Stories for children are supposed to come with a happy ending. That's the deal, right? Unfortunately, far too many shows aimed at kids fail to give all children the happy ending they deserve. In fact, some don't ever get to see their stories told on screen.
That's all changing now, though. Even ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable to see positive LGBTQ+ representation in family-friendly content. But here we are in a world where Disney characters can finally say the words "I'm gay" on screen. Where characters can be raised by same-sex parents of colour and no-one bats an eyelid. Where a boy and girl can fuse into a non-binary superhero who uses they/them pronouns.
Future generations will owe the likes of Andi Mack, She-Ra and Steven Universe more than we might yet realise, and that's reflected better than ever by GLAAD, an American organisation that fights for media inclusion across the entire spectrum of queerness.
Each year, the GLAAD awards celebrate LGBTQ+ representation at its most authentic, and as this continues to improve within the sphere of family TV, the awards themselves have evolved to commemorate that.
Two years ago, GLAAD introduced a new category for Outstanding Kids & Family Programming. If that wasn't encouraging enough, the latest round of nominations have been expanded to ten in light of increasing representation on screen.
Nominees include those aforementioned examples along with other shows like Hulu's The Bravest Knight, Netflix's revival of Rocko's Modern Life and The Loud House on Nickelodeon.
The fact that we're seeing varied examples of queerness across such a broad range of networks is genuinely groundbreaking in the best way possible, hinting at a future where LGBTQ+ themes are normalised to the point where articles like this are made redundant.
Unfortunately, we're not quite there yet. Just last year, PBS premiered an episode of Arthur titled 'Mr Ratburn and the Special Someone' which revealed that the teacher's "special someone" is actually another man. The pair went on to get married, and refreshingly enough, the writers avoided depicting their love as "different" or "non-traditional".
So far, so good, but unfortunately, a surprising amount of people found it offensive to watch a rodent and an aardvark tie the knot on screen.
Alabama Public Television (APT) refused to screen the episode, describing it as a "violation of trust," and the Christian pressure group One Million Moms also campaigned to ban it, claiming: "This episode is a flagrant indoctrination and promotion of the homosexual lifestyle upon our impressionable young children and a gross misuse of our tax dollars."
It doesn't stop there, though. Before Steven Universe featured a queer wedding of its own in 2018, an earlier episode was censored in the UK because of one fusion scene that Cartoon Network felt included some lesbian subtext... As if the entire show weren't consistently queer already.
The Bravest Knight producer Shabnam Rezaei bravely stood up to critics like this recently, welcoming the debate that such controversy brings:
"If they want to attack us, that is great... Let's have that conversation... to not want to talk about it, to want to keep people in the dark, to shove it under the carpet, we know that is the wrong thing to do. That is what causes self-hate and suicides."
Fortunately, TV networks and streaming services are more open than ever to diverse creators who tell diverse stories for the kids who never used to feel heard before.
Even Disney is finally starting to contribute to this discussion in a meaningful way. Sure, it's not getting it right on the big screen (time, and time, and time again), but genuine progress is being made by the studio's TV creators, most notably with Andi Mack and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
When we recently spoke with the latter's showrunner, Tim Federle, he revealed that his original pitch to Disney received no pushback, not even when it came to the queerer aspects of the series:
"A lot of the stuff that probably would have been considered sacrilegious if you'd said it 13 years ago, like a boy playing Sharpay, ended up being very much, to my boss's credit, one of their favourite things in the show, and something they really pushed me to trust."
The boss of HSMTMTS says that shows like Andi Mack "helped kick the door down for storytellers like me," enabling him to introduce a queer couple like Seb and Carlos whose relationship "is so natural and frank and easy".
This is worlds away from the tragedy porn of yesteryear which dominated LGBTQ+ romances on screen. Instead, fans are shipping the loved-up pair just as much as their heterosexual counterparts, and a lot of that has to do with Federle's approach to representation:
"I'm trying very hard as a storyteller in 2020 and beyond to not use identity as a plot twist, but rather as a very basic part of their lives. Frankly, it is for both Frankie and Joe, who play these characters. They own their own sense of identity with such pride, and also with such nonchalance."
Federle's own queerness is key here, enabling him to authentically explore these issues without ever sensationalising Seb and Carlos or "othering" their relationship. Just like other creators such as trans showrunner Shadi Petosky (Danger & Eggs) and She-Ra boss Noelle Stevenson, Federle achieves this without introducing sex into the equation, something which religious critics falsely claim is the main problem with queerness in kids TV.
He said: "I think when it comes to family entertainment, it's important to remember that sexuality does not always equal sex. I'm not telling stories that are driven by intimacy so much as I'm telling stories that are driven by identity."
Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar echoed this recently during an interview with The Guardian where she explained how important it is for queer children to see themselves reflected on screen, as well as adults:
"It was a matter of breaking down the false assumption that same-sex romance is somehow inherently more adult, which it's not. We needed to show, over and over again, that there was nothing less wholesome about these two characters together than any other animated wedding ever aired on Cartoon Network. And so we worked hard to make these characters as cute and lovable as possible, so there's just no way to deny that they should be married."
As most queer people will tell you, the feeling that you're different from everyone else doesn't suddenly emerge as soon as sexual feelings are discovered. The potential to feel isolated comes long before that, which is exactly why LGBTQ+ representation is vital in children's TV, irrespective of sex.
Watching Steven Universe wear a dress or the women in The Legend of Korra gaze lovingly into each other's eyes is more important to queer kids than straight audiences might ever realise, and this tradition continues to evolve with Netflix's latest animated hit, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts.
Around the halfway mark of season one, the titular character starts to develop a crush on her travel companion, Benson. In the time-honoured tradition of stories like Love, Simon and Sex Education, Kipo's feelings come to light while riding a ferris wheel, but it's here we learn Benson can't return her affections.
"You like me as a friend," says Kipo.
"Yes!" Benson replies. "Because… I'm gay."
As far as we're aware, this trailblazing moment achieves what no other animated show mentioned here has ever done: define a lead character as gay out loud.
Benson's coming-out storyline is also treated rather casually, devoid of the dramatic heft and drama often associated with these moments.
And therein lies the future of queerness in kids TV. By refusing to sensationalise Benson's queerness while still making it explicit, shows like Kipo are helping to normalise a far wider range of sexual and gender identities than we've ever seen on our screens before.
In that sense, children's TV is light years ahead of other mediums, depicting queerness in ways that Hollywood studios in particular are still afraid to do in the year 2020. With that being said, queer representation as a whole still falls short of reality, but it's like Steven Universe says: "Happily ever after never ends," and maybe, one day, this will be true for all children, no matter where they identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
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