Adventure Time is a great many things to a great many people. It’s a bright and colourful cartoon series that operates with the prime directive of being great fun and full of adventures, and has amassed a huge following in both kids and older audiences alike.
It’s ostensibly the exploits of Jake the Dog and Finn the Human as they travel around the land of Ooo, a hyperactive fantasy land built on the tropes of pretty much all fantasy and adventure stories, combined with modern influences of geek culture and playful surrealism. It’s weird as hell but not in a way to alienate its audience.
Although it’s largely targeted as a kids show, it’s not patronising or condescending to its viewers like so many shows that use the “it’s just for kids” excuse to phone in some colour and movement. This has allowed it to find a place with many older audiences who can enjoy the show for its surprising amount of thematic depth as well as its playful, wacky characters and incredibly fun storylines.
As an example, many of the storylines take place in the Candy Kingdom, which, as the name suggests, is a kingdom made entirely of candy, and inhabited by anthropomorphic sweets and lollies. Sounds cute and playful? It’s built on top of the post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland that came about as a result of a devastating war – there’s a reason that Finn is (possibly) the last human on earth.
In another, one of the shows recurring villains, the Ice King, whose main activities revolve around kidnapping as many princesses as possible so that someday he’ll marry one, is revealed to be a tragic figure who’s been driven completely insane by his crown, which has robbed him of all his former personality but leaves behind echoes of his past self that he can’t communicate properly in his crazed state.
This isn’t to say that the show is a bait-and-switch exercise in drawing people in with fun and adventure before depressing the hell out of them, just that there’s a lot more to the show than its happy visuals and hyperactive style.
One area this extends to is the treatment of two prominent supporting figures: Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen. Bubblegum is the ruler of the Candy Kingdom who’s also a devoted scientist, and the object of Finn’s adolescent affections for much of the show’s run. Marceline on the other hand is a cool rock-chick who also happens to be a badass vampire (her royalty as the Vampire Queen has yet to be delved into, although her father is essentially Satan).
The first episode featuring the two characters sharing screentime shows them regarding each other with animosity, and they clearly enjoy bickering and getting under each other’s skin. The episode makes it clear that the two clearly knew each other well and experienced a lot of time together before Finn came along (he’s 12 at the start of the series, and the show makes it clear that the land of Ooo was just as wild and adventurous before he came along).
Their relationship was delved into further in the Season 3 episode What Was Missing, which features the monster-of-the-week stealing several items of sentimental value from the characters. Finn, Jake, Marceline, Princess Bubblegum and sentient-video-game-console BMO (“Beemo”) converge on the giant door behind which the door-lord has sealed himself, and attempt to get it open; the only thing that unlocks it is a “song from a genuine band.” (Jake helps the band by playing the role of the jerk in the band, because it’s a very important part).
Marceline first gives it a shot, singing a lyrically-dissonant song with lines about burying someone in the ground and drinking the red from someone’s face (Marceline doesn’t drink blood – just the colour red out of various items). Bubblegum objects to the song calling it distasteful, which spurns Marceline into singing an impassioned rock song about her own ability to measure up to Bubblegum’s high expectations, and questioning why she wants to – the realisation of her musical-honesty makes her falter, and the song fails to open the door.
Bubblegum attempts a song as well, but completely messes it up by trying to take too much of a scientific approach, which sounds disastrous, although the scene gives one of the episode’s best gags:
Bubblegum: Marceline, begin playing triplet quavers in the mixolydian mode.
Marceline: Alright, fine. [beat] Wait – what’s a quaver?
When Bubblegum’s song fails, she and Marceline start bickering again, this time Marceline calling out Bubblegum’s failure at being perfect, which Bubblegum balks at, demanding that she never asked Marceline to be perfect.
