Welcome to the latest installment of our 2022 Pride Month Series! For the entire month of June, we will be highlighting different members of the LGBTQIA+ community who we think are great examples of representation and dynamic characterization. We will focus on fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — the positive voices within the LGBTQIA+ community and in mainstream media. Today’s article focuses on Katie Mitchell of The Mitchells vs. The Machines, the first openly queer leading character in a family animated film.
In children’s media, overt references to LGBTQ characters and issues are rare. Queer characters are limited to one-off guest appearances on animated series or background characters on the big screen. Often, these characters are designed specifically to be “the” LGBTQ character, limiting their personalities and storylines. While shows like The Owl House have started to break this mold in recent years, the big screen remains a barrier to openly queer leading characters.
One animated film that has changed the game for queer representation in children’s animation is The Mitchells vs. The Machines, a charming and sweet film with an openly queer protagonist. It follows the Mitchell family as they battle sentient robots set loose by a tech company, all while processing the complicated emotions that come with sending their oldest daughter Katie off to college. The film swept the Annie Awards in 2021 and was nominated for an Academy Award, becoming a critical darling as well as a commercial success for Netflix.
Katie Mitchell is portrayed as queer from the beginning of the film, but her sexuality is just one of many aspects of her personality and is more subtle than most portrayals of LGBTQ characters in animation. In fact, The Mitchells vs. The Machines’ central conflict is not about her parents discovering her sexuality or Katie coming out. Instead, it focuses on the universal issues of growing up and growing away from your family. Katie never has a coming-out discussion with her family, and her sexuality is expressed through subtle visual cues and character choices instead. By the end of the film, her parents are easily inviting her new college girlfriend Jade over for dinner with no angst or discussion at all. Katie is just Katie, and her family has no problem with that.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines offers an authentic point of view on Katie’s queerness, and this is because her character was designed by queer creatives as described in a deep-dive piece for Insider. During the production process, LGBTQ animator Lizzy Nichols began to realize that the character she was creating was a lot like her. Director Michael Rianda (who previously worked on Gravity Falls) was in secret discussions with studio Sony to make the character explicitly queer, but the conversation had stalled. Wanting to help, Nichols wrote an impassioned letter to Sony executives that convinced the team to make Katie openly queer. Rianda later shared that letter on Twitter, praising not only Nichols but also the other LGBTQ team members that spoke up internally to support the character’s arc, including her voice actor, Abbi Jacobson, who identifies as queer. He also noted that many of the design choices made for Katie were championed by queer animators to make sure Katie was a realistic interpretation of a queer teenager.
Katie’s character and the film itself are both proof that having LGBTQ creatives involved in telling their own stories is vital to creating truly great representation. Through both subtle nods and explicit references, the team behind The Mitchells vs. The Machines was able to bring a vibrant and fun character to life that kids will look up to for years to come.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines is available now on Netflix. Be sure to check out our other Pride Spotlights this month!