Missing Link, animation studio Laika's latest venture into the realm of animated children's films, takes one step forward in handling gender nonconforming characters, but unfortunately also takes a major step back when it comes to gay representation.
This is unfortunate, because Laika broke major new ground for queer representation in children's entertainment in 2012. ParaNorman became the first PG-rated, American-animated movie to include an openly gay character. Throughout the movie, it's assumed that the dumb jock Mitch is simply oblivious to Courtney's obvious flirtations. At the end, it's revealed he's not just oblivious, he's taken. When Courtney asks him out to the movies, he responds, "You're gonna love my boyfriend. He's like a total chick-flick nut."
The reveal was funny, casual and befitting the movie's general "it gets better" message about bullying and bigotry. It further cemented Laika as a studio willing to take risks bigger animation houses couldn't afford to -- and still don't. To this day, ParaNorman is the only animated feature film, and the only PG-rated one, to be nominated for a GLAAD Media Award.
Laika has ventured into LGBTQ-related content since, but they've been much less successful about it, and worryingly, they seem to be getting a little bit worse with each attempt.
The Boxtrolls, Laika's next film after ParaNorman, seemed to be on the right track with a teaser trailer including same-sex parents among an array of "normal" families (one the new Addams Family teaser has imitated). The queer content in the movie itself, however, was more controversial.
The film's villain, Archibald Snatcher, takes on a drag queen persona as Madame Frou-Frou. While it's handled more sensitively than most examples of crossdressing villains (the characters seem far less bothered to find out they're male than to find out they're specifically Snatcher), it was just close enough to traditionally homophobic and transphobic tropes that some viewers voiced reasonable discomfort.
The same might be in store for Missing Link.
First, let's talk about the positive side of things. While it's played as a joke in the trailer, the actual movie is incredibly sensitive and heartfelt in regards to how the film's sasquatch lead rejects the given moniker of "Mr. Link" and chooses "Susan" as his own name, after the first human who ever showed him respect. While Lionel Frost is a bit confused by this male-presenting creature choosing a feminine name, he goes along with it and is ultimately quite accepting of Susan.
While that's a bigger part of the film than its worst moment is, we'd be remiss not to mention the point at which Missing Link slides into flat-out homophobia. We're not calling the filmmakers homophobic (director Chris Butler was also responsible for that great ParaNorman moment), but even the most progressive allies can at times unthinkingly make homophobic jokes.
The joke in question comes when Frost is passing through an Old West town. A woman blows a kiss to him... and so does a male prisoner. Change the setup just a little and this could be a progressive moment, showing both women and men are attracted to Frost and he treats those affections more or less the same way. The choice to make the one gay character in the film a prisoner, however, has some really unfortunate implications.
The image of a male prisoner blowing a kiss to an uninterested man, when given no other context or character development, is almost inevitably going to evoke the long history of offensive and homophobic jokes about the epidemic of sexual assault in male prisons. Such jokes are so ubiquitous that they even show up in the innocent likes of The Powerpuff Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants. People make them unthinkingly, but when you stop to think about such jokes, they're almost always indefensible.
When a "haha, big gay prisoner" joke is the only gay representation in a piece of media, it creates a homophobic vibe, no matter how well-intentioned the writers are. Missing Link is overall a good movie with progressive messages, but it's sad that the team behind ParaNorman could mess up this badly in terms of handling gay characters.