Jun. 13, 2014
“How to Train Your Dragon’s Gobber the Belch Comes Out As Gay,” headlines screamed in the weeks prior to the release of DreamWorks’ animated sequel How to Train Your Dragon 2.
Voiced by Craig Ferguson, Gobber — the tough old trainer with a peg leg and interchangeable prosthetic arm devices — was one of the best characters in the original How to Train Your Dragon.
In a standard-issue “Junior Knows Best” plot with an imperious, disapproving authoritarian father — Stoick the Vast — who didn’t understand his scrawny but thoughtful offspring Hiccup, Gobber was a sympathetic authority figure who gratifyingly didn’t fit the anti-patriarchal narrative. As I wrote in my 2010 review:
[Hiccup’s] chieftain father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler in full-on Beowulf/Attila mode), is an unreconstructed exemplar of that tiredest of negative parental stereotypes: the overbearing patriarch who doesn’t understand his offspring and regards him with nothing but disappointment. I admit the inevitable third-act rapprochement had me misty-eyed, but can’t the father be a little humanized before the very end?
Happily, Stoick is somewhat offset by Gobber the Belch (Craig Ferguson), the peg-legged, one-handed old tough who trains young Vikings in the ways of dragon slaying. Hiccup’s peers are mostly loutish Viking jocks, and Hiccup’s misadventures in dragon training may take some adult viewers back to dark hours in high school gym class — but Gobber himself is far from the gym teacher–drillmaster sadist stereotype.
Gobber may not quite understand Hiccup either, but he looks out for him and tries to mediate between Stoick and Hiccup. In a flick like this, it’s nice to have a sympathetic adult figure, especially an old-school man’s man like Gobber, just to be clear that brawn isn’t bad.
Yes, I called Gobber an “old-school man’s man.”
And he is … or is that “was”?
Does Gobber “come out” in the sequel? Not exactly. At least, that phrase is misleading, on more than one level.
First, the idea that Gobber is gay is a new addition to his character, not something the filmmakers intended from the start. “Coming out” implies revealing a previously secret reality; if the filmmakers have now decided that Gobber is gay, that’s a newly invented fact about him, not a previously secret one.
Second, Gobber makes no proclamations about his sexuality to anyone in How to Train Your Dragon 2. He has a throwaway line in which, watching a married couple quarreling, he quips, “This is why I never married” — and then adds that there’s “one other reason.”
This was reportedly an ad lib by Ferguson, who then joked, “Yup, Gobber is coming out of the closet.” The crack got laughs, but the filmmakers decided to keep the ad lib. “I think that's a really fun [and] daring move to put in,” writer–director Dean DuBlois (who is gay) told E! “I love the idea that Gobber is Berk's resident gay.”
Is there any evidence that Gobber’s gayness goes beyond this one line? Not that I noticed (although I can imagine some viewers wondering whether Gobber’s newly revealed interest in cooking, his announced intention of taking over domestic cooking duties for a newly reunited family and a sight gag in which Gobber snaps a brush into his prosthetic arm base and brushes out his long mustache were inspired by this decision).
As gay innuendo goes, “one other reason” is a lot less overt than some of the humor in DreamWorks’ Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa or Happy Feet Two, say. (It’s starting to look like a sequel thing, although there was gay humor in the original Happy Feet too.)
On the other hand, this is a human character (not a gender-bending animal) throwing out a line that the filmmakers are publicly interpreting for audiences.
And of course there’s always the inevitable third film. As DuBlois put it, “It does make for an interesting revelation because now, what does that mean, do we shed a little more light on Gobber’s love life?”
To say that I got a lot of flak for my “So, How Gay IS Disney’s Frozen?” post would be putting it mildly. As I noted in a recent Decent Films Mail column:
I was smeared and misrepresented in a number of media outlets, including The Daily Beast, Newsmax, and, most viciously, the UK Catholic website The Tablet, ironically. (I was also fairly represented by some writers, e.g., Sam Adams of IndieWire. It’s a sad commentary when one is treated more fairly by secular journalists than one’s fellow Catholics.)
Ironically, my observations were widely shared by many other critics and observers, including many who embraced Frozen’s gayness. In fact, a recent piece in TheAtlantic.com claimed a consensus on the subject: “The culture warriors have decided: Disney’s Frozen is queer.”
That’s a bridge too far in my opinion. (As Adams accurately characterized me in his IndieWire piece, my answer to my own question “How gay is Frozen?” might be put, “Maybe a little?”)
As I noted in my post, any gay themes in Frozen are “not that big a deal, inasmuch as the themes are subtle and ambiguous enough not pose either a significant annoyance to even savvy parents or a corrupting influence on children.”
I can understand parents and others who have embraced Frozen, Happy Feet and other animated films taking umbrage at arguments about gay themes in these films. To the pure all things are pure, and I have no wish to thwart those who can and want to enjoy these movies without being troubled by questions of gay themes.
At some point, though, the ostrich approach will no longer be viable. What is subtle and ambiguous now will become increasingly less so in years to come, for reasons I outlined in my post on Frozen.
We’re not there yet. Certainly a throwaway line from Gobber about an unspecified reason for not getting married isn’t reason not to see How to Train Your Dragon 2.
In fact, watching the film, the whole “Gobber comes out” business bothered me less than the fact that Gobber, a fairly complex, interesting, likable character in the first film, has been reduced to playing comic relief here.
And I‘m far more troubled by a central plot point concerning a traditional family, where a character has made an unthinkable decision in the past that we’re expected to accept here. See my review for more.