Notes from an Angry Queer: Compulsive Heteronormativity in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)

All too often, when a new game or film or television show that includes the barest representation of the LGBTQ+ community is announced, an inevitable, angry chorus of cisgender, heterosexual people shout out in unison: I’m fine with gay people, but why do you have to shove it down my throat like this? Thankfully, the media producers in question usually forge ahead, much to the delight (or chagrin – no one piece of media is perfect) of the LGBTQ+ community. But then, if even the smallest crumb of queer representation is enough to make cishet people choke, then is the same true for a queer person forced to navigate society’s constant stream of compulsive heteronormativity? Short answer: yes. Every time a parent holds a gender reveal party, an adult asks their toddler, ‘Is that your boy/girlfriend?’, or coos about how two opposite gender children will eventually get married, they are shoving their own heteronormative expectations onto their child – and anyone else within earshot. And this isn’t limited to interactions with children: compulsive heteronormativity comes out in any kind of media where cishet couples live happily ever after while gay couples tragically perish (known as Bury Your Gays), or when producers tease a queer relationship that simply does not come to fruition (looking at what you did to Le Fou, Disney). As just another cog in the cisheteropatriarchal machine, Dreamworks is not immune. Its canon of films, including the Shrek (2001-2010) films, Megamind (Tom McGrath, 2010), and Kung-Fu Panda (2008-) all focus on heteronormative narratives. True, the fact that Dreamworks specifically deals in animated media that largely includes fantasy elements does automatically queer the studio’s work. And even though the characters are overwhelmingly cis and straight, their roles as societal outcasts (e.g. Hiccup, Shrek, Megamind, and Po) queers them as well. However, I have never seen a film fight so hard against its own queerness and go to such extraordinarily lengths to reassert its heteronormativity – a kind of filmic ‘NO HOMO’, if you will – as How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (Dean Deblois, 2019). The third and final instalment of Dreamworks’ successful franchise, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World erases its queer characters, turns its women into props, and upholds fragile masculinity above all else. In other words: a queer nightmare.

Fig. 1 - Queer love in  How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World  (Dean Deblois, 2019).

Fig. 1 - Queer love in How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (Dean Deblois, 2019).

In the original How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup, the film’s hero, is an outcast and consistently fails to live up to the manly, dragon-hunting standards of Berk, his Viking community. As per J. Halberstam in Queer Art of Failure (2011), this makes Hiccup queer, regardless of his crush on his female friend, Astrid. Moreover, by developing a relationship with Toothless, a ‘ferocious’ dragon, and integrating him into Berk, he queers his own community (Fig. 1). However, in The Hidden World Hiccup’s queerness is all but gone. His role as chieftain of Berk and his anxieties around being a capable leader are front and centre in his arc. Rather than using his queerness to look after his clan, he tries to lead the same way as every man that came before him: through strength and daring, bolstered by a woman’s love. It is as if Dreamworks reviewed the first two films, realised that they had made a queer character in a queerly fantastical world, and then did everything they could to ‘straighten’ both out. In the end, Hiccup relinquishes his friendship with Toothless, sending him away in the hope that he and the other dragons will be better off hidden from humankind. Hiccup and Astrid get married and eventually have kids, completing their heteronormative nuclear family unit. A much older and naturally bearded Hiccup does briefly reunite with Toothless, but in a secretive, Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2003) kind of way, except this time the wife actually approves. With the dragons gone, Berk’s and Hiccup’s queerness evaporates, leaving only the stale stench of heterosexual stability.

