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James Dempsey: Kids’ flick plays it straight with gay normal amid the paranormal


IT’S a throwaway line right at the very end of the movie, but zombie-kids’ flick Paranorman’s last-reel revelation that the big dumb jock has a boyfriend has seen this gem of a film criticised and celebrated in equal measure across the Internet. A game-changing first in animated cinema or an attempt to force lifestyle values onto an unsuspecting audience of children? One thing’s for sure, the Christian Right and LGBT movement probably won’t be settling this debate in a website comment section any time soon.

That said, both sides of the debate stand firm on one point; Mitch, the Casey Affleck-voiced star quarterback of Blithe Hollow’s football team, is the first openly gay character in a mainstream Hollywood animated movie. And in spite of the zealous fingerwagging, the questions of morality and the near endless huffing and puffing (no pun intended), both sides of the debate stand united in ignorance, because they are fundamentally wrong; Mitch, for all his doltish trailblazing or wicked sinfulness, wasn’t the first, rather the most normal.

The facts are these: in 1999, Trey Parker and Matt Stone released South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, to rip roaring R-rated acclaim and considerable condemnation, with at least three gay characters on screen. Being the subversive satirists that they are, of course, Parker and Stone’s film sees a deceased Saddam Hussein going mano-a-mano with Satan himself, sharing sex toys and beds in scenes from a marriage in dainty’s Inferno, while back on Earth, Big Gay Al sashays about the Colorado town.

Broad stereotypes of flaming homosexuality used for shock value, probably, and not in a movie marketed for consumption by children, definitely. But even taking these traits into account, Mitch isn’t the first. Since the 90s, Waylon Smithers, Mr. Burns’ personal assistant and Springfield’s most prolific Malibu Stacy collector, has been carrying an unrequited flame for his octogenarian employer, and was right up there on the silver screen when the Simpsons ventured into moviemaking. Not out of the closet? Fair enough, but Patty Bouvier, Marge’s sister, has openly waving the rainbow flag as the Sapphic Simpson since 2005, and also featured in the film.

So, not the first, but the first in stop-motion animation, surely? Sorry, nope, Mitch is following in the painstakingly hand-animated footsteps of another marionette, namely Damian Cyril Popodopolous. 2009’s Mary and Max, the story of two unlikely penpals from different hemispheres, sees Toni Collette’s Mary fall head over heels for Eric Bana’s Damian, her next door neighbour who enjoys watering his mother’s roses while listening to Boy George and dreaming of a career as a thespian or cake decorator.

What makes Mitch an interesting character, at least from the perspective of a genre of cinema that rarely tries to raise debate about the heteronormative, is that his inclusion in the film is so simple and normal. He’s a guy, a jock, an all-American boy next door, a fair bit dim and easily excited. When attacked by a Puritan zombie, his reaction to kicking the undead head away is to marvel at the distance it covers.

And with one small comedic line, made all the better for Casey Affleck’s drawling voice work, he reveals another detail about his life. No more, no less. There’s no hand-holding, no limp-wristed lisping monologue, no stolen embraces or overt sexual innuendo. It seems merely academic that this throwaway fact is what Christian groups should choose as the subject of their ire in a film that contains themes of the occult and mysticism from the outset, and opens with a prolonged sequence glorifying a curvy ingénue’s rear.

But equally, those advocates of Mitch, heralding him as some beacon of enlightened change and symbol of radical readjustment, need to step back and put him fairly in his place. He’s a normal guy, in a paranormal world, who just happens to have a boyfriend. The film does it without fanfare, espousing its overlying message of tolerance, and presents it as just another fact in the ordinary. And since when has what is ordinary and normal merited column inches?

Follow James: @jim_on_a_whim