In which I take a look at how The Owl House subverts the usual trappings of recent cartoons when it comes to its depiction of queerness and refusal to cater to censors …also I dyed my hair lilac.
Mild spoiler warning for the various queer sub-plots in the show. Major plot details are left out.
Original Video Script
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A new movie or TV show is built up as having a major queer moment that will make up for the lack of queerness throughout past productions, only for said moment to be a small portion that can easily be cut out in post without affecting the narrative.
The reason for it is justified as required in order for the movie or TV show to appease international markets, most often China, who just won’t allow queerness in their story the way Americans do. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s probably because it’s almost every mainstream depiction of queerness in the past decade.
Hi, I’m Andrea and I’m a very queer person with very queer opinions. To go into detail, I am a lesbian trans woman / non-binary person and today I want to talk about the way American media’s lack of queerness is blamed on foreign territories and how the recent show The Owl House subverts the medium by unshackling queerness from its usual trappings in animated children’s media.
Now here’s the thing. It’s not untrue that China is a deeply conservative country who censors content it deems as morally deviant. This is true of many Asian countries. It’s also true of many African countries, South American countries, European countries, Australian countries and North American countries… In particular the United States of America.
Yes, despite being quick to point fingers at other countries and markets, the US is no stranger to modern day censorship of queerness in particular within media it has localized from elsewhere – such as Japan. I’ve talked about some of this before, such as how same-sex marriage was removed from the US release of Harvest Moon DS Cute, how the original English release of Love Live! School Idol Festival replaced references to girls dating with straightness or how countless manga and anime have had transgender characters reinterpreted as cisgender cross-dressers.
There’s also the infamous Sailor Moon localization where the lesbian couple Haruka and Michiru were changed to be cousins – although that was actually not US censorship as it was a Canadian production.
But what I want to talk about right now is not American censorship of foreign media but rather its censorship of native media. Because while abysmal queer rep is cited as a symptom of international markets, it just doesn’t hold water when you look at how the US itself handles content of this kind.
And the media I have chosen to look at for this is Disney’s ongoing animated series The Owl House, created by Dana Terrace, currently midway through its second season. Before we get into the specifics of the censorship the show has faced and how it’s currently subverting it, let me give a brief summary of the show and its depiction of queerness to date.
The Owl House is the story of Luz Noceda, a 14 year old girl who differs from how most would describe a normal teenage girl. She’s bisexual, gender non-conforming and more than a little nerdy. When her mother sends her to camp, hoping she’ll become a bit more “normal,” she accidentally ends up passing through a portal to the Boiling Isles of the Demon Realm where she begins studying under the Owl Lady, Eda Clawthorne, to become a witch.
As she begins her witch studies, Luz meets Amity Blight, a witch her age who at first is antagonistic towards Luz, but begins to warm up around her the more time they spend together. They bond over liking the same books and soon enough it’s clear that Amity has a crush on Luz. After dancing together at Grom, both of them begin to act awkwardly around each other. Amity ends up kissing Luz on the cheek and shortly after that they ask each other out and become girlfriends – currently dating as of episode 8 of the second season.
In addition to Luz and Amity, there’s also a handful of other queer characters. Luz’s friend Willow has two loving dads, Eda the Owl Lady is bisexual and has an ex-partner, Raine Whispers, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns and Amity’s older brother, Edric, goes on a date with an unnamed character that also uses they/them pronouns. There’s a lot to love here and I’m sure there’s even more to come.
The staff working on The Owl House is also composed of members of the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. The showrunner is Dana Terrace who is out as bisexual and a frequent writer on the show is Molly Knox Ostertag, the wonderful gay lady responsible for comics like The Girl From The Sea and The Witch Boy. The casting has done a great job as well, with Raine Whispers being played by Avi Roque who is also non-binary, just like the character.
The Owl House is a wonderful depiction of queerness in a show that speaks to people of all ages and if you’ve not checked it out yet I highly recommend doing so. Even without its queer representation it remains the best animated show put out by Disney in decades and it’s consistently improving on all fronts. Which is why it’s a shame that there are people insistent on holding it back.
American production companies have a long history of shutting down queer rep in their media, Disney arguably being the biggest offender of them all. While the past decade have seen an increase in queer rep in their animated TV shows, such as Doc McStuffins featuring a lesbian couple or the titular main character of Star vs the Forces of Evil being all but confirmed bisexual (or pansexual) in later seasons, it has not come without pushback.