For all of Hiccup’s queerness, he still isn’t canonically queer. For that there’s Gobber, Berk’s blacksmith and a ‘confirmed bachelor’. In How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois, 2014) Gobber confesses to Hiccup that settling down and marrying a woman was never in the cards for him, saying, ‘This is why I never married. This and one other reason’. An article in EW notes that Gobber’s voice actor, Craig Ferguson (who is himself gay), ad-libbed the line and director Dean Deblois kept it in the final cut. At the time of the article, Gobber’s future romances still remained in the air. With the debut of The Hidden World, we now know that Gobber remains single. This would be fine, if not a little disappointing. However, in this instalment of HTTYD Gobber is now the mouthpiece of heteronormativity, urging Hiccup and Astrid to get married at every turn. In fact, this apparent burning need to see Berk’s chieftain wed for the good of the tribe/community is Gobber’s single character trait in The Hidden World. I don’t understand this development: why would Gobber, a man who has never married and probably can’t (assuming Berk is anything like our own society), suddenly be the one pressuring two kids into marriage? If Gobber was queer in any sense in the first and second films, that has been erased by this ‘new’ Gobber of the third film. [Author’s note: Give Gobber a husband, you cowards!]

Fig. 2 - Let’s Talk About Hiccup.

Fig. 2 - Let’s Talk About Hiccup.

Gobber isn’t the only one to be reduced so completely. The women of Berk, especially Astrid, Ruffnut, and Valka, are consigned to the same fate – so much so that my partner leaned over and whispered, ‘This film is terrible for feminists.’ Indeed. The first How to Train Your Dragon was by no means a feminist utopia, but it still included multiple women in the core cast. Since no one of them was forced to represent womenkind as a whole, they were allowed to shine as individuals. Astrid was smart and strong, the best of her class in dragon-slaying training. Ruffnut, one of Hiccup’s classmates, was gross and a bit dim, but all the more interesting for it. Valka, Hiccup’s mother, appeared in the second film, a powerful and nurturing presence who used her strength and wisdom to protect the dragons. In the third and final film, these women are reduced to props. I can’t imagine a queer reading for any of them – they don’t have enough material to evoke any kind of reading at all, save their one note character traits: The Chieftan’s Girlfriend/Wife (Astrid), The Annoying One Who Loves Men (Ruffnut), and The Chieftain’s Mother (Valka). The film does not even pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test since none of the women, save Astrid and Valka, talk to each other (Fig. 2). When they do talk, it’s about Hiccup. I think it’s fitting that the instalment where the dragons vanish is also the instalment where strict heteronormativity completely takes over.[1]

Fig. 3 - (L-R) Fragile Masculinity and My Happiest Moment Ever.

Fig. 3 - (L-R) Fragile Masculinity and My Happiest Moment Ever.

Just as this heteronormative, patriarchal society flattens women and pushes them to the back, so, too, does it push all men to the front. Hiccup and his friends, Tuffnut and Snotlout, all take centre stage, thereby foisting their fragile and/or toxic masculinity on the audience. Tuffnut’s fragility centres on his beard – or lack thereof. Unlike a ‘real’ Viking, Tuffnut has yet to grow any facial hair. Instead, he ties his long hair around his chin and calls it a beard. I wish I was making this up. Moreover, Tuffnut is so insecure in his own masculinity that he projects his anxieties onto Hiccup, pulling him aside for ‘boy/man talk’ and instructing Hiccup on how to be a paragon of masculinity so he’ll be fit to marry Astrid. One such gem includes ‘Stop walking with a limp’ even though Hiccup has a prosthetic leg. It seems that, even though dragons queer Burk, the humans must still conform to the strictest heteronormative gender roles. When Tuffnut’s ‘beard’ is cut in half during the climatic fight scene, I was thrilled! Finally, he’ll face his fragility and accept his own non-normative masculinity (Fig. 3). Perhaps he will evolve! But no: he simply ties a new ‘beard’ that is shorter than ever and continues on, dashing my hopes in the process. Snotlout is just as insufferable, embodying the kind of ‘bro’ masculinity that can become toxic very quickly if not checked. Sadly, no one checks Snotlout and his antics are passed off as ‘harmless’. In the interim between How to Train Your Dragon 2 and The Hidden World, Snotlout has developed an enormous crush on Valka. Like any boy with a crush, he brightens when she compliments him and tries to ingratiate himself to her. The crush becomes toxic in the way Snotlout swaggers around, claiming he is Valka’s favourite, stopping just short of telling Hiccup ‘I’m going to be your new dad’. This is creepy – and yet Hiccup does nothing to deter him! Worse, Valka actually encourages this behaviour. Snotlout imagines himself in a love triangle with Valka and Eret, a much older and more muscular denizen of Berk. Eret has no idea. Valka has no interest in either man. Nevertheless, at the end of the film Valka leans over to Snotlout and says she prefers him to Eret. I can’t help but think that this is how swaggering boys turn into rapey jerks: rather than shutting down their gross behaviour, people in power find it cute and let it slide. That Valka puts up with Snotlout’s crush and writes it off as harmless is outright dangerous to the other women of Berk (again assuming their society is anything like ours). What is worse is that both Tuffnut and Snotlout are treated as jokes. Neither Tuffnut nor Snotlout are able to grow Viking-standard facial hair (Snotlout has what I can only call a pornstache), and Snotlout is hopelessly unable to court the right women. These failings ultimately queer them. However, instead of celebrating them for their own queer masculinity, the film laughs at them, thereby reinforcing the painfully strict masculine gender roles laid out by the cisheteropatriarchy. I have to wonder, what is Dreamworks so afraid of?

