LGBT Representations in Modern Animated Movies

Modern American popular culture suggests various views on women and men, yet most of them rely on discriminative gender stereotypes and generalized behavioral models. The prevalence of such approach occurs because the proposed products orient on a large number of people, thus it is important to maintain semantic uniqueness and construct clear and coherent messages that the viewer will read on the subconscious level. In this regard, modern animation (including Disney/Pixar and Dream Works Animation) is the kind of popular culture that comprises different gender roles and practices as well as the queer analyses of the social and political power relations of sexuality. Furthermore, it is principal for the LGBT themes, which have always been the marginal discourse in animation, although they exist at the levels of associations, allusions, and subtexts. Therefore, the following essay is aimed at examining the most popular cartoons of the recent years including How to Train Your Dragon and Frozen so as to interpret LGBT representations. In this essay, I will demonstrate that LGBT images are implicitly presented in the transgressive (ambivalent) male and female animated characters are the attempts to overcome the classic gender behaviors to form neutral (androgynous) characters for the largest audience.

The film How to Train Your Dragon narrates the story of a young boy named Hiccup, the village chieftain’s son, who tries to stop the war. The authors depict him as weak and timid, so that there is not much hope for his bright achievements in the future. He possesses more feminine than masculine traits, like compassion, tenderness, and kindness, which are not inherent in typical male characters. Thus, Hiccup is not suitable for the archetype of the Viking. Evidently, the protagonist impersonates the example of transgressive character, because he combines both male and female traits. According to Driver, this type of character is typical for postmodern popular cultures that “simultaneously regulate relations and spur questioning, they are controlling and permissive, and they reproduce conformity one minute and disrupt normative codes the next”. The theme of male inadequacy constantly repeats throughout the film, illustrating that this problem is significant for the Vikings. Physical weakness of Hiccup explains that traditional society cannot accept someone with unusual features. In addition, the filmmakers argue that physical or sexual otherness is simply unacceptable for a patriarchal society that is still relevant to many modern Muslim countries. It is also connects with the feminist discourse that describes a man as the norm in a patriarchal system, while woman becomes the “other”.

Over the course of unfolding of the story, Hiccup tries to overcome his feminine features, transforming them into stereotypical male characteristics. The boy’s father, Stoick the Vast requires him to be a man. The elders of his tribe also expect him to fit into their typical community, thus Hiccup is rather injured character because he should conceal his identity and somehow compensate his distinction. In fact, the character turns his weaknesses into strengths, which is evident in one of the film’s episodes when he saves the life of Night Fury, a rare and dangerous dragon. Within this context, the film is vulnerable to the feminist criticism because the Viking’s society is an example of the patriarchal order with men cultivating strength and brutality, especially in regard to women.

It should be mentioned that some hidden feminist and lesbian allusions are also present in the images of Astrid and Ruffnut. Astrid is an antithesis of Hiccup and implements the main features of the Vikings. This particular character serves as an example of feminism overcoming the established order, but at the same time it is a subtle representation of the LGBT discourse. It should be added that Jones defines the representation of things as “a transparent reflection of reality”, and thus the character is a part of this process.  Specifically, Astrid is an implied masculine type who takes over the male role in the film. Furthermore, similarly to Hiccup, she is an example of the transgender image that combines both male and female traits.

In fact, Astrid is a beautiful and cute girl, yet possess physical strength and carries an ax. She represents the term of “girl power” from popular culture in the 90s, and it suggests that girls are strong, smart, and capable of anything”. However, Astrid represents one more significant change in the modern animated movies, namely – the adoption of male roles by women. This idea is not new, but How to Train Your Dragon adds another important remark: men feel comfortable in such situation because it does not provoke conflicts with their personality. A woman takes a leading role not because she rebels against the patriarchal discourse, but because she is capable of doing it. As for the twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut, they reinforce this idea, and in a way, create one united body. They are of different genders, and thus represent the LGBT idea of fluid identity codes. The culmination of feminist discourse is the island of Berk, which is inhabited only by women. Since they can kill any dragon, they hardly need men. In such a way, the citizens of the island are the invisible lesbian images in the film.

In another animated movie, Frozen, the representations of LGBT discourse usually appear in the feminist context, but the main character Elza is still more an atypical image. She is an example of a beautiful, brave, and talented girl who has an exceptional talent for making snow. The girl is attractive for both men and women. Yet this analogy is not always justified, because Elsa recalls a very soft type of behavior, when Astrid is characterized by her resolute masculine actions, so the girls are the two opposites belonging to different cultural traditions. When considering Elsa’s character, a snowman Olaf who falls in love with her should be mentioned, since it gives the possibility to talk about a heterosexual couple; although due to his actions, he resembles more androgynous than masculine type. Evidently, Elsa belongs neither to heterosexual nor to LGBT discourse, and thus she should be perceived as an asexual character.

Elsa is one of the few characters that fall outside the gender context, because her actions appear to be rather asexual. In the film, there is no hint that Elsa is interested in men or women, so its history is atypical for modern animation. Nevertheless, her famous song Let It Go is an impulse for reading the implied LGBT motives, being the only example of her coded sexual behavior. The character unfolds her hidden identity that others always tried to expel, which is supported by the words “don’t let them see, be the good girl that I was meant to be.” In such a way, she overcomes her asexuality making it clear that such behavior was a defensive reaction to society: “Well now they know. Let it go, let it go, no holding back anymore.” In real life, many young homosexuals have a fear of judgment, which makes them decide to refuse sexual life. Likewise, Elza uses an asexual behavior to conceal her true sexual identity from others, who can judge her or even kill. However, when she finally releases the repressed energy, she becomes free and is not scared any more: “I don’t care what they’re going to say”. According to this discourse, girl power cartoons prove that girls can do anything.

The introduction of the characters of Elsa and Anna in the film is an attempt to reinvent gender roles for both women and men. The directors represent them as strong and independent women. This trend is not typical for the majority of Disney films, in which young girls have always reproduced the archetypal model of behavior, being passive and waiting for their prince/husband. In the current film, women are generally more active and initiative than men, but still they do not suppress their identity in the light of “the ‘threat of castration’”. For example, Kristoph agrees to follow Anna in the journey being equal with her and focusing on opportunities to achieve better results. Feminization in modern animation movies is an example of changing the gender paradigm, where the traditional opposite roles do not properly work. In other words, the characters are ready to sacrifice their masculinity/femininity for the good of others.

In conclusion, the authors of the movies under consideration try to represent a deviation from traditional gender roles, shifting the emphasis towards classical feminism. It became obvious that certain marginal characters of the Vikings patriarchal society resemble modern culture. However, regardless of the typical gender stereotypes and generalized behavioral models, Hiccup and Astrid stand out as heroes, reinforcing shifted gender roles and supporting relevant LGBT discourse. At the same time, Frozen is a more obvious film for uncovering the LGBT motives. The image of Elsa is quite controversial because it can cause different interpretations and theories, but it mainly indicates a repressed identity. For Elsa, to be frozen means to block her sexuality, so she tries to release it when singing Let It Go. The motif is very important in contemporary animation, because in such a way, it suggests the destruction of the old behavioral patterns and discriminative periods when homosexuals were forced to conceal. Nevertheless, such understanding may not be completely true, because most directors do not always dare to expose such risky subjects to mass culture. Overall, the LGBT discourse in neutral or ambivalent androgynous images from the discussed movies help to talk about overcoming the pressure of society.