One year after same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States, the political and personal realities for LGBTQ+ Americans are still fraught. Just this week, 49 people were killed in a gay-friendly nightclub in Orlando, simply because of who they are and whom they love.
Children’s television programs are meant to not only entertain and occupy the time of impressionable children, but to teach them lessons to prepare them for life. But when programs reflect a white, heterosexual supremacy rather than the diversity of the real communities and identities children live in or around, they’re failing to engender pride or tolerance for difference.
It hasn’t been easy to get queer characters into children’s shows. When Sailor Moon debuted in the U.S., Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were changed from girlfriends to cousins. Lest you think this was just a thing that happened in the 1990s and earlier, in 2014 the Cartoon Network censored a kiss between two men on the show Clarence, and Adventure Time has been unable to run an explicit storyline about the relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline.
This April the new Powerpuff Girls included a transgender storyline that seemed great in theory but crashed and burned in practice. The episode featured a pony that wanted to be a unicorn, but saw the pony forcibly outed by Buttercup (who continually mocked the pony throughout the episode), tokenized by Bubbles (who only helped the pony because she always wanted a unicorn for a friend), and then terrified by the Professor, who warned that a pony-to-unicorn procedure could go really badly before literally turning the pony into a monster. Here we are later, and we still need to do better.
Openly queer characters are still scarce in children’s programming, and outside of fanfiction (read the zine Queer Sailor Moon Fanfiction Saved My Life to get an idea of how important these characters can be), we’ve generally had to look to ambiguous characters for visibility. When television shows for children break heteronormative barriers, they stretch the relative powers of their characters and allow children to not only see themselves or their relatives in their programming, but to see that the world is bigger than what children’s programming has traditionally shown them.
Here are just a handful of characters that have made all the difference for children looking for someone like them on TV:
Pee-wee Herman, Pee-wee’s Playhouse
Since we first saw Pee-wee Herman on the big screen in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), queer theorists have been writing about ambiguity and inclusivity in all of Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee output. And now, with Pee-wee’s Big Holiday in 2016, the queerness of Pee-wee is less ambiguous than ever before.
The new film focuses on Pee-wee’s relationship with real-life actor Joe Manganiello (or a fictionalized version who does not seem to be married to Sofia Vergara). The relationship, which begins over a milkshake in a diner Pee-wee works at, can be read as a deep, immediate friendship or as love at first sight. Either way, by expanding the potential definitions of same-sex relationships, it lets more children see themselves in the character.
Gonzo and Janice, The Muppet Show
As scholar Jordan Schildcrout notes in his 2008 paper “The Performance of Nonconformity on the Muppet Show, or How Kermit Made Me Queer,” Muppets can bend gender and sexual norms. Gonzo, in particular, has a lot of freedom because his non-specific species allows him to represent anyone. Gonzo was sometimes romantically attached to a female chicken, but other times he was dancing with Kermit, telling him how “lovely” he looks tonight or falling in Gene Kelly’s lap, fluttering his eyelashes and asking for a serenade.
As for Janice — who I remember not being sure how to read, gender-wise, when I was a child — Schildcrout writes: “Janice seems coolly unconcerned with heterosexual attachments — her identity can stand on its own.” Plus: Janice kills it in a tux!
Spongebob and Patrick, Spongebob Squarepants
Seeing gender as performative rather than prescriptive, Spongebob Squarepants and Patrick Star have relatively fluid identities. In particular, an episode from season three sees Spongebob and Patrick enter into a parental partnership to take care of a baby scallop and Spongebob transitions quickly and easily into a traditional mothering role. According to creator Stephen Hillenburg, the duo are meant to be asexual, but fans read them as supportive partners, whether that’s as best friends or more.
Peppermint Patty and Marcie, Peanuts
Like Spongebob and Patrick, Peppermint Patty and Marcie are friends who are often construed as partners. In the original Peanuts comics, Charles Schulz wrote them as two girls who had crushes on Charlie Brown (good grief), and that crush on Chuck still seems to be there in the 2015 film. However, viewers have long seen something more between Patty and Marcie, too. Whether a heightened relationship was overtly planned by Schulz or not, the relationship between the two is meaningful to viewers — Deviant Art is teeming with steamy interpretations of the two together — and it’s beautiful, as evidenced by this exchange from Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977):
Peppermint Patty: If you want a better way of life, Marcie, you always have to cross an ocean, or a desert, or a mountain. Sometimes, however, your whole life can be changed by crossing a crowded room.
Marcie: That’s a romantic thought, sir.
From 1994 to 1997, this cartoon series featured stone gargoyles from the 10th century who were brought to 20th-century New York City. Lexington was the technical expert of the clan who learned computer programming and helped save NYC over and over by lending his tech savvy and engineering know-how. Throughout the series, no direct mention was made of his sexuality, but there were hints of it; show creator Greg Weisman eventually told ComicMix in 2008 that “over time, we learned more about the characters. And towards the end, it occurred to us that Lexington was gay but that he didn’t know it.”
In the same interview, Weisman explained why the show never outed Lex:
“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.”
Zoit, Lloyd in Space
In a 2002 episode of the Disney cartoon Lloyd in Space, a stereotypical battle of the sexes ensues (where the boys love metal and the girls like soft music, amongst other differences). Then they meet the new kid in town, Zoit. Turns out, Zoit is from a land where kids determine their own gender at age 13. It’s days before Zoit’s 13th birthday and the other kids decide to bet on which gender they’ll choose. The episode itself is dripping in gendered stereotypes as the girls woo Zoit with shopping, sad/romantic movies, and makeup, while the boys try to win them with burping, junk food, and throwing rocks. But Zoit wins the episode by deciding not to tell the others what gender they chose in the end “because it’s none of your business.”
Ruby and Sapphire, Steven Universe
Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe is all kinds of awesome for many reasons: The main characters are three super-powered, kick-ass women called the Crystal Gems who continuously save the world; the other main character (the titular Steven) has a moment where he rides a goat singing about how he wishes he could be a giant woman; and all three Crystal Gems are voiced by women of color, to name but a few. And then there’s Ruby and Sapphire.
One of the Crystal Gems (Garnet) is made out of a fusion of two female gems named Ruby and Sapphire. All gems are able to fuse together in this world, but these two are so in love with each other that they stay fused together all the time. In an episode where they are separated, upon their reunion they kiss, re-fuse, and then fight an enemy while singing a song about how their love makes them powerful, which contains the lyrics:
Go ahead and try and hit me if you’re able.
Can’t you see that my relationship is stable?
I can see you hate the way we intermingle.
But I think you’re just mad ’cause you’re single.
And you’re not gonna stop what we made together.
We are gonna stay like this forever.
If you break us apart, we’ll just come back newer.
And we’ll always be twice the gem that you are.
Through Ruby, Sapphire, and all of Steven Universe (which also features a gender-neutral character that is made out of a fusion between Steven and his best friend Connie), there’s hope that in the future, queer visibility in children’s TV can be more than “ambiguous” or silent.