27 Jun WHAT IF OUR FAVOURITE CHILDHOOD CHARACTERS WERE GAY?
As a white, cisgender, straight, and non-disabled female, I acknowledge that my position has an impact on my understanding of the topics discussed in this article.
The TV shows I grew up watching had an important influence on my childhood. Not only did these shows provide entertainment, but my favourite characters were also some of my most significant role models. I have vivid memories of trying to be just like my favourite characters from The Big Comfy Couch by doing the clock stretch with Loonette the clown every day and catching up with my friends over recess about the newest Hannah Montana episode.
It was not until later that I realized how these shows formed my perception of the world and how these perceptions would affect me later in life. For as long as I can remember, the television programs that I, like many others, once cherished predominantly featured straight couples. As a child, I thought of straight couples as the only type of relationship to exist. This conception was not because I ignorantly dismissed all other types, but because I was not exposed to any other possibility until later in life when I began to feel the influence of various social and LGBTQIA+ movements.
A lack of representation is injurious as television is such an influential medium among children. For example, not including same-sex couples on TV can cause confusion among kids experiencing feelings towards the same sex. The mere lack of queer relationships (and people) in mainstream media can have the effect of invalidating feelings that “gay is OK” by portraying and normalizing heternomativity in television programming. This lack of representation can affect children’s willingness to accept non-straight identifying people and relationships in their later years due to lack of familiarity.
While it is necessary for more inclusive content to be produced by television networks, there have been steps in the right direction to include more queer couples, and that effort should not go unnoticed. For example, the popular children’s television series, Arthur, has made an effort over the years to include gay characters in 21st-century media. Season 22 of Arthur kicked off with the same-sex wedding of Arthur’s teacher, Mr. Ratburn. In this episode, the only behaviour that worries the kids is their teacher’s foolish dancing, not the fact that two men were getting married.
Such progress brings great joy; however, it does sadden me that our generation missed out on the opportunity to be exposed to queer couples in our favourite television series. For this reason, I took three of my favourite children’s TV shows and I attempted to display characters from each show in same-sex relationships. I have done this with the hope of helping everyone imagine what our past could have been like if television programs welcomed queer relationships when we were children. I attempted to employ various character dynamics in these cartoons to emphasize that the main characters of a show don’t necessarily have to be gay for the show to be inclusive. That is, representation is something that should feel unremarkable in practice.
Chester and Aj from Fairly Odd Parents. Chester and Aj are both friends of the main character, Timmy Turner.
The main character, Kim and her high school frenemy and minor antagonist, Bonnie, from Kim Possible.
Danny Phantom’s main character, Danny, and his friend, Tucker.
Any characters can be queer, whether it’s the main character, supporting character, or background character, and this is a tone that is often missing in television. Moreover, TV programs can lead by example by including a variety of relationships that expand beyond the main characters to teach children that “gay is OK.” It is in this way that queer relationships must feel no different from any other relationship in the show.
The reality is that identifying as gay isn’t something that requires special attention; it’s no more than a way of being. Gay relationships often are portrayed in television through the lens of tragedy or strife, and this is bad as it teaches people that there is a battle to overcome for two people of the same sex to love each other. Gay characters should not attract puzzled glances from other characters that question the plausibility of queer relationships. In other words, one’s sexual orientation should not be used to give rise to discussions of same-sex relationships. This is because preaching to children about how they have to be more inclusive has an adverse effect. It indirectly communicates that there is an aspect of homosexuality that is or was once worth scrutinizing and thus introduces harmful notions. Instead, television networks should lead by example in proving that same-sex relationships are different from no other in order to progress to the point of acceptance.
TV programs must represent same-sex relationships in an entertaining way that is both positive and respectful, while at the same time being committed to teaching about love and tolerance through leading by example – after all, the most successful children’s television shows need to be a safe space to learn without pushing lessons onto kids. I know from personal experience that I get bored when I’m formally taught something, and I don’t end up learning anything. For example, Netflix’s 2018 reboot of She-Ra is an excellent example of a children’s television show that is utterly queer in its themes and characters but does not formally attempt to address this representation. Further, this model of representation would not only serve as useful for children’s programs but should be adopted across all television programs to provide parents, friends, and family with a positive role model of queer inclusivity.
In both children’s television and in television more generally, it is important to celebrate different types of relationships. It creates an opportunity for people to look inward and see oneself as well as each other with deeper clarity, and this, in turn, nurtures greater togetherness and support. In short, positive representation fosters acceptance by giving people an optimistic vision of what a life of inclusivity could be like.