Children’s programming has often made a conscious decision to push a social message upon its audience: Captain Planet was based around the idea of saving the planet and being eco-friendly, and Arthur (everyone’s favourite Canadian aardvark) had a special episode – starring Lance Armstrong – where his lunch-lady, Mrs MacGrady, was diagnosed with cancer and struggled facing chemotherapy. There are many more examples, but I will leave that for your Search Engines to explore.
These two examples have been critically acclaimed and received widespread praise. Livestrong (an organisation that provides support to guide people through the cancer experience) alongside PACT (Parenting at a Challenging Time) published an activities leaflet encouraging parents to watch the episode ‘The Great MacGrady’ with their children if they knew someone struggling with cancer. Captain Planet was nominated for a Daytime Emmy award and the Humanitas Prize. Introducing salient social issues into children’s programming seems to be an accepted practice.
However, I wonder whether our society will ever be comfortable enough with homosexuality to allow the issue to be more openly explored in children’s programming, i.e. not only to a young adult demographic, but even younger children (i.e. both the CBBC and CBeebies audience).
There have been a number of ‘outed’ gay characters in children’s entertainment, from both lead characters in ‘Ren & Stimpy’, and more recently Gobber in ‘How To Train Your Dragon 2’. Nonetheless, it’s hard to find a character that is openly gay or is seen with another member of the same sex in a loving capacity.
We could speculate that Dumbledore and Nicholas Flemmel had something going on, but we only knew about Hogwarts’ Headmaster’s orientation after-the-fact, and it doesn’t take priority as a major issue. Granted, not every single story and every single character needs to be explicitly about LGBTA (don’t forget asexual people) rights and issues, but nothing I can recall has attempted to tackle the matter head-on in recent history towards a younger demographic.
There are three main criticisms that are bound to come up against this idea:
- Homosexuality is wrong, perverse, unnatural and inhumane.
- Kids don’t even think about sex or love, so why mention it, let’s talk when they’re older.
- It’s okay for it to be mentioned, but it probably shouldn’t be encouraged.
I don’t want to answer the first point, if you still have such bigoted views then feel free to stop reading here. If you understand homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality or transgender problems, but still think it’s a choice that people make – contrary to countless testimonies and strong evidence supporting its natural occurrence – well, then just let people choose, why should that bother you?
It’s a natural phenomenon that occurs and will not destroy your lives by its very existence. Unless you’re like the people in this video:
Now, the other criticisms are a little trickier. If kids don’t think about sex or love and they just want to play in the mud, watch T.V. and pretend they’re dinosaurs, then is it something that should be presented to them at such an early age?
The Simpsons has received great acclaim from The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for their LGBT-directed episodes ‘Homer’s Phobia’ and ‘There’s Something About Marrying’. The Simpsons is a great example of the issue being tackled, but it does lend itself to a slightly more mature audience, aired on late night Prime Time television. Well, if that’s the case, you might think it’s not appropriate for children’s daytime TV but that it is okay to discuss in more adolescent or teenager-oriented shows, a demographic where they’re more likely to be going through those sorts of experiences.
The problem that arises here, is a blatant double standard. To accept this argument, and to fully accept homosexuality in our society, you would have to apply the same sexual-neutrality to straight couples in television. This means that children shouldn’t be brought up to see boy-girl relationships as normal, and therefore don’t perceive same-sex relationships to be abnormal. By having completely neutral programming, we would have to resort to purely platonic relationships and friendships, where parents aren’t present – such as The Tweenies, Teletubbies or even Thomas the Tank Engine.
Reading that, it sounds completely absurd. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to see Helga from Hey Arnold obsess over her love for ‘Football Head’ or watch Nickelodeon’s Doug constantly try to impress the girl of his dreams: Patti Mayonnaise? As television attempts to be more socially conscious by having a more accurate representation of society, we accept more empowered female characters (to decry sexism), we accept people of different ethnicities and religions (to publicly denounce racism, xenophobia and bigotry); surely this follows suit. Why should gay couples be left out?
So if we accept that, we can say it’s okay to have gay characters on children’s television, but not in any large capacity. Perhaps there’s someone who has two dads or two mums and it’s never mentioned in any great way, or in a special episode, the main character accepts another character for being gay.
But let’s go one step further. What if on an episode of Sesame Street, The Muppets or Bug Alert!, they discussed the issue of homosexuality, and Big Bird or some other children’s TV personality tells the kids (and the viewers) that some people are gay, and that being gay is okay. The characters are no longer background viewing or guest stars, but the message is being widely sent out that we as a society accept gay people and you might be gay, and if you are – it’s okay. That is a larger leap, and is arguably more controversial.
I’m ashamed to admit the following, but I think it needs to be said for a real representation of how people think and change beliefs. When I first started thinking about this issue, my instinct was to think that the approach above went too far. I couldn’t understand why, but the thought unsettled me. After going over it, I reached the conclusion that the only reason this was problematic for me, was that it might influence other people to become gay or if I had children, that they would be influenced to be gay. Once I realised that, I felt horrible.
Realising this, it meant that despite my support for gay rights and their right to equality, marriage and adoption, there was still a lingering part of me that was bigoted and prejudiced against the LGBT community. Why was I such a hypocrite? I brought this issue up with some of my close friends, who also support gay rights, and the same mental road block was raised.
What made me different from the parents in this article, who protested against an Assistant Head Teacher in Birmingham who then had to resign for writing books that challenged homophobia, which were used in literacy lessons with 10 and 11-year-olds? How am I separate from One Million Moms and their crusade against Marvel Comics for having a gay wedding between Northstar and his long-time lover Kyle? There was nothing I could say to justify my paranoia or ridiculous belief. Holding that belief made me a bigot, so it was time to change my thought pattern.
So, after finding no reason to disagree with homosexuality being discussed in children’s television in any capacity, I’ve changed my opinion. Be gay, talk about being gay, find out about being gay. There should be no problem with it. If I have a gay son or daughter, then he or she is going to be the best son or daughter in the world and nothing will change that. As for answering the question Will we ever see openly gay characters on children’s television: I hope so.
What do you think?