By Nick Romano
August 22, 2018 at 02:09 PM EDT
Cartoon Network; Nickelodeon; DreamWorks/Netflix

Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar says it’s been “extremely difficult” to get LGBTQ representation on the air. Still, she persisted, and now her Cartoon Network series is one of the most LGBTQ-friendly destinations for kids. On July 4, the show aired a historic same-sex marriage proposal between Ruby and Sapphire, and it raised the bar again with the wedding just days later.

“By including LGBTQIA content and characters in G-rated entertainment for kids, you tell kids when they’re young that they belong in this world. You can’t not tell them that,” Sugar tells EW. “There can’t be only a certain group of kids who are told someone will love you by all the entertainment that they see. It’s just so unfair.”

She also acknowledges that the progress she’s seen is “a multi-show effort” but Gravity Falls’ Alex Hirsch — one of six showrunners who spoke to EW about LGBTQ representation in family-friendly animation — can’t help but “gush about” Steven Universe‘s Sugar, whom he describes as “driving a race car way, way ahead of everyone else” in this capacity. “Every time a creator or a network decides to try to go a little further and do something maybe other networks have been scared to do, suddenly we’ve opened up that space,” he says.

According to GLAAD, there’s been “a significant increase in new family programming which included LGBTQ characters.” Some of them include Disney’s first same-sex kiss on Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Amazon’s Danger and Eggs (run by trans animator Shadi Petosky and voiced by trans actors), and the McBride dads on Nickelodeon’s The Loud House. At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Voltron: Legendary Defender creators Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery also announced to fans that Shiro, the leader of the Voltron Paladins, is gay.

DreamWorks/Netflix

The initial response after Comic-Con has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Montgomery says. Adds Dos Santos: “Our social has been nonstop with nothing but love and appreciations.” That includes thank you notes from executives, either involved or not involved with the show. In fact, when angry responses came in, it wasn’t from the conservative crowd, but from viewers frustrated over a re-emergence of the “bury your gays” trope in the storyline, for which Dos Santos issued an apology to fans online.

But nuanced portrayals of LGBTQ characters is ultimately what Dos Santos and other creators strive for in their projects — including Gravity Falls‘ Hirsch, whose series revealed that Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland were in love. The relationship was initially thought of as “a play on the traditional trope of a hardened sheriff and an idiot rookie,” says Hirsh, but fans began speculating there was something more going on, which the creator thought was “a very sweet interpretation.”

Hirsch enlisted many voices about how to get it right.

“It was one of those things where I believe in it so much that I grew a little concerned,” he says. So he asked his team: “Do you think that the benefit of allowing these characters to be gay outweighs the potential drawbacks of them not necessarily being the best possible characters for that representation?”

The answer was yes and Disney even got on board, which he says was a vastly different situation than an earlier attempt. 

Disney XD

A 2014 episode titled “The Love God” saw Cupid bouncing about making people fall in love, and one of the storyboard artists drew two of those people as old women.

“We immediately got a note from the network saying two women falling in love is not appropriate for our audience,” Hirsch recalls. “I immediately shot back with a one-word email: ‘Why?’ Which broke their brains because there isn’t a good answer to that.”

Hirsch notes it was already an “atypical” situation because, where previous notes from the standards and practices department came through email, this was done over the phone. Speaking frankly, he says, “The truth is they’re scared of getting emails from bigots and they’re cowards. So they’re letting the bigots control the conversation. My response was basically, ‘Let ‘em complain,’ ‘they’re wrong,’ and ‘they’re just gonna have to live with it.’ Unfortunately, it got so contentious that [the network] essentially told me that if I didn’t cut the scene they would cut the episode and they strong-armed me out of it.”

When asked to comment on the situation, a Disney spokesperson said, “In the course of program development, we have daily conversations with series creators about storytelling and characters. There is a long-established approval routing at each stage of production. The process includes a Standards & Practices department to ensure all programming reflects Disney’s brand, is consistent with policy, appropriate for kids age 2-14, and complies with the channel’s policy and with Disney’s brand promise to be inclusive, with stories that affirm all people.”

One source suggested to EW that these two female characters were cut because they involved a change made on “a previously approved episodic script” and the standards and practices editors did not accept the change because the artist “did not have authority to make such a change.” However, there seems to be more to it beyond a rogue storyboard artist.

