In the past few years more and more shows have included gay characters, which is a very good thing. We have Glee, Modern Family, Smash, Pretty Little Liars, American Horror Story, and many others. But of all those shows, the only one my kid is allowed to watch (and that's with some parental prescreening) is Glee.
When my 7-year-old son announced to us that he is gay, the last thing I thought about was television. I thought about school, bullies, and making sure he was kept away from the truly awful things said about LGBT people. But as he has continued to hold firm to this identity, I have become aware of the lack of gay characters in the television shows and movies he likes to watch.
All the Disney princesses marry princes. Pixar movies have married people, moms and dads, all over the place. Even the robots are matched up in obviously opposite-gender pairs. All the preteen sitcoms have girls chasing after boys and vice versa. If there is a character who has stereotypically "gay" mannerisms, that character is used for a laugh and not a lot else.
Those cartoons that actually should have gay characters have been effectively "straight-washed." The popular comic X-Men has had gay characters for quite a while, but when it's adapted to television, none of the characters is anything but heterosexual. When Mystique and Destiny are included, they are no longer long-term lovers but "best friends." Northstar isn't portrayed as gay, even though he was one of the first out LGBT characters in American comics.
Even the cartoons brought over from Japan and marketed to children have been "straight-washed" for Western audiences. In Dragon Ball any mention of the orientation of the gay character, General Blue, is censored. And Sailor Moon, which has no less than seven LGBT characters in the original version, has none in Western version. Some characters' genders have actually been changed, and the lesbian couples are now "cousins," and old classic. The only LGBT character I could find that made it through was a minor character in Dragon Ball Z.
As a mother, this concerns me. I have heard many gay and lesbian adults talk about what it was like to grow up with no media representation. It created feelings of isolation. It reinforced the notion that they were "other." And many thought that because they weren't mentioned, they must have been something secret, something bad. While my own child might be an extreme example, children are coming out younger and younger. It's increasingly common for children to come out at 12 or 13 years old. And what does TV present them? Only Glee.
But last weekend my two older sons and I went to the theater to see ParaNorman. It is a stop-action movie with witches and zombies -- all things my kids love. The movie is about how no one is totally what they appear to be. (SPOILER ALERT!) The chubby, silly kid is the bravest and most courageous of the bunch; the zombies aren't bad guys; and the big, muscled jock, Mitch, is gay. That character's orientation is only mentioned at the end of the movie, almost in passing. One of the female characters asks Mitch if he'd like to go to the movies with her, and Mitch says, "Sure." He then adds that he thinks she'd love his boyfriend. The girl looks disappointed, and the movie moves on to other things.
To some people this may not seem like a big deal, but to me it was huge. Here's this character, who is basically the stereotypical jock, but in this movie, this kid's movie, he's also gay. It isn't presented with a "very special episode" vibe. It isn't something hidden. It isn't something Mitch is in turmoil about. It just is.
While stories of coming out and dealing with bullying are important for kids to see, they are not the only stories for LGBT characters. ParaNorman is a movie about a group of kids, and one of those kids just happens to be gay. I would love to see youth-oriented television and movies follow this example and expand upon it. Imagine what it would have meant to gay adults (who were all once gay kids) to have had a gay character on Saved by the Bell, Facts of Life, or He-Man, a gay character who was just one of the gang and a regular part of the story. Why can't iCarly or Drake & Josh have a gay kid in the mix? I think they should, because visibility matters.
Thank you, Universal Studios, the company responsible for ParaNorman. This is a good start. Now is the time for those television and movie makers who care about equality to show equality, to put their money, time, and effort into making it better for LGBT kids. Help me teach my son that he is perfect just the way he is, because a mother's voice alone just isn't enough.
In the car on the way home from the theater, I asked my kids about their favorite parts of the movie. They both loved the creepy and spooky scenes and agreed Norman was their favorite character. There was no mention of Mitch. Then, about 10 minutes later, my older son piped up from the back seat.
"Mom? Can I get that Kurt shirt?" he asked.
"What shirt?" I replied, hoping I wouldn't have to figure out how to find designer knock-offs in kids' sizes.
"The T-shirt, mom. The one that says 'Likes Boys.'"
"Oh." I paused for a second. "Sure, sweetie. We'll look online when we get home."
Now, I don't know if seeing ParaNorman really had anything to do with that request. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. But either way, my kid is getting a new shirt.