The scenes are, on the surface, examples of two rivals bickering at each other because they both annoy the other. Many viewers picked up on the fact that the scenes play out much more like two exes who can’t let their past history go. This is reinforced at the episode’s end when the characters unlock the door and retrieve their sentimental items, after Finn sings a pretty cute song about how much he values their friendship:
Finn lost his lock of Bubblegum’s hair, Jake his security blanket, and BMO gets a controller back. Jake then hands Marceline a rock-band t-shirt which she claims isn’t hers, only for Bubblegum to hastily grab it and sheepishly explain that it belongs to her instead. Marceline is taken aback and quietly asks, “you kept the shirt I gave you?” which Bubblegum describes as “meaning a lot to me.” This makes it clearer still that the two used to be friends (at the very least) some time ago, and when questioned as to why no one ever sees her wearing it, Bubblegum explains that she wears it “all the time – as pyjamas!” before happily donning it then and there.
They then realise that Marceline didn’t actually lose anything of sentimental value, she just wanted to hang out with everyone and have fun – an embarrassed Marceline tries to deny this before turning into a monster and chasing them away as they run laughing with her, and the episode ends on a typically random note that Adventure Time fans have come to expect.
The episode drew controversy from those who disagreed with the episode’s heavy suggestions that Marceline and Bubblegum were at some point romantically involved, and this wasn’t helped by the “MATHEMATICAL!” recap of the show, which directly asks fans the question of what they thought of the pairing and its potential. (Mathematical, by the way, is synonymous with “awesome!” in the same way that the show also utilises the term “Algebraic!”)
This is a recreated version of the recap video:
After drawing fire for alluding to alternative forms of sexuality in a kids’ show, the recap was pulled from the air, and executive producer Fred Seibert released the following statement:
“Well, I completely screwed up. There’s been chatter on the internet recently about our latest Adventure Time “Mathematical!” video recap that we created, posted, and removed here at Federator [sic]. I figure it’s time to clear up the matter.
In trying to get the show’s audience involved we got wrapped up by both fan conjecture and spicy fanart and went a little too far. Neither Cartoon Network nor the Adventure Time crew had anything to do with putting up or taking down our latest re-cap. The episode “What was Missing” remains a terrific short and will be shown again and again just like any other Adventure Time episode.
I let us goof in a staggering way and I’m deeply sorry it’s become such a distraction for so many people.”
The problem with this statement is that he’s apologising for something that shouldn’t be apologised for.
The implied relationship between Marceline and Bubblegum (or “Bubbline” as the fan nickname states) is just that – implied. Although it’s easily discernible, there’s nothing that officially states it as canonical, save for the recap, which even then, only draws attention to the possibility not stating that it was definite fact.
But it also begs the question, why should this be a problem, even if it was stated outright that the two had been in a previous relationship?
Let’s talk for a moment about “coded” characters. A coded character is one who is written in such a way that certain features or traits of the character are not specifically stated, but can be easily interpreted by a section of the audience. Coded characters also take the form of being written in such a way that their codes reflect back on their personality or actions. Queer representations in fiction have historically utilised coded characters in both good and bad ways.
The documentary The Celluloid Closet (which is fantastic, by the way) delves into this in great detail. Under the moralistic standards of the Hayes Code, Hollywood looked to alternative ways of appealing to different audiences, especially queer audiences, by writing characters in such a way that audiences would identify a character or characters as gay even if it were not stated in the movie itself. Or, on the opposite side of the coin, there were the tendencies to invoke a response from the audience or simply to write in subliminal suggestion about their motivations by suggesting that the character is gay This was a result of not being allowed to portray any character of “sexual aberrance” (read: no gays allowed).
While this means that there’s a long and unfortunate history of characters being portrayed as villainous because of their sexuality, a thematic tendency that continues to this day, it also means there’s the more positive spin of positive representations or efforts made in a spirit of inclusion for the queer audience.
