTQ characters began appearing more explicitly in cartoons like Adventure Time and Steven Universe. During the Adventure Time series finale in 2018, Marceline and Princess Bubblegum briefly kissed, affirming the series-long hints of a past romantic relationship. That same year, Steven Universe made history when it aired the first same-sex marriage proposal in a cartoon between female-coded characters Ruby and Sapphire. Days later, an entire episode was dedicated to their wedding. 

harley quinn
'Harley Quinn' | HBO Max

Despite notable progress being made in the 2010s, animated programming has largely lacked queer main characters. In the summer of 2020 alone, sapphic storylines on shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Harley Quinn, and The Owl House are changing that. In May, the final season of Netflix's She-Ra and the Princesses of Power finally confirmed fans' suspicions that lead character Adora and her ex-best friend, Catra, are in love. Although the two were inseparable growing up as child soldiers in the Evil Horde's army, Adora soon defected to the rebel Princess Alliance after taking up the sword of the magical warrior She-Ra and learning the truth about her home. She left behind a heartbroken, vengeful Catra, who became determined to climb the Horde’s ranks after losing the most important relationship in her life.

The two became bitter rivals, but their connection remained the show’s heart. By Season 5, the introduction of She-Ra's ultimate villain -- the totalitarian dictator Horde Prime -- draws the two back together against a common enemy. As Catra learns to ask for what she really wants and comes to terms with not always being her loved ones' top priority, Adora finally reckons with the fact that being heroic means more than simply sacrificing yourself for others. In recognizing their faults in coping with shared trauma, Adora and Catra soon grow individually and closer together than ever. In She-Ra's series finale, Adora and Catra attempt to destroy the "Heart of Etheria," a weapon with enough power to destroy the universe. After Adora is seriously wounded and unable to transform into She-Ra, Catra begs her friend to stay with her.

"Don’t you get it? I love you," she exclaims. The revelation gives Adora the strength to wake up and admit, "I love you, too." The two share their first kiss, giving Adora the strength to transform into She-Ra and destroy the Heart of Etheria, vanquishing Prime for good.

It's not subtext in the slightest -- in She-Ra, a kiss between two girls literally saves the universe. "[Adora and Catra's relationship] has always been what we're building to and it's not going to be satisfying unless it pays off in this way," showrunner Noelle Stevenson told GLAAD. "I think that it's something that creators haven't been able to do openly, ever in animated shows and that's changing."

'She-Ra and the Princess of Power' | Netflix

What's so refreshing about She-Ra is that, thanks to the series' queernormative world, Adora and Catra don't have to stand as definitive examples of LGBTQ representation. Homophobia doesn't exist on the fantasy planet of Etheria, and queer characters are allowed to just be. There are a pair of nerdy historian dads, the shape-shifting non-binary mercenary Double Trouble, and married lesbian rebels Spinnerella and Netossa, just to name a few. While seeing pure, uncomplicated representations of queer love is undoubtedly an important part of LGBTQ representation, there's something to be said about Adora and Catra's lesbian love story getting to be as messy and sweeping as many of their straight counterparts' relationships are.

The same weekend that She-Ra's final season hit Netflix, DC Universe's adult Harley Quinn animated series made headlines after Harley and fellow antiheroine Poison Ivy kissed. This wasn’t the first time that they’ve been paired together -- the eponymous character has previously dated Ivy in various comics. Birds of Prey also confirmed that Margot Robbie's iteration of Harley is bisexual when the 2020 film's opening sequence revealed that one of her "great loves" was a woman.

Still, this is the first time that Harley and Ivy's romance has ever been shown on screen. The first season of Harley Quinn largely revolved around Harley's mission to get over her ex-boyfriend, the Joker, and become Gotham's "queenpin of crime," with her best friend Ivy by her side. The pair have a will-they, won't-they dynamic after their relationship grows more serious in Season 2, but the resolution to that arc is a satisfying reassurance that Harley and Ivy's queer impact on DC will remain at the show’s center.

the owl house
'The Owl House' | Disney

Recently, even Disney Channel progressed in LGBTQ representation with its new animated series, The Owl House. The show follows Luz, a Dominican-American teenager who stumbles into a fantastical realm. Luz attends a magical school and soon butts heads with her new classmate Amity. Their rivalry eventually gives way to tenuous friendship, and the episode "Enchanting Grom Fright" -- which aired on August 8 -- hinted that the two girls' relationship may develop even further.

Luz and Amity's school hosts its own version of prom called Grom, where the "Grom Queen" must fight a monster that takes the form of their worst fear. Amity wins the title, and the monster eventually reveals that she was scared of asking Luz to be her date to Grom. They defeat the monster and attend the event together, although Luz remains unaware of Amity's true feelings. While it remains to be seen whether Amity's crush will be requited, "Enchanting Grom Fright" is easily the most explicit LGBTQ representation that has appeared in Disney Channel's relatively conservative animated programming. The network included a queer coming out storyline for one of the main characters in the live-action show Andi Mack in 2017, but, as creator Dana Terrace explained on Twitter, Disney Channel originally told her that she could "not represent any form of bi or gay relationship on the Channel."

"I'm bi! I want to write a bi character, dammit! Luckily my stubbornness paid off and now I am VERY supported by current Disney leadership," Terrance continued.

Animated TV isn't synonymous with children's media, but given that many prominent cartoons are meant to appeal to kids and adults alike, tracking LGBTQ representation within the medium is a good indication of how accessible queer characters are to viewers of all ages. Thinking back on the then-radical look that Korra and Asami shared almost six years ago is bittersweet now that stories like Steven Universe and She-Ra and The Owl House are finally seeing the light of day. In six more years, here's to hoping that the envelope has been pushed even further.

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Abby Monteil (@abbyemonteil) is a freelance entertainment journalist. Her work has appeared at Insider, Film School Rejects, Stacker Media, and elsewhere.