According to Hirsch, the script had technically been approved, but the genders of the background characters in the “Love God” scene were “non-specified.” Additionally, he emphasizes that “everything changes at every stage.” It’s only when the animatics for the episode are locked in that it becomes difficult to change anything. “I was the one who approved everything,” Hirsch says, noting how he was always “adding in a million other new things” late in the game. He also recalls that the S&P editors told him specifically over the phone something to the effect of “we are scared of homophobes” and “people being mad at us.”

Another source close to the production confirms Hirsch’s account and adds that while scripts typically undergo multiple changes throughout their evolution, the same-sex couple was pitched several times. The source also says it really doesn’t matter when LGBTQ characters were pitched during development because they would always be “shot down early [at] any step of the process.” When asked about other non-LGBTQ-related moments that were added to an episode later, the production source cited “a little gag” in “The Love God” where a kid offers to pay Cupid in squirrels.

The source adds, “It was pretty obvious from the start” that something more was behind the cut of the same-sex couple.

Hirsch acknowledges how much began to change “in just a few short years,” though he believes Disney only approved the Blubs and Durland reveal because it was during the series finale in 2016 and “they wouldn’t have to deal with me anymore.”

He adds, “I applaud their growth and I applaud every time they make the choice to represent different types of people and tell more stories, and I’m really, really hoping to see in the next few years the feature side of Disney lead that. I would love to see a Disney feature [film], either from Disney or Pixar, that’s inclusive in the way that some of the TV shows have started to be.”

In the past few years, societal acceptance and media visibility of the LGBTQ community has grown, and Disney has contributed to that evolution. Disney Channel’s Andi Mack won a GLAAD Media Award earlier this year for Outstanding Kids & Family Programming, and Disney XD aired the company’s first same-sex kiss on Star vs. the Forces of Evil.

Daron Nefcy, the showrunner behind Star, didn’t want to get into “too many particulars” about the internal process. “I’ll just say that I’ve been at times pleasantly surprised [with what I can do], and at times not so much,” she says. “But I feel like everybody has the same goals.”

“Well, maybe not everybody,” she adds with a laugh.

Nefcy was surprised when media outlets called Star a history-maker for that same-sex smooch, mainly because it occurred in the background of a concert scene and her team is “always trying to showcase diversity.”

“As a show creator, I really feel like it’s my job to push it where I can,” she explains. “My feeling towards it is I’m gonna try and even if I can’t do a particular something that I think is important, if I try really hard and I fight for the stuff that I believe in, then maybe even if I can’t do it, I’ve worn down that wall for the next person.”

Nefcy remembers telling her character designer to “go ahead and make some of the couples same-sex couples” in the background of that particular “Just Friends” scene. “We have an S&P department and at first they were like, ‘Could you change that?’ And I was like, ‘Well, why is that?’ I always want to know why and then they were like, ‘You know, actually, it’s totally fine.’ So that was great.”

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Another success came with Princess Turdina, Disney’s first male princess and the alter-ego of lead character Marco Diaz. It was also a moment that stems from Nefcy’s childhood.

“I had a male friend, he was one of my very good friends at the time, and we were having fun and I put some makeup on him and we were just having a good time,” she says. “His parents found out and they freaked out and he was never allowed to be my friend again, and it really broke my heart. So I think in a way, now that I have this opportunity to be doing a show for kids, it’s important to me to include characters like Marco, who’s completely comfortable and confident wearing a dress.”

Nefcy maintains that “Disney has been really awesome” in bringing diversity on screen. When asked about any other attempts to include characters who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, she teased, “I’ve had plans for that for a while and in the fourth season we may have something along the lines of that. I don’t want to confirm or deny too much, but it’s been in the works. Again, it’s an interesting time because I think that things are changing and we certainly have not been able to do maybe everything I’ve wanted to do all the time, but I’m excited about something coming up in the fourth season.”

Sugar says that when she was first working on animation with Adventure Time, a show she joined in 2010, she “became more aware of what we’re really saying by excluding [LGBTQ] characters” and the situation felt “more and more dire” for her. It was also affecting her personally; Sugar would come out as bisexual in 2016 and as non-binary in 2018.

“There were certain things we could do because we were a PG show that we couldn’t do if we were a G show,” she says. “And it struck me how critical it is that there are LGBTQIA characters in G-rated content, that the G rating said everything because as long as certain people are considered to be inappropriate for families and children, there is no equality.”

Now, Sugar feels fortunate to be surrounded by a team at Cartoon Network that has fought for her show. “Please know that when we started doing this in 2011 it was impossible and it has become possible over the last many years of working really hard to do this,” she says.