This can extend simplistic offerings made to audiences just to be able to see something on screen, such as the ‘Ain’t there anyone here for love?’ number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, to more intricate presentations woven into the screenplay itself
A good example of this is Ben Hur, which Gore Vidal wrote with the deliberate intention that Judah Ben-Hur and Messala were childhood friends on the surface, but former lovers to those looking for the cues. Fittingly, he told this to Stephen Boyd, but not Charlton Heston (for fear his ego wouldn’t be accommodating to the idea), which is why Messala looks super-keen to get things going again, while Judah appears to have moved on. Although Messala goes on to become the antagonist of the film, the subtextual relationship is still presented in the film and there for those who want to view the film as such.
As times and standards have changed, this has clearly allowed for more representations of LGBTQI characters in film and TV, and in a wider array of perspectives and narratives. Double standards still abound however, and it’s certainly not an even playing field (for those who want to know more, watch the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, which addresses the significant disparity in classification of material featuring queer sex scenes in contrast with heterosexual ones).
Back on the topic of Adventure Time and Bubbline, it’s essential to understand that neither character’s sexuality is their defining trait, and the characters were well established before the introduction of this potential reading of their relationship. They’re not specifically written as coded characters, even if the codes are still there.
The reason I bring up this distinction is that there’s no merit towards the controversy. There’s no graphic sex scene between the two, there’s no anguished declaration of their inability to be “normal”, there’s nothing that could be misconstrued as anything other than innocent.
The What Was Missing episode merely codes their relationship to suggest they may have been romantically involved. This in and of itself should not be a controversial fact. The suggestion of their relationship is actually less confrontational than some of the aspects surrounding Finn.
In the same episode, Jake busts Finn cuddling up with his lock of Bubblegum’s hair and proceeds to make some jokes that can easily be interpreted as being about masturbation. The season 5 episode Frost & Fire deals with Finn, now a teenager embarking on his first proper relationship with the Flame Princess. When Flame Princess and Ice King get into a fight, Finn has a dream that night that is a very thinly veiled representation of a wet dream, including Flame Princess shooting beams of flame directly at his crotch. There’s nary a peep to be heard of people balking at these scenes, when the argument could be made that they’re inappropriate in a kids’ show due to their more sexually overt content.
“Frost & Fire”
The problem, it seems, is that the codes surrounding Bubbline were decoded a little too quickly, and despite the suggestion of their implied relationship being entirely chaste, the powder-keg of how we treat queer representation in mainstream media was on its way to igniting.
Fred Seibert’s response calls the recap’s addressing of the Bubbline relationship a mistake in which he “completely screwed up.” If the recap had been a sleazy representation of Marceline and Princess Bubblegum as sexual eye-candy, then yes, he would’ve. But it simply addressed the potential that there was a new way to appreciate two characters that the fans had already embrace.
And appreciate they did.
Despite the network response towards it, the Bubbline relationship is still very much alive in the fandom. This is readily apparent on forums and other places people voice their opinion, and it has of course lead to tonnes of fan-art being created of the pair. And while some of it is admittedly a bit “spicy” as Seibert would place it, the majority is as innocuous as you would expect of people embracing the potential for a sweet and loving relationship imagined between their favourite characters. The ones I’ve included here frame the relationship through a more mature lens, legitimising the appeal of the relationship more than mere suggestion:
The unwritten cause of the controversy is the age-old “think of the children!” cry. Anyone who has seen the episode knows that there’s not really that much to cry foul at, unless they have an intrinsic problem with lesbianism or queer identity in and of itself. The “controversial” thing about the Bubbline relationship is that it’s in a kids’ show, and that despite growing social progress in how people accept homosexuality, there’s still a train of thought that says kids shouldn’t be exposed to it.
The knee-jerk reaction to sexuality that strays from the boy-girl norm is that it’s something that has to be understood rather than taken for granted. The mild version of this reaction is to say that it might confuse children, whereas the awful version is that it will corrupt them.
This assumption is based on the idea that heteronormativity is the default setting and that something that doesn’t fit into this needs to be addressed and explained, or rejected and vilified – that queer identity is something to hide from children and not something that should “put any ideas in their heads.”
