What it means to have a gay character in How to Train Your Dragon 2

For those who haven’t seen the news, it’s been revealed that How to Train Your Dragon 2 will feature one of the characters from the first film coming out as gay.  In an interview with E! Online, the film’s director, Dean DeBlois, explained that one character will be coming out and told the interviewer which character that was.  (I’m not going to spoil that here, but if you want to read the interview which does spoil it, you can find it here.)  The moment comes as an offhand comment, ad-libbed by the character’s voice actor, and was not a part of DeBlois’ original script, however the openly gay DeBlois said, “I think that’s a really fun [and] daring move to put in.”

I’m sure there are many people out there who are saying, “So what?  Why do we need to make a big deal out of this?”  I wish we lived in a world where something like this didn’t need to be celebrated, where something like Michael Sam being drafted was not newsworthy, but the reality is that instances like this are still few and far between.  LGBT characters may be more prevalent than ever, and I’m sure any of us could rattle off half a dozen TV shows featuring them (though rarely as the leads).  There are plenty of films about LGBT characters as well, but when you look at the big blockbusters each year you’d be hard pressed to find one.  Animation, however, is another beast entirely.

There has been exactly one gay character in an animated film that wasn’t aimed at adult audiences (i.e. South Park), and that was in ParaNorman.  In that film the character Mitch, an 18 year old jock who is flirted with throughout the film by the protagonist’s cheerleader sister, reveals that he is gay when asked out to the movies by a girl.  “You’re gonna love my boyfriend, he’s like a total chick flick nut!” he says.  It’s a great moment, coming when least expected and challenging our expectations and prejudices, and it ties in to the film’s message perfectly.

And while I applaud Laika Studios for being bold enough to include a gay character, it didn’t suddenly mean that everyone now magically has equal representation in movies.  There was certainly some outcry from conservative groups over the film, but it was widely ignored because the film was not exactly a smash hit.  It was an independent, stop-motion animated film, not a big budget CG powerhouse of a movie, and it’s modest $100 million worldwide gross shows that not many people even saw it.  I applaud Laika for sticking to an inclusive message in their trailers for the next film, but the end result is still a message that will not be widely seen.

That all has an opportunity to change with How to Train Your Dragon 2, a film that is much more well placed to make a big impact.  The first film, while not as successful as something like Frozen, still made a tidy profit at the box office and has seen its fandom grow ever since.  The film about an underdog character became something of an underdog itself, and ended up with Oscar nominations, video games, a TV spinoff, and countless toys and other merchandise, all leading up to the first of two planned sequels.  A “coming out” moment equivalent to the one in ParaNorman (one line that has no bearing on the plot) has the chance to reach many more people with How to Train Your Dragon 2.

It also is a bold statement for Dreamworks Animation to make, as one of the four major animation studios in the country (Dreamworks, Sony, 20th Century Fox/Blue Sky and Disney/Pixar).  Even if the moment came because of an improvisation, the fact that it’s still in the movie represents a first shot by Dreamworks for equality, even if they may not see it that way.  It cracks open the door which ParaNorman first unlocked, paving the way for another studio or another Dreamworks film to push that door wide open.

I shouldn’t oversell this moment, however.  It’s still an offhand line thrown in partly as a joke, about a minor supporting character and which has no bearing on the plot or that character’s story.  And it’s entirely possible that that line might be cut before the film’s release next month.  And people have already begun objecting to the news, frequently with statements like, “I don’t have a problem with gay people, but it’s not appropriate for a kid’s movie and I don’t see why they have to shove their agenda down our children’s throats.”

Imagine, however, a gay young person going to see this film who has never once seen a character in a film aimed at him or her whom he or she could relate to.  They go see one of the summer’s biggest animated films and suddenly they see a character in a film they love that is a huge hit that they can finally identify with.  Now imagine 5 or 10 years from now, when we might be to a point where an animated film actually has an LGBT protagonist.  We’re still a long way from that but it might happen.

So where do things go from here?  Will this be the start of something big or just a throwaway comment that comes and goes and is never discussed again?  Could Disney’s next animated film, Big Hero 6 which comes out in November, feature an LGBT character?  How about Disney’s next musical film, Moana?  Maybe Pixar will be the next ones to step up, or Fox or Sony.  Maybe we won’t see another until How to Train Your Dragon 3.  I have to hope that this is the start of something more.  For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.

10 thoughts on “What it means to have a gay character in How to Train Your Dragon 2

  1. I agree, this is a really good thing. Time for Disney to have a Princess falling for a woman. It would certainly extend the ‘I don’t need a man’ sensibility of Elsa in Frozen.

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    • I agree completely, however the realistic part of me (which is a tiny, tiny part) says that we’re probably still a looooong way from that happening. I think a supporting character/parent/best friend/sidekick will be how Disney first introduces an LGBT character.

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  2. I’d agree that it’s probably a good thing to have a character who happens to be gay, especially if it isn’t a movie specifically about being gay. There are people who are gay in all walks of life and fair representations of the world should show them, in the same ways they show people who aren’t.

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    • You’re exactly right. It could be such a positive thing to have representation in a way that didn’t make a big deal out of it. Simply having a gay character in among the straight characters, who treat the difference as normal, is a much more effective and positive thing than the sort of movies that are all about “Look at the gay character!!!” The reality is that gay people are in all aspects of society and most people probably know someone who is gay, so why can’t movies reflect that?

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  3. I loved the bit in ParaNorman. That’s exactly how I’d like to see it done, not as a huge deal, but as a part of the diversity of life.

    (OK, going to go read the spoiler because, if they cut it, I wanna know…)

    HTTYD was one of the best animated films ever. My buddies and I have done Viking re-enactment for decades, and found the film design a hoot. The animators clearly studied the viking Age, understood it… then ran off in left field and into the horizon with it.

    The Night Fury, Toothless, looks like my cat….

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    • I think we’re nearing the point where LGBTQ characters will exist in films without the need to call attention to them or make it a big deal, although we’re not there yet. ParaNorman did a great job with it.
      I was surprised by HTTYD, because as a fan of the books the film is SOOOO different that I wasn’t sure I’d like it. But it was so well done that I couldn’t help myself and I loved it.
      Toothless was actually intentionally modeled off of cats, especially in movement and behavior.

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  4. so (spoilers, sort of), the gay character is suggested in a throwaway one-liner……..

    …it’s funny, it’s clever, it’s going to go over the heads of anyone not paying attention (including Grandma), but attaching the line to the character who says it, says something about the wealth of ingenuity, innovation, strength, companionship, staunch friendship, courageous sidekickness (???), that we lose if we marginalize the LGBT community.

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  5. Pingback: Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 | Love Pirate's Ship's Log

    • The gay character is Gobber. Its really subtle and was actually disappointing when I finally saw the movie. You wouldn’t even know what he was referring to if you hadn’t heard in advance. When Hiccup’s mom and dad are arguing, Gobber says that that’s why he never married, before adding, “Well, that and one other reason.” The director and actor have both said that that means he’s gay, but taken on its own it could mean anything.

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