Ten years ago today, the stop-motion animation studio Laika released ParaNorman. It’s a film perhaps best remembered for the way it boldly threaded zombie movie tropes into animated family fare, deftly mixing heart, humor, and scares.
But, for our purposes, ParaNorman also deserves credit for its trailblazing inclusion of the genre’s first gay himbo character. And we’re (un)dead serious about that.
Well before Disney began touting “exclusively gay moments,” Laika did what no other studio had done before: It introduced the first openly gay character in a mainstream animated feature… who, yes, also happened to be a sweet and brawny airhead.
Sure, it’s nothing more than a brief mention of a same-sex partner. And, yes, it doesn’t come until the film’s final moments. But what ParaNorman did was pretty remarkable for the time, and it’s just part of why the film deserves to be seen as a new animated classic.
To back up a bit, ParaNorman is the story of a kid named (you guessed it) Norman, a young New Englander with a penchant for horror, who also happens to have the ability to talk to ghosts. His special gift and his peculiar interests make him something of an outsider, but they also make him the only person who can save the town from a vengeful spirit with ties to its witch-hunting past.
We promise it’s not quite as dark as it sounds, due in large part to Laika’s characteristically jaw-dropping visuals (in terms of stop-motion animation, no one’s doing it like them these days), but also its lovable cast of characters, which includes a misunderstood witch, some helpful zombies, and a makeshift “Scooby Gang” of friends who aid Norman on his quest.
Among them is our aforementioned himbo, Mitch, the jock-y 20 year-old brother of Norman’s bestie. Mouth frequently agape, what Mitch lacks in smarts he makes up for in pure muscle (the combination of bulking shoulders with scrawny legs a matter of flawlessly executed character design) and his skill behind the wheel of his beloved van.
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Despite his imposing nature and above-it-all attitude, he becomes a crucial ally to Norman. But that’s not the only way Mitch surprises us…
Toward the film’s end, Norman’s older sister, Courtney, decides to ask Mitch on a date after having spent their entire adventure flirting with him. A movie, perhaps? “That sounds great, Cathy,” Mitch responds, blatantly forgetting her name. “You know, you’re going to love my boyfriend. He’s like a total chick-flick nut!”
And that’s it. We don’t get to see the movie date—we don’t even get to meet the boyfriend—and there’s no other reference to the fact that Mitch is gay. In retrospect, it does feel pretty minimal, but, by simply including an out gay character, Laika did what Disney (or any other mainstream animation studio) didn’t have the conviction to do at the time.
Sure, it’s all for a punchline, but the joke isn’t at Mitch’s expense. Instead, it challenges the audience’s perceptions and asks us to reconsider what we might assume about an individual based on how they look or talk, all while adding further detail to a complex character. ParaNorman doesn’t use Mitch’s sexuality—or his same-sex partner—as a crutch to tell us what we need to know about him, it just lets us get to know him as a (fictional, animated) human being.
By not publicizing this “gay moment” ahead of time, ParaNorman wasn’t hit with claims of queer-baiting or met with blowback for under-delivering on expectations. Of course, it did have its critics (would you be surprised to hear that Breitbart accused the film of tricking audiences?) and surely still does now. But as the film’s writer and co-director Chis Butler—who is gay—sees it, Mitch’s sexuality is just part of the fabric of the movie’s story, one that’s all about tolerance:
“Tackling narrow-mindedness is the heart of our movie,” Butler shared with GLAAD back in 2013. “And it seemed if we were truly going to say something about tolerance, if we were going to champion the idea of accepting people for who they are, then we should really have the strength of our convictions, and that meant breaking a few taboos. Mitch being gay was one of them.”
A decade on, animated films and television have come a long way in terms of LGBTQ representation, even if some of Hollywood’s biggest hitmakers are still struggling to depict queer lives on screen. But with ParaNorman, Laika proved that it could be done authentically without betraying its story, its characters, or its queer audience, making history in the process.
And, finally, it gave gay himbos everywhere and all-too-rare example of positive on-screen representation.