I could make this argument for the act of sex itself, which young minds might not be able to comprehend until a certain age. But the idea of romantic relationships between people is not something that has ever been put under much scrutiny when those people have different genitals. A lot of media aimed at children contains portrayals of innocent romance, and it’s considered cute and innocent when toddlers give each other chaste kisses on the cheeks so much that the greeting card industry would probably collapse overnight if it weren’t.
Given that this same innocence is the level of explicitness that the Bubbline relationship is presented with, there’s nothing that should be considered controversial or offensive, unless you’re of the mindset that a queer relationship is in and of itself something offensive.
For kids who are already a little bit confused as to why they don’t understand the big deal about the whole boy-girl thing, and might fancy kissing the other girls, or the other boys as it were, there’s an incredible dearth of anything to introduce them to the idea until they get to the age where they learn it’s not the social norm and that something is different.
Something as innocent as the Bubbline relationship might not even be interpreted as an actual relationship by these same young minds, but as they grow and become more aware of the world around them and how things work, I can’t see that it’s a bad thing that they got to watch something which might have thought the same way as them when they were younger.
Our TVs and movies are no longer ruled by the Hayes Code, and there’s no longer any need to keep queer identity hidden or coded. Perhaps ladling it on too thick would upset the status quo of Adventure Time; the attention given to Finn’s romance with Flame Princess or Princess Bubblegum has caused a divide in the fandom, especially with those who just want to see some wacky adventures. But the idea that an innocent relationship between two female characters has no place in a kids’ show is a damaging argument to anyone who ever needed to see themselves represented outside their own minds, even if it is in a place as strange as the land of Ooo.
Despite Fred Seibert’s “screw up”, the fan response has proved it’s got a strong following and this has continued on through the show – Season 5’s Sky Witch has Marceline and Bubbline join up on an adventure to defeat an evil witch, and much of it makes more logical sense if you consider that the two have a romantic history; the witch has stolen Marceline’s teddy bear Hambo due to it’s incredible source of sentimental value. This teddy bear plays a large part in Marceline’s backstory, and the viewers know how important it is to her – it’s literally been through the wars with her. Bubblegum gets it back for Marceline by trading in the t-shirt from What Was Missing – something the witch only excepts because it contains significantly more sentimental value than Hambo, and in a generous nod to the Bubbline fans, the last scene of them in the episode has them falling through the sky in an embrace.
Adventure Time is a show that has succeeded due to the multitudinous ways in which it can be enjoyed. Due to its devotion to being a fun and (mostly) carefree show, and the exuberance and enthusiasm the characters have for every thing they do, it’s a show that makes you feel included in the fun. A lot of people have a lot of different things to appreciate about it, and they’re all very valid given how diverse the appealing elements of the show are. For many, that is the inclusion of the Bubbline relationship; it certainly has its place and its appreciation. And you’re damn right I ship it.
- “Queer” is not meant here in a derogatory sense. It refers to any expression of sexual identity that doesn’t follow the heterosexual pairing of boy/girl or man/woman.
- A huge thank you to the DeviantArt deviants who’ve allowed me the usage of their art.
- ‘The Celluloid Closet’ and ‘This Film is Not Yet Rated’ are both available on YouTube should you be interested; while I firmly believe you should try and give the creators your money for these films, I know they can be difficult to track down.
- It’s also worth mentioning that the show has continued to take a look at gender and sexual identity issues through the framework of its cute characters. BMO isn’t specifically gendered as a character – although voiced by female Nikki Yang, characters have referred to BMO “she” and “it” in various settings, but most commonly referred to as “he”. Season 5’s BMO Lost explores the idea of BMO becoming involved in a relationship with a bubble of air named Bubble, voiced by Lavar Burton, who at one point offers his hand in marriage. Another episode, ‘Princess Cookie’ from Season 4, features a cookie trying to take revenge on Bubblegum for humiliating him in his youth by denying his wish to become a princess.