As more and more players get their hands on Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there are discussions popping up regarding the game’s representation of LGBT+ characters. I’ve noticed this is especially the case when it comes to the new characters: Flick and CJ. Given that, I wanted to take a look at the game and the series as a whole’s LGBT+ representation. There are three aspects I want to examine for the sake of this discussion: the player characters in New Horizons, the characters Flick and CJ, and the characters Saharah and Gracie.
The character creator in New Horizons has received some praise for its approach to gender. In the Western releases of the game, when creating your character, the game will ask you to choose your style. You can choose masculine or feminine. It never asks you to choose if you are a boy or a girl. While New Leaf let you wear whatever clothes you wanted, they were labeled as being for men or for women. That is completely done away with in New Horizons. Your character can wear any type of clothing without any gendered comments from any of the NPCs. Certain furniture items with mirrors also allow the player to change their character’s physical appearance at will. You can edit to the point of effectively presenting as a completely different gender. All of these mechanics combined are no doubt a big step for trans, non-binary, and genderfluid players. However, the discussion gets a little more nebulous from this point forward.
Flick and CJ
Among New Horizons’ new additions are the characters of Flick the chameleon and CJ the beaver. They are strongly implied to be the sons of previous characters Nat and Chip from previous iterations of the series. Flick and CJ serve very similar purposes in terms of gameplay. If you give Flick three of the same type of bug, he will make you a 3D model of that bug. He will also purchase any bugs that you catch for 50% more bells than Timmy and Tommy will.
CJ does the same exact thing for fish instead of bugs. So what does this have to do with LGBT+ representation? Well, CJ admits upfront that he is not the one that is going to be making the model of the fish you gave him. He says his talented partner is going to be the one doing it. If you’ve encountered Flick before CJ, it will be fairly obvious his partner in question is Flick. If you continue to talk to CJ though, he will outright admit he is referring to Flick.
The sticking point comes from CJ’s use of the term “partner.” When I first read this, I did not even remotely think that CJ meant “partner” in a romantic sense. He meant something akin to a business partner in my mind. It wasn’t until I saw the discourse about their relationship start to pop up online that I considered interpreting what CJ had said differently. CJ’s word choice still seems very ambiguous to me, but it’s true they’re not running a business.
CJ is a streamer and Flick is an artist. They both act independently from one another. It does then become a little difficult to interpret their partnership as a professional one. While the fluidity of the player character is an obvious win for many in the LGBT+ community, the relationship between Flick and CJ, if intended to be romantic, is basically queerbaiting because of how much it is up to interpretation.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term “queerbaiting,” it effectively means that the creators of a specific piece of media have decided to drop hints that a character or characters in question may be LGBT+, but refuse to outright state it to avoid offending anyone. It’s sort of a one foot in the door situation that can leave both parties unhappy and tends to indicate creators are trying to play it safe rather than standing up for the LGBT+ community. It is worth noting in this specific instance however, that the localization team is somewhat limited by the original script. If the localization team is making edits to appear more inclusive though, they’ve got some explaining to do about Gracie and Saharah.
Gracie and Saharah
Finally, we come to the characters of Gracie and Saharah. Those who started playing Animal Crossing with New Horizons may not know Gracie as they are not currently in the game. Gracie is a giraffe fashion designer in the series who often asks the player to complete various tasks to earn a piece of clothing from their own collection. Saharah the camel, on the other hand, does appear in New Horizons. When first introduced into the series, they would give the player special flooring, but they have since been upgraded to also give the player wallpaper. You’ll notice that I’ve been using the gender neutral “they” to describe both characters. This is because both of these characters are originally male, but were changed to female during western localization.
Why the change?
To be fair, both of these characters were in the original Gamecube game back in 2002, and the world was a less accepting place than it is now. I can ostensibly understand why Gracie was changed to a female upon localization of the first game. Gracie dresses and acts femininely, and it would have been more socially acceptable at the time for a woman to be a fashion designer. Of course we should also keep in mind that this is a giraffe, not a human woman. Even granting that benefit of the doubt though, it flummoxes me why Saharah’s gender was changed as well.
The only feminine thing I can potentially identify in Saharah is that they have long eyelashes. Is a male camel with long eyelashes all it takes to destroy heteronormativity? I don’t get it. But okay, let’s say that the original game is a product of its time. Fair enough. But Gracie was still female in the last game, New Leaf, and Saharah is still female in New Horizons. What is the excuse now? Continuity?
Animal Crossing doesn’t exactly have great continuity. It attempts to, but the nature of the game prevents this. Tom Nook and co. are constantly moving to different towns and islands. When I talk to Timmy and Tommy on someone else’s island, they recognize my character as being from my island despite the fact their apparent identical twins have a shop on that island, too. I do not think that restoring Gracie and Saharah as male would have upended this series. It is completely possibly that Gracie will be patched in as male into New Horizons at some point, but the fact that Saharah is in the game currently and still female makes that prospect extremely unlikely.
A Better Future
While New Horizons took a step in the right direction by effectively doing away with gender with the player character, they’ve run into other stumbling blocks in regards to inclusivity. Flick and CJ, while potentially well intentioned, are effectively used to queerbait. Saharah, meanwhile, still has to be female because men can’t have long eyelashes, apparently. While I can applaud steps in the right direction, there are still many more steps to be taken if the series aims to be inclusive. I hope they start by giving players an update for New Horizons that includes Gracie as male.