The main issue now comes from overseas reception.

Steven Universe was once the No. 1 kids show in South Africa, but it was pulled from the air. Fans have also been making side-by-side video comparisons between the U.S. and censored international versions to show how the U.K. has edited out overt LGBTQ scenes.

Because LGBTQ rights are under attack in many parts of the world, EW is told by a source that executives at television networks — many of whom are LGBTQ themselves — are forced to address the issue. According to a source close to Steven Universe, speaking about attitudes towards queer visibility in the past, it was about “plausible deniability… as soon as that goes away and they have to be out front, [it creates] this really bizarre dance.”

When she first discussed the proposal and wedding episodes of Steven Universe “openly” in 2016, Sugar remembers, “I was brought up to a meeting where [the network] said, ‘We know that you’re doing this, and we support that you’re doing this… We don’t want to be giving notes on this, but we have to give notes on this.’ And it was all very difficult to navigate. Ultimately, I said, ‘If this is going to cost me my show, that’s fine because this is a huge injustice and I need to be able to represent myself and my team through this show and anything less would be unfair to my audience.’”

Sugar then worked to make Ruby and Sapphire “the two cutest little characters in love you’ve ever seen in your life.” She says, “There could only be one reason you could not show this to kids, and that reason is not fair, so that reason has to disappear.”

The wedding episode, we’re told, was a game changer. The same source close to the show describes it as a “night and day” situation — night being the days before Ruby and Sapphire’s wedding, and day being the wedding onwards: “They can do all these things now,” including same-sex characters who “kiss on the mouth.”

Why the change? It seems to go back to something Sugar tells EW about “the allies” who’ve emerged over the years: “There are people at Turner [the company that owns Cartoon Network] who are LGBT who would see these notes come through [internationally] and just realize how shocking they are and I think that it really made all the difference.”

The Voltron creators don’t believe “the fight” for more visibility is over — not only for LGBTQ characters, but for even women being more visible in animation. “I wish that it was, but people are gonna have to continue to fight to get things made,” Montgomery says.

Dos Santos alluded to this when he issued an apology to Voltron fans for revealing Adam to be Shiro’s former significant other, only to have the character killed off that same season.

“First, I’d like to say that we created this version of Voltron with the intent of being as inclusive as possible within the boundaries given,” he wrote in a statement released on Twitter. “Are there still boundaries? Well, for this type of ‘action adventure/product-driven/traditionally boys toys’ show the answer is unfortunately yes…. Have those boundaries widened since we first started the show? Yes. Is there still a TON of room to grow? 100 percent YES.”

Dos Santos also tells EW that Voltron is unique in that it occupies this “weird niche” of animation where the drama is pushed as far as it can go and the audience is comprised of both kids and adults.

“When we first got in, getting social on any level was this no-fly zone,” he says. “It was all about big action-adventure and how many different vehicles can you put in the show to tie in with the toys. I’m just so happy that we’re finally getting to a place where we can start telling compelling stories and we can start telling them for audiences that are broader.”

Michael Rubiner from Nickelodeon’s The Loud House is also confident in the progress made. He served as story editor until he took over for showrunner Chris Savino — who departed following allegations of sexual misconduct in 2017 — but he says “there wasn’t any kind of feedback” from the network that he remembers when they introduced Clyde McBride’s two dads or when Luna Loud was revealed to have a crush on a female schoolmate.

“I do think that as the culture has progressed toward being more and more accepting, it’s easier now than it would have been five years, or certainly 10 years ago,” Rubiner says of incorporating these characters. With the McBrides, he points to a line before their introduction in the episode “Overnight Success” when Lincoln, talking to Clyde on a walkie before their sleepover, says, “Time to make history.”

“We meant the greatest-sleepover-ever history… It was this inside joke where we knew we were making kids animation history,” Rubiner says.

The showrunner reiterates that The Loud House is still a kids show geared towards children between the ages of 6 and 11, so even kisses between members of the opposite sex have to be treated in a certain manner — often times with comedy.

Still, as the show continues its third season ahead of an official fourth on Nickelodeon, Rubiner says there are also plans in place to continue the arc of Luna, who discovered a love letter from a girl named Sam. He doesn’t have “any end point in mind for the two of them,” but “with 10 girls in the family,” it seemed natural “to explore one of them being LGBTQ.”

“We’re just taking it one episode at a time and sprinkling things in among the various seasons of the show,” he says. And that is always something to celebrate.

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