When did cartoons start going gay? Was it when Bugs married Elmer in Rabbit of Seville? Or when Goofy got kissed by the milkman? When Sailor Moon started hanging around with those two lesbians? When The Simpsons met John Waters?
Pick whatever milestone you want, but my favorite is a 1996 episode of Rocko’s Modern Life that made animation queerer than it had ever been before.
At first glance, Rocko’s Modern Life looks like a cute little kids’ show — a plucky wallaby getting into wacky hijinks with his friends — but it’s loaded with (sometimes shocking) adult jokes and references that probably went way over the heads of the children in the audience, and likely quite a few adults as well. That includes an episode that seems as though it might be a metaphor for coming out of the closet, a topic that cartoons would have had to dance around in the ‘90s, and that Rocko was finally free to embrace upon its return via Netflix many years later.
Take, for example, the ‘96 episode Closet Clowns, which is ostensibly about one of the characters secretly being a clown — but on closer inspection seems to be loaded with subtle references to homosexuality. In a nutshell: Rocko’s neighbor Mr. Bighead discovers that he likes clowning, but considers it a terrible secret that he must keep hidden from family and friends.
In the world of Rocko’s Modern Life, clowns are a stigmatized class. “Take your freaky sideshow back to Scandinavia!” Mr. Bighead shouts at a clown before discovering that he’s a clown himself. (Scandinavia, in the ‘90s, was known for being the first region in the world where same-sex couples were afforded relationship recognition.)
But Bighead can’t resist the allure of a honking red nose for long, especially after he’s accidentally outed to his boss — who turns out to be a clown himself. Once he’s welcomed into the larger clown community, Bighead is delighted to have an outlet for his clowning, though he keeps it secret from his family and friends … until, to his horror, they discover the truth.
Okay, the metaphor doesn’t hold up entirely. Clowning is more of an activity, rather than being as innate as gender and sexual orientation. But I entirely identify with Bighead’s anxiety: Learning something about yourself that is simultaneously troubling and thrilling; fearing discovery by others; being found out at last. These were experiences that I was going through in 1996, and it’s a bit personally shocking to see a cartoon frog experience the same thing with clowning.
Creator Joe Murray revealed in a recent interview that the episode was, indeed, intended to be a metaphor for homosexuality. “It was intentional,” he said, adding that gay staffers helped craft the coming-out metaphor.
As it happened, Rocko came at a particularly sensitive time for queer themes in animation. For decades, cartoons had flirted with queerness, but only as a gag: Chuck Jones confirmed in an interview (coincidentally, the same year this episode of Rocko aired) that the cross-dressing was always just a joke. Viewers might find explicit queer content in underground or countercultural cartoons, but until the ‘90s, queer characters in animation were mostly limited to anime. (And even then, they were often censored for US audiences, which is how we wound up with Sailor Moon’s lesbian friends becoming laughably implausible cousins.)
So how did Rocko’s Modern Life manage to deploy what is clearly a queer metaphor on a kids’ show? I think that’s thanks to Nickelodeon’s notoriously hands-off approach to cartoons. When Nick decided to produce their own original shows, they gave creators unprecedented levels of freedom, as a way of distinguishing themselves from the corporate toy commercials of the ‘80s. Nick shows had always been messy, experimental, and weird, going all the way back to the shoelace-and-duct-tape production values of Pinwheel in the 1970s, and Nicktoons were notoriously creator-driven with minimal executive oversight.
In the excellent Nickelodeon documentary The Orange Years, a handful of Nick execs acknowledged that maybe they should have been paying more attention way back then — but their regrets, if any, seem minimal.
Wonderfully, Rocko returned in 2019 for a Netflix special, Static Cling, which features an openly queer character in a pivotal role. Her name is Rachel, and she helps Rocko realize that although the world may shift in unfamiliar ways, accepting those shifts can mean embracing changes for the better.
What had to be obliquely hinted at in the ‘90s can now be front and center — after two decades, shows like Rocko can finally tell the stories they’ve always wanted to, without having to twist queer themes into goofy metaphors. Modern life, it turns out, isn’t so hard to cope with as Rocko always feared.