Social issues

Will we ever see openly gay characters on children’s television?

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:

  1. Homosexuality is wrong, perverse, unnatural and inhumane.
  2. Kids don’t even think about sex or love, so why mention it, let’s talk when they’re older.
  3. 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?

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4 thoughts on “Will we ever see openly gay characters on children’s television?

  1. Hey, Hari- a very thoughtful piece.

    Frankly, I’d like to open by saying that my mind is not made up on the issue. But I’m sure you know me well enough to realise I like to counter pretty much any argument, and see where that gets me.

    Firstly, it seems that the inclusion of homosexual characters in children’s television in the context you’ve set out here would be to the purpose of familiarising children with the concept of gay couples. I believe that the pursuit of any political or sociological agenda through children’s TV, now matter how just the cause may seem, can be dangerous and inappropriate. You may argue that the exclusion of homosexual characters is an agenda in itself, but I don’t believe so. Writer’s do not make these decisions with the intention of fostering homophobia or ignorance.

    Equally, if a writer had artistic reasoning in his decision to write a gay character, and he/she was presented in no more a sexual context than cuddling/light kissing as is the norm in children’s programs, then he/she would have every right to do so.

    Unless..consider this: It is the case that there are significantly more heterosexual people in this country than homosexual. Children will far more frequently encounter straight couples engaging lovingly in their lives. So, when they see straight couples in cartoons, it not likely to raise any questions. The opposite is true of homosexual couples- and here comes the problem for me. It is seems it is impossible to discus sexuality without an understanding of sex itself. Depending on your opinion, children of the cBeebies age range are too young for sex education (but that’s a whole other argument).

    Cbbc’s audience, however, would make an ideal age range, and perhaps in the context discussed earlier it would appropriate.

    Like

    • Hey Sam,

      Thanks for reading and providing your reply. In terms of your comment about the population divide, that the gay community is a minority, that’s why I mentioned that not every story or every show should on TV needs to have homosexuality as a central issue.

      In response to your criticism about writers’ intentions, just because someone doesn’t intentionally want to exclude a group or deride a cause, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their writing cannot or does not contain subverted prejudice, consciously or subconsciously.

      When you say that we should avoid programming with any sort of social or political agenda driving it, I agree that it can be dangerous but it’s too simple to just aspire for a neutral agenda for two reasons.

      1) Although minority groups are not representative of the majority of society (by their very nature) this leaves them vulnerable to be marginalised and may require that they ought to be focused on more consciously in order to ensure these groups are represented. If 8-10% of the population are ethnic minorities, shouldn’t it be reasonable that at least 8-10% of programming should focus on their lives and done justly? Maybe programming in London should be even more conscious as the ethnic population is far higher in that city.

      2) Neutral programming is a great idea, but social constructs and ideas have been presented throughout the media to push agendas for decades on end. To undo the programming already pushed upon society, maybe you need to make a more conscious effort to battle those prejudices.

      Your criticism about needing to accompany the agenda of homosexuality with an understanding of sex is a good point, maybe it should be kept to talking about love and relationships between same-sex couples and accepting that?

      I’d like to get people from the LGBTQA community to offer their opinion.

      Like

  2. Mila A. says:

    Firstly, Hi Hari, long time no see!
    I didn’t know you had a website. I just came across it on FB.

    Anyway, to the point. You’ve brought up an important subject – I’d even say its the elephant in the room in many ways. I’m still quite a conservative person in many ways, so keep that in mind.

    Years before we began to politicise everything and anything, institutionalise it, verify and police it, cartoons and children’s programs didn’t have hidden meanings (ok we can argue about Disney being a fan of Mary Magdalene or *insert wacky conspiracy theory here* but we dont really know what really was on his mind and children certainly dont care or understand enough to care). Children look at things without the layers of social codes as well as prejudices formed by experiences or education that adults have in their brains which effectively distort any incoming information.

    Just statistically, children back then were mentally healthier. It may also be connected to the fact that children are exposed to so much violence in the media, unhealthy food, bad ecology, all these things, but engineering children’s programs and scrutinising them for ‘hidden racism’ (that’s also considering that most adults don’t even have a correct notion of what ‘racism’ constitutes – 90% of usages of the word are incorrect, perhaps even more) and other things only visible to adult eyes certainly hasn’t improved anything in my opinion.

    Cartoons and children’s programmes are in many ways reductionist or embellished models of every day life in many ways. Possibly because life is becoming increasingly complicated, due to advent of new technology and changing inter-human relationships and perceptions of them, and it is difficult to reduce it to cartoon form like it was years back when hierarchies were clearer, means of communication narrower…the world smaller? So I don’t want to underestimate the difficulty that makers of childrens’ programmes face. Even so, I don’t think an institution should be made of it for two reasons.

