Netflix's 'The Mitchells vs. the Machines' is how to do LGBTQ representation in kids' movies

Netflix’s ‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ is how to do LGBTQ representation in kids’ movies

It might only be one line in the final scene of the Netflix animated family film “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” but with it the movie embraces queer representation beyond anything Disney, the most celebrated children’s programming company, has ever been willing to do in its animated movies.

“Are you and Jade official?” mom Linda Mitchell (voiced by Maya Rudolph) says to her daughter, Katie (Abbi Jacobson). “And will you bring her home for Thanksgiving?”

As a straight parent, I’m grateful to see more queer representation on children’s programming. I’ve seen for myself how early heteronormative conditioning starts for young children; it’s often before they have any awareness of their own identity and usually before they are born. My husband and I were saddened — but not surprised — to receive well-meaning gifts of baby clothing that read “Ahoy ladies!” and “Ladies’ man” when our own child was born, items that projected onto him an orientation that was entirely presumptuous and contradictory to our parenting philosophy.

When kids can’t see people like themselves in books or on the screen, it is easy for them to feel invisible.

The world can be a scary, stigmatized place, and I don’t want to mimic that kind of environment at home. To achieve this, I believe avoiding assumptions is key — but so is demonstrating that loving people and loving families come in all varieties. So being able to see diverse families and diverse people represented in family entertainment is an assist I sorely need as a parent.

Representation of all kinds matter — from canonical queer representation to positive representation of Black people, Indigenous people and all people of color. When kids can’t see people like themselves in books or on the screen, it is easy for them to feel invisible. Over time, feeling invisible in the world might lead them to feel like they don’t matter when they do or like there is something wrong with them when there isn’t.

Accurate representation helps people feel less alone, especially people from marginalized communities. Helping LGBTQ children feel seen enough to talk to someone, to seek help, is vital when you consider that The Trevor Project’s 2019 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 39 percent of LGBTQ respondents seriously considered attempting suicide in the prior 12 months, a percentage that rises to more than half for transgender and nonbinary youth specifically.

The world can be a scary, stigmatized place, and I don’t want to mimic that kind of environment at home.

Queer youth deserve to see characters like themselves — and characters that represent them accurately, not characters where their identities are merely hinted at and certainly not ones where they are stereotyped as trope-y villains or sidekicks. They deserve to see themselves as the protagonist of their own stories, like Katie Mitchell.

In “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” Katie’s queerness is part of who she is, but it’s not the only characteristic that makes her noteworthy.

“Katie is the kind of character I would want [my two young nieces] to look to and be inspired by and want to be like,” Jacobson, who voices her, said. “She’s totally herself, wildly creative, a great big sister, hilarious, queer, [and] excited to dive into her passions.”

While my 7-year-old giggled and guffawed through the entire movie, at no point did he even particularly take note of Katie’s initial coded — as she puts it — “weirdness,” or later confirmed queerness. He was simply enthralled with this cool teenage protagonist who loves rainbows and drawing, just like he does.

Queer youth deserve to see themselves as the protagonist of their own stories, like Katie Mitchell.

And, just as important as Katie is, it’s important for kids to see a parent like Linda Mitchell, who supports and loves Katie for who she is. As a mom to a growing first grader just starting to figure out life, I want him to feel safe in coming to me no matter what he might struggle with down the road. Linda Mitchell being there for Katie demonstrates that for him (and maybe for parents who will watch this movie with their kids).

This isn’t the only show we’ve been able to watch together with this kind of presentation: PBS’ “Arthur,” Nickelodeon’s “Legend of Korra” and Cartoon Network’s “Steven Universe” are among the shows to lead the way, and Netflix’s “Representation Matters” collection celebrates diversity of all sorts.

One of the shows, “Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts” has become a family favorite because of its fascinating story and excellent music — but we also love it for its well-executed representation of LGBTQ characters of color and its infusion of Korean pop culture and language. My son, like many kids his age, did not blink an eye when Kipo’s best friend Benson told her he was gay.

One day, perhaps, my kiddo will appreciate growing up with “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” and a character who is unapologetically herself.

Still, for decades, Disney has refused to create an explicitly LGBTQ character in one of its movies, let alone confirm or deny the assumed queerness of its beloved major animated movie characters. Most recently, in the magnificent “Raya and the Last Dragon,” while the flirtatious energy between Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and her nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan) electrified the scenes, the studio stopped short of making any official claim of romance. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Tran disclosed that she chose to inject romantic feelings between her character and Chan’s but quickly clarified that the issue wasn’t addressed by Disney in the text.

Similarly, in “Frozen” and “Frozen 2,” despite Elsa becoming an LGBTQ icon outside the films and the movies’ hit songs “Let It Go” and “Show Yourself” both widely considered coming out anthems, Disney has chosen to leave the matter open to interpretation.

“The Mitchells vs the Machines” is, of course, not perfect: Every listed writer, director, producer and art director in the press notes presents as a white man with the exception of a sole female production designer. It’s a stark contrast from the diverse voice cast and exemplifies a long-existing problem in Hollywood — a problem I sincerely hope improves soon.

One day, perhaps, my kiddo will appreciate growing up with “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” and a character who is unapologetically herself, who finds “her people” both at home and in the world and proves she can do anything to which she puts her mind. Or maybe — and better yet — diverse representation in movies will become so much the norm that he will take it for granted.

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