In spite of animation’s inherent plasticity and the implication that animation can “resist outmoded notions of… performance” and “carry with it alternative ideological imperatives” (Wells, 1998, p.227) prime time television animation tends to follow the stereotypical representations of most visual narratives when depicting homosexual characters, using the traditions of feminizing, demonizing or ridiculing the homosexual male, or more recently othering such characters by intellectualizing them, or in the case of lesbians, dumbing these characters down to unibrow car mechanic hicks.
In the behind-the-scenes commentaries with the artists and writers for four series in particular, namely Family Guy, Drawn Together, Rick & Steve, and Queer Duck, it is clear that the construction of what it means to be gay is always considered overtly, homosexuality is consciously fashioned. And while commentary from cast and crew might illustrate worthy intentions, ultimately the results of animated representations may not be as laudable. What is included and what is excluded from the depiction and performance of the character suggests attitudes towards the characters being portrayed, and it is assumed that the requirements and limitations of the medium develop the visual and verbal shorthand that encourages the stereotype. Even a cursory analysis would suggest that this is not the case.
How animation as a technique directly plays a part in representation and the construction of identity is a multi-layered discussion. While clearly abstracted through the process of drawing or sculpting and thereby becoming iconographic, the mode of realism in the case of these series reflects a diegesis that is comparable to our lived experience. The styles of animation for these series however differ considerably. Family Guy, Drawn Together and Queer Duck are all forms of limited animation. Family Guy, with a larger budget, is aesthetically different to Drawn Together, and Queer Duck uses Flash® as the animating platform, but ostensibly they are all “hand drawn” 2D animation. Rick & Steve on the other hand is a stop motion animation and therefore represents a very different style of animation.
I’d like to consider the general argument that the materiality of the animation technique may shape representation through the limitations of the style. 2D hand drawn animation is limited by the talent of the artist and the time constraints of the production of the artwork, but beyond these, is in truth boundless. While the same is mostly true of computer generated animation, in the case of Flash® this animation software has built in limitations which, depending on the talent of the artist, are surmountable, but in the context of online animation, production limitations often overshadow any possibility for intricate visual aesthetic and kinetic development. For stop motion, a performance is limited by the very real restrictions of the physical puppet. However, in all cases there is an animator translating the performance of the character onto the screen, acting out actions, gestures and facial expressions that are performed, sometimes recorded, and watched and then either drawn frame by frame as in 2D animation, or manipulated frame by frame as in the case of stop motion. In the case of drawn animation, representation of gays tends to revert to a stereotypical performance, in spite of the fact that there are no physical limitations of the medium that necessitate this. By contrast, a performance in stop motion can be distorted due to the limitations on performance by the construction of the puppets, but this presupposes a limitation on the design of the puppets themselves.
Certainly for these particular series, it is not so much in the technique of animation style as in the interpretation of the performance by the animator that we find the ideological limitations of the representation of sexuality. In this particular instance, where the animation style eschews those plastic modes that Wells (1998) considers are at the core of animation, we observe that it is not animation as technique that dilutes or concentrates ideological aspects, but the reach and impact of animation as medium, and the influence or control the artists (animators, writers, directors, etc.) have on the presentation of their content.
Drawn Together, (2004-2007), DVD, Comedy Central, United States
Family Guy, (1999-2003, 2005-), DVD, Fox Television Animation, United States
Furniss, M. 2007. Art in Motion, Animation Aesthetics. John Libbey.
Rick and Steve. The happiest gay couple in all the world, (2007-2009), DVD, Logo, Canada
Queer Duck, (1999-2006), web series, Showtime, United States
Wells, P. 1998. Understanding Animation. Routledge.
 Limited animation is a contested term, but generally means animation that “utilizes cycles [of movement] or [is] devoid of movement [of characters] to a great extent” (Furniss, 2007, p. 133) and is associated mostly with television animation because animation production houses could “create animation quickly and at relatively low prices” (Furniss, 2007, p. 142).
Adam de Beer is Head of Academics and Head of Department: Animation and Vfx at the SAE Institute South Africa, in Cape Town, South Africa. His research studies the intersection of television, gender (sexuality), and animation while developing an understanding of animation as transgression and manifestation of a social need to violate and thereby interrogate aspects of contemporary heteronormativity.