Children's TV Has a Representation Problem

07/13/2016 11:54 am ET Updated Jul 13, 2016

I still binge-watch children’s television. I feel a healthy amount of guilt for the binging, but I also feel a definite pride in the television shows themselves. We are in a golden age of children’s entertainment. But there is a problem: Hardly any kids shows have LGBTQ+ characters.

While programs aimed at older demographics have been making (slow and long overdue) progress with representation recently, kids programing has fallen behind. To date, there have only been a handful of all-ages programing that feature LGBTQ+ characters.

Granted, there have been exceptions. After the series finale of The Legend of Korra, the creators confirmed on their blogs that the main character was bisexual. That is nothing to sneeze at, but that kind of after-the-fact representation feels...lacking.

Finding LGBTQ+ identifying characters can start to feel like searching for crumbs. With one exception every other instance of seeing a non-heterosexual character in children’s media involves looking further and further into the background. You start looking at secondary characters, tertiary characters, characters with no names.

But this lack of representation is not from a lack of effort from the show creators. A major problem creators face is censorship by their networks. Censorship may seem like something from the past, but it is still common.

Steven Universe is a Cartoon Network show that is leading the charge for representation, with several of the main characters being LGBTQ+. The show’s episodes often tackle complex topics like consent and toxic relationships with incredible grace.

An episode of Steven Universe that aired last year was altered in its UK broadcast. A scene from the episode in which two same-gender characters danced was edited to make the dance less romantic. In a statement to Pink News, the UK branch of Cartoon Network said:

We do feel that the slightly edited version is more comfortable for local kids and their parents...Be assured that as a channel and network we celebrate diversity – evident across many of our shows and characters.

However, later in the same episode two characters in a straight relationship kiss. If the goal of editing the episode was to make kids more “comfortable” then surely the kiss should have been removed as well?

But we all know the answer to that. If two characters in a kids show are male and female their romantic feelings are deemed “puppy love” and seen as wholesome. But if the affection is between two characters of the same gender their romantic feelings are seen as inherently salacious and inappropriate.

It’s not as if kids shows are strangers to romantic storylines. A show I watched excessively growing up was Nickelodeon’s The Fairly OddParents. Snarky and full of heart, the show is about a boy named Timmy who has two fairy godparents. Counting them up, I found there are no fewer than fourteen episodes in which Timmy tries desperately to win the heart of Trixie Tang, the most popular girl in school. Not only that, but another character, Tootie, is so infatuated with Timmy that she has a “love shrine” devoted to him.

I mention this odd “shrine” trope to point out how much leeway heterosexual characters are given by networks and “concerned” parents. A straight character builds a shrine and at worst it’s considered eccentric. Two femme-presenting characters dance and it’s immediately considered nefarious and worthy of censorship.  

With these double standards in place, many creators choose self-censorship to avoid network meddling. In the 1990’s, Disney Television Animation produced a show called Gargoyles. One of the show’s main characters, Lexington, was gay. However, the writers could never directly address it. As Greg Weisman, co-creator of the show said:

We were working for a company that would never let us be open about that in those days, so we just tried to write with consistency, if not with courage. And, by the way, the lack of courage is not something I’m particularly proud of. The fact was, reality-wise, if I’d tried to write with courage, I would’ve been fired or shut down and there didn’t seem much point in that, because then you’d lose the character consistency as well.

This is a problem that continues today. Gravity Falls, a show also produced by Disney, faced the same problem. During a Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” one user asked show creator Alex Hirsch if he would ever include an LGBTQ+ character. Alex Hirsch responded: “I would LOVE to but I doubt they’d ever let me do it in kids TV. But man I would if I could.”

Gargoyles premiered in 1994, the Gravity Falls in 2012. How much progress have we really made if two shows 15 years apart struggle with the same problem?

I realize I’m preaching to the gay choir here. Most of us have lived with the double standard of representation so long that we’ve tuned it out. The question is: what can we do?

The way I see it, two things:

  1. Thank the brave, lucky creators who have put their necks out there and filled their casts with diverse characters. E-Mail them!
  2. If you’re a media creator and you have the option to “write with courage” then do it!

If you’re lucky enough to work on a kids show...Fight, fight, fight to make that show so filled with rainbows it looks like someone’s throwing a party at the refracted light factory!

Thanks to help from The Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund in Film and Media, which aims to empower and embolden new voices by bringing unique projects to life, I have the opportunity to make the kids show I always wished I could watch growing up. It’ll be called Milo’s Misfits, and you can bet your best-sequin socks it’ll be so inclusive it hurts.

Why? Because every kid feels like a weirdo. Every kid thinks that every other kid is normal. Well-adjusted. Happy. Childhood can be lonely as hell. But when you turn on your favorite show and you see a monster or a sponge or an alien that’s weird like you, who gets sad like you, who loves like you...that can make all the difference in the world.

I want a future where everyone feels guilty for binge watching, but no one feels lonely.

 

Will Bryson, Filmmaker and Fellow of The Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund in Film and Media at Johns Hopkins University. Learn more about Will at www.willbryson.com.

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