Gravity Falls showrunner Alex Hirsch, himself part of The Owl House crew, have openly criticized Disney for cracking down on him and others wanting more overt queer representation in their shows in the past, arguing that Disney’s public celebration of Pride is an act of hypocrisy on their part. There’s additional evidence to support this as well, with storyboards for Gravity Falls having examples of small queer elements that got removed for the final production.
However, whenever this is brought up people are quick to leap to Disney’s defence with the aforementioned argument that it’s because of international markets rather than queerphobia exhibited by Disney themselves or by American audiences. At first this might even seem true, as several recent cartoons with queer content have been heavily censored in non-American territories.
Adventure Time’s kiss between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen in the final episode was cut in several Asian territories and the Latin American release of Steven Universe cut entire episodes despite being plot relevant because of its queer characters and themes. Here in Sweden, Steven Universe also saw direct censorship which led to a massive outcry from fans who thought we had long since gotten past this kind of erasure.
But the thing about this is that it happens regardless of how big or small the queer representation is, which itself begs the question of why American production companies are eager to cater to the censors by making it easier for them to go through with such cuts. It certainly doesn’t speak much for those companies believing in the integrity of their workers and their work if appeasing foreign censors takes precedence over creating the art they want to make.
American companies catering to censorship doesn’t just happen in animation either. In 2019, CBS censored The Good Fight by removing an animated short that satirized Chinese censorship, effectively proving how American censorship is prevalent in the exact same way.
But what does this have to do with The Owl House? Well, in episode 5 of the second season, Luz and Amity are talking outside Amity’s house after the adventure of the week. Having felt a boost of confidence for reasons I will talk about later, Amity tells Luz that she has a way of sneaking into people’s hearts and kisses her on the cheek, before rushing back inside – panicking about her decision to kiss her. This is the final seconds of the episode and it served to mark that the relationship between the two characters was finally about to move past just being friends.
However, much to the dismay of the show’s crew, several US television networks censored this kiss. Right before Amity says her line and kisses Luz on the cheek, they would cut to credits instead. This wasn’t directly done by Disney themselves, but rather by a handful of third-party network providers of Disney Channel. Depending on where in the US you lived and what network provider you had, the kiss might or might not be in there.
And this sheds the light on why Disney and other production companies are happy to please censorship in foreign countries. Because it keeps the focus on international censorship rather than show how American networks are just as happy to remove queerness in its media. It’s much easier to point to a distant villain that the average American can’t really do much about than to face the fact that America is full of queerphobic agendas wielded by people in positions of power – to the point where even the house of mouse itself will rather bow to it than stand with its creators.
It’s depressing, to say the least, but not surprising. However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel here and this is ultimately why I wanted to use The Owl House as the basis for this video. Because while that kiss was easy to cut out of the show, most of the queer rep in The Owl House is much more difficult to surgically remove in this way.
Some things, such as shots of Willow’s dads, can still be removed without much hassle, but as I mentioned before. Luz and Amity are girlfriends now, they’re dating. Not just that, this development is consistently tied to other developments of the main narrative. While you can remove the entire episode where Luz and Amity dance at Grom and only really lose that particular development, the same can not be said for the second season’s episodes.
In the same episode as the kiss that was cut by some US networks, Amity has a scene with her older twin siblings, Edric and Emira. She talks about how being around Luz makes her act all strange and different from her usual self, to which Emira says that maybe that’s a good thing because before that she wasn’t happy. Now that Luz is making her act and feel these new things she’s growing as a person and is a beacon of sunshine, most of the time at least. The scene ends on Amity cutting her hair and dyeing it lilac pink, rather than use the green dye she’s used to appease her mother and to match her older siblings.
This scene is clearly about coming out of the closet. It’s direct to the point that it’s more important for Amity to be happy and honest with her feelings than to shut them away and conform to how others think she should be. It directly mentions Luz as the key reason and it ends on a transformation, showing us the new “out” Amity. This scene was not removed by those networks and as a result the final scene remains a clear queer moment even without the kiss.
Similarly, the episode where Luz and Amity ask each other out and start dating, episode 8 of the second season, is split into three stories, all of which have a great effect on the general development of the show’s narrative. I won’t get into the first two because this isn’t about spoiling the show’s story, but the third and arguably largest part of the episode is about Hooty, voiced by the aforementioned Alex Hirsch, trying to help Luz confess to Amity and ask her out.
