Gender and Animated Characters | Onward (2020)

Today, I’d like to talk about gender and how it’s portrayed in movies or TV shows. More specifically, animated things.

I decided to make this video because I went to see Onward in the theaters with OC before all of this happened. If you weren’t aware, there is a queer character in this movie. A supporting character, but still. That would be Specter, the cyclops cop that pulls over the brothers. Lena Waithe voices this character. This is a brief scene and we never see Specter again after this from my recollection. During this scene, she says, “It’s not easy being a parent… my girlfriend’s daughter got me pulling my hair out, OK?”

Now, let’s back up a little. I knew that there was a queer character in this movie, but had no idea who and when it’d happen, so I went in expecting to see something, and came out confused. I had to Google it, and that line went over my head because I didn’t realize that Specter was a woman. I don’t remember there being any pronouns used, but I might have just missed it. Specter’s design is a little on the masculine side, and I obviously can’t hear her voice so I coded her as a man. Ugh, I know.

Gender is arbitrary, and I shouldn’t have to rely on gender coding to determine a character’s gender but that’s how it is. Hearing people in general have both voices and visuals to decide gender if no pronouns are used, but I have only visuals. That can become a problem sometimes, like in this case. Another example is Brick in The Incredibles 2. I had no idea that she was a woman until I was reading information after watching the movie. It’s made more difficult when the characters are non-human, like Specter. A few other examples: Francis, the ladybug from A Bug’s Life. They do have him clearly emphasize that he’s a man, but I feel like that might not have aged well since he’s supposed to be a drag queen. Terk the ape from Tarzan. I grew up thinking that she was a boy, and the same goes for Blue from Blue’s Clues. Yeah, Blue’s a girl!

So while it’s annoying having to rely on visual characteristics or clues from the characters around them, it’s unfortunately how the world works. This is why I appreciate it when it’s unambiguous on what gender the character is, whether by visual characteristics, a word someone uses for them—like Mom or Mister—or by using their pronouns in conversation. Hell, I’d be happy to see a nonbinary character and that made clear from the start.

Animators, producers, writers, and so on can easily fall into the trap of assuming people know the gender because to them it’s obvious. Well, of course, you’re the one who wrote the script, read it, stared at the screen all day, so it seems obvious to you. People who are seeing your story for the first time don’t have any of that knowledge, just what’s presented to them on screen. It’d be great if during the test screenings with people, they had one of the questions be about gender of characters or something like that. I know that by this point, they probably can’t change that much about a movie, but it’d be good to get that feedback for future productions.

Movies need more queer representation which is no shocker. [Editor note: This applies to all media obviously, but I was referencing more specifically to animated movies, because right now, there is *very* little of it.] That’s my thoughts on this right now, if there’s anything more, I’ll add it at the end of this blog post. What are your thoughts on this? Any ideas on how people in the industry can improve this?

I made a script for this, and let it sit for a few days in case more things came to mind. Of course they didn’t until after I’d filmed, edited, and uploaded to YouTube. So I’m just going to add a few things here 😅

  • I do love that they’re not going high femme with all the female characters, because that’s not how women are. It’s just difficult for me to be able to identify them “correctly” when there aren’t any identifiers used for them. And isn’t it interesting how when it’s a woman character created to be butch, it’s a little more difficult to identify them as a woman… But when there’s a man character created to be more feminine, it’s still fairly clear that it’s a man.
  • Following on the previous, there are several good examples of animated characters that have variety, while still being clear with what we’re supposed to read them as. Take Inside Out. All of the emotions have the same general shape, color, and look, but when it comes to individual people, they’re slightly different. The parents’ emotions are all clearly of one gender, with some slight changes to make them more masculine or feminine. Riley’s are clearly mixed. That’s just one example.
  • A friend of mine gave me another example of clear gender coding in animation – Cars the movie. They’re literally non-human, but are very clear on what the “genders” of the cars are, adding eyelashes and lipstick to the female ones. They also have what would be classified as clearly feminine mannerisms. They’re cars.
  • I know voices aren’t always a reliable way of determining gender, since some men have high voices and women have lower voices, but in general, that combined with appearance can tell you what they’re supposed to be.

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Published by Rogan Shannon

Hello there! I'm Rogan, a queer deaf guy who has a passion for leadership and advocacy. I create YouTube videos about a lot of different topics - being deaf, queer, reading, language, and whatever else interests me!

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