It was over 6 years ago when The Legend of Korra (TLOK) aired its final episode. I remember the sheer joy I felt when Korra and Asami walked into a portal together, holding hands and locking eyes. The scene mirrored a shot from the finale of its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender, where Aang (of whom Korra is a reincarnation of) locked eyes with Katara before kissing her. The implications were clear. After the episode had aired, one of the creators of both series made a blog post. Among the first words were, “Korrasami is canon”. There was subtext, but fans didn’t expect the relationship to actually happen. I was sure it wouldn’t, which is why I exploded with delight with that small gesture of canonical queerness. Gay relationships were unheard of in children’s animation. And yet, there we were, the scene in front of us, the creators’ own words confirming that the two women were together.
At the time, this was an enormous victory. Of course, they hadn’t kissed or even verbally said anything. But the fact that it was there in the form that it was? Despite all the pushback from Nickelodeon? That was a landmark moment for television. It would slowly start a movement of queer representation being shown and normalised in children’s animation, often by creators who were queer themselves.
During TLOK’s run, Cartoon Network started airing a show about a boy going on adventures with alien gem-people. Created by Rebecca Sugar, who would eventually come out as non-binary themself, Steven Universe painted a world with an entire alien species that appeared as women. The gems could fuse with each other through unique dances, forming a new person who embodied both partners. The year after TLOK ended, Steven Universe aired the finale of its first season, in which one of the main gems was revealed to have been a fusion, as her two component gems had chosen to remain together constantly. This reveal was accompanied by a song that explicitly framed their relationship as a romantic one. A couple years later they would even have a wedding on-screen, while Steven would go on to form multiple fusions who were explicitly non-binary. Queerness was woven into the very nature of the show.
In 2016, Nickelodeon introduced The Loud House and finally embraced queerness openly. The show had a character raised by an interracial gay couple, and eventually one of the main character’s sisters would come out as bisexual and date a girl as well.
2018 was the year where momentum really started to build in terms of on-screen queer representation. The 3 years since have been filled with pushing boundaries of queer portrayal.
Adventure Time had been running since before any of the above shows, and in its 8-year long run had not once acknowledged the feelings between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline, outside of subtext and hints, many times put in by none other than Rebecca Sugar. But in its final episode, they kissed, on-screen. Two years later a special episode was aired, partly focusing on their relationship post the series finale.
The same year brought She-Ra and the Princesses of Power to Netflix, run by Noelle Stevenson, a queer comic writer. She-Ra not only had obvious romantic tension between its protagonist and her ex-friend-now-rival, but also had a married lesbian couple in the supporting cast. It would go on to introduce a non-binary character, and also end with a Big Damn Kiss between Adora and Catra, giving us all the friends-to-enemies-to-lovers story we deserve. The show radiated gay energy, and remains extremely dear to my heart.
2019 saw a historical event when Arthur, a cartoon that had been running since 1996, had a wedding for the protagonist’s teacher, and showed a marriage between 2 men. Meanwhile Star vs the Forces of Evil casually gave a girlfriend to the ex of the male protagonist, Marco (who is clearly trans and the show failed us by not making that canon despite all the princess episodes, but that’s a story for another time).
Finally, 2020 saw the release of two more shows that were very open about queerness. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts had the secondary protagonist Benson come out very early on, and even gave him a romantic subplot. The Owl House on the other hand, has shown some chemistry between the protagonist Luz and her rival-friend Amity. Amity is explicitly shown to be queer, as she crushes on Luz and even writes a letter asking her out to prom night.
Now it’s a new year. Some of these shows are still going on and if we’re lucky we have more on the way. Queer people are finally seeing representation and normalisation in children’s animation, something that will influence how those watching will think about these things. I can only hope that this phenomenon is here to stay.