The episode’s writing is direct about this, constantly mentions it throughout the episode and this becomes the big climactic conclusion to all three story parts, making it impossible to remove it from the episode without chopping up the story so bad it can’t be followed and your censorship efforts will become greatly apparent. As we’ve seen with other shows, that won’t necessarily stop the censorship, but the more obvious the cuts become the bigger the pushback against it becomes as well.
The very next episode has further main narrative developments, basically setting up the plot for the rest of the season or possibly even the rest of the show, and once again the episode’s writing consistently references Luz and Amity being a couple. Once again, any effort to cut this out of the episode will result in very obvious damage to the story.
This decision to weave the show’s primary queer relationship into major developments is a brilliant decision on the crew’s part and I’m glad that despite Disney’s history of shutting down queerness in their shows they were able to push through for it – though it hasn’t been easy. According to showrunner Dana Terrace, Disney initially tried to get rid of the queerness in her proposed show, but her stubbornness thankfully won over them in the end. While this happened in its early production, Terrace has stated that the current leadership at Disney’s TV Animation has been much more supportive of her efforts.
This becomes quite apparent when you look at how much queer development involving main characters have already taken place despite the show just being halfway through its second season with a third season already confirmed. Many other shows have had to ride out their entire run just to get part of what The Owl House has already been able to achieve in one and a half seasons. And obviously this is in part thanks to how many other American produced cartoons have taken steps to include queer representation in recent years.
From the aforementioned shows to The Legend of Korra ending on Korra and Asami together, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power centring its main character conflict and development around a slow-burn lesbian relationship, DuckTales including gay ducks for the first time in Donald Duck media history, Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts having Benson not just be gay but even mention the G-word in the show itself, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic having a lesbian wedding in the penultimate episode and confirming many other ponies as queer, Twelve Forever having its final episodes centre on the female lead discovering her feelings for another girl and many more examples like that…
Without the countless efforts made by the crews behind these shows, we wouldn’t be where we are today where a show like The Owl House can exist in its current format. That doesn’t mean that there’s not room left to improve, the point of progress is that it continues to move forward, and I have to admit I worry about the recent reports that Disney had decided to cut The Owl House’s third and potentially final season in half before the second season had even started airing let alone reached international audiences through Disney+.
Following these reports, fans were quick to rally together on social media under the hashtags #SaveTheOwlHouse and #MoreTheOwlHouse with many of the show’s crew coming out in support of and directly thanking the fans trying to convince Disney of not cutting the show’s lifespan short. As of now, it’s honestly not clear how things will go. The Owl House is popular and has only gotten more popular throughout its second season, from a popularity standpoint it makes little sense for Disney to close the doors on it already. But when you consider the conservative response to queerness in kids’ media, it starts to make a lot more sense.
America is full of queerphobic reactionaries who will go after anything that tells children they don’t have to conform to the most basic norms of gender and sexuality. This is true of many other places as well, as I have already mentioned in this video, but few are as loud and visible as those in the US. It’s not out of character for Disney, being an American company who has always put forward the image of traditional American values, to want to move on from The Owl House to not have to deal with this particular crowd.
But this is why the fan movement on social media matters as well, since by rallying behind the show we can allow our own voices to be louder and more visible as that of the queerphobic reactionaries and hopefully drown out the idea that their hatred and intolerance is the prevalent mindset audiences have. Disney are by no means our friend, no corporation is, but they are an organization that wants to cater to the larger masses. Be it through more The Owl House or simply more queer representation in mainstream media created by queer people, it’s only by showing that there’s more of us than there are of them that will yield us that result.
That’s my little talk about queer representation in American animation and why I think The Owl House is the best example of it so far. If you wish to watch The Owl House it is available on Disney+, Prime Video and Hulu in a variety of territories. But don’t worry, if it’s not available to you where you live, there’s still room for you over here in The Owl Club, wink-wink, so please do check it out. It’s a wonderful series and if you’ve been looking for a great “school of witchcraft” fix ever since the TERF Queen showed her true sides this is all you could ask for and more.
If you like my content and would like to support me you can do so on my Patreon or by donating to my Ko-fi, it’s always very appreciated. You can also follow me on Twitter at @FeoUltima where I rant about all sorts of various topics that get lodged in my mind. Until next time, I’m Andrea and… I’ve been talking for too long.