Even the dragons, the queerest, most fantastical element of the franchise, are ‘straightened out’, specifically Toothless. The last of the Night Furies, Toothless has developed an extremely strong bond with Hiccup since they both start out isolated and lonely. In The Hidden World, Toothless meets a female dragon like him, known only as the Light Fury. The Light Fury leads Toothless to the Hidden World, where thousands of dragons have been living in secret. Suddenly, after six years of friendship, Toothless has to leave Hiccup to be with his girlfriend and her kind. This speaks to the idea that once a man is married, he can no longer go on adventures or hang out with his best friends anymore. Finally, the entire design of the Light Fury is pretty sexist, but I’ll let this Tumblr post from @irrevocably-voltron explain why.[2]

As I’ve mentioned before in an earlier blog post, fantasy queers an already-queer medium. Whenever I apply this argument to another piece of media, I find this spark of joy: I’m not alone, I’m not wrong. When a studio like Dreamworks releases a film like How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, I get angry. It is as if the studio created a vision of a queer utopia and, upon making this startling realisation, decided to fight against that vision’s queerness tooth and claw. They erase their queer characters, define women solely by their relationships to men, and ultimately place masculinity – with all its insecurities, fragility, and toxicity – front and centre. The world has changed, Dreamworks. Dragons fly among us. Be better.


Notes

[1] An aside: Hiccup does say that the dragons are only hidden until humans like Grimmel, the main villain, are gone and can no longer persecute dragons. For consistency’s sake, then, it could be argued that Burk’s queerness is only gone until all of humanity can embrace such queerness. Thus, The Hidden World’s anti-queerness is only temporary, waiting for a more welcoming world. However, since Grimmel and his warlords are annihilated by the end of The Hidden World, there is no need for the dragons to leave Burk at all – this re-closeting is completely unnecessary!

[2] Another aside: I have to thank my partner for suggesting that Light Furies and Night Furies are two separate species that can still produce offspring, much like Polar and Grizzly Bears. Glimpses of juvenile Light Furies in the hidden world confirm this suggestion.

References

Halberstam, J. The Queer Art of Failure (London: Duke University Press, 2011).

Biography

Kodi Maier is a queer Film Studies PhD at the University of Hull. Their doctoral thesis, 'Dream Big, Little Princess: Interrogating the Disney Princess Franchise from 2000 to the Present Day' will be done just as soon as they stop committing to other projects, such as their article 'Camping Outside the Magic Kingdom’s Gates: The Power of Femslash in the Disney Fandom' published in Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network or their forthcoming publication, ‘The Other Maiden, Mother, Crone(s): Witchcraft, Queer Identity, and Political Resistance in Laika’s Coraline’ in Coraline: A Closer Look at Studio Laika’s Stop-Motion Withcraft (forthcoming). All three touch on Maier’s academic interests, including animation merchandise, the formulation of female gender roles in the US, queer identity and queer theory. If you ask them to write something on queer issues and animation, they’ll probably say ‘yes’.