    Firstly, children are already exposed to too much sex-related media; young girls dye their hair, wear red lipstick (why is red attractive on lips? because of the stimulation of blood flow to the lips during the fertile phase of a woman’s cycle!), participate in beauty pageants, etc..they are being sexualised even before their body has undergone the changes of puberty. In many ways that is no better or different from the problems associated with marrying off a girl of 10 or 11 as was often done earlier in human history.Sending open messages about sexuality through childrens’ programmes is in the same league in my opinion.

    Second, people hold different beliefs about being gay. I’m not talking about people who are prejudiced or bigoted. That’s different. Many people are not as comfortable with the concept and would certainly not want their children to watch a program that encourages homosexuality. People come from different cultures and religions and societies. beliefs on homosexuality may be different. For many its not the homosexuality itself even that is the issue, but openly shouting about things related to sexuality in general (ref. my prev. point). I belong to that camp personally. I generally support a more collective mentality as opposed to one of radical individualism. Of course UK is individualistic, but again keep in mind that there may be people that still don’t feel comfortable with this kind of openness.

    The point is, that parents need to teach children to respect other people, and to understand that differing beliefs, opinions, skin colours, languages cultures, etc…are not a legitimate base for discrimination against people. If such a foundation is instilled into a child from a young age, this will later extend to LGBTA as well. And if the child grows up to belong to one of these groups, he/she will feel less ostracised because he will have learnt that being different is not a stigma. A great example is the Moomin cartoons. I’m not surprised Scandinavian countries are generally quite open-minded and low on prejudice against sexual minorities judging from the kind of childrens’ programs they produce. children are taught that the world is full of variety and to respect this variety. And the characters are not sexualised in any way.

    I foresee a counter-argument here, possibly someone will latch on to my reference to ‘being different’, and might say that children should be taught that being LGBTA is not ‘different’ but on par with heterosexual relationships. Unfortunately, they are not for the simply biological reason that they do not promote the promulgation of humans as a species. You might argue that there’s already an issue with over-population. Well, yes, there is, but remember that selective pressures are what promotes the selection of healthy genes and the development of a stronger species, so we cannot stop reproducing altogether! Artificial reproduction methods don’t deserve comment here because they do not replace human relationships or the value of a child growing up in a family where there is a man and a woman. This has nothing to do with bigotry.

    So my bottom line is, stop sexualising and over-thinking plots to cartoons. We dont know how these things will affect child psychologies. Take an example from the Moomins! Teach love and respect. Everything else will come. I’d go on to say proletarians unite, but I don’t want to get killed, so I’ll leave that for another post…;-)

    Peace
    Mila

    Like

    • Hey Mila,

      Nice to hear from you again, it’s been a long time. Thanks for reading my post, and for taking the time to leave your thoughts. I wanted to reply to a few of the arguments you’ve made. I agree with you that it’s disturbing to see child beauty pageants and little girls wearing make up far too young. I don’t really understand what you mean by children were statistically much happier in the past, what do you mean by that? I can’t imagine black or Asian children were happier fifty years ago (just as one example). You said that 90% of people’s use of the word ‘racism’ is wrong, but I don’t really understand the point you’re making? I’m sure people misunderstand the issues surrounding race, but at least they’re conscious of the problem: and it’s still nowhere near idyllic.

      I do think the idea of sex is different from violence though in this aspect. Call of Duty is one of the most played and famous games in the world and I don’t see a link between that and increasing violence among society or mass killings happening on a regular basis. Netflix recently brought back a whole bunch of cartoons from the 90s, including The Power Puff Girls. That show involved the main characters beating people senseless, and sometimes without any cause.

      Again, I don’t think that really instilled a violent nature in everyone who watched. Now, the idea of violence against women or misogynistic abuse might be a different topic. So there is definitely strength in the ideas that children don’t care enough about those issues at that age to understand, but it doesn’t mean the issue stops there. Perhaps it means that it needs to explored explicitly then in order to promote the issue. That’s the opinion I hold anyway for the reasons given during the final paragraphs in my blog post.

      Alternatively, maybe we take the issue away from children’s television, but I argue that the opinion is just as controversial by putting it to parents. Parents should tell children about gay people in the world and teaching tolerance in the same way that we should teach them to be tolerant about other races and beliefs. In a similar vein to the response I gave Sam, I don’t think mentioning homosexuality/bisexuality is only able to be explored in a sexualised manner (the issue of asexuality might be different, and perhaps more appropriate for an older audience). Without sounding too crude, you can talk about men loving men and women loving women and not have to talk about penises and vaginas. So you can focus on the idea of love rather than sex.

      Now, you make a point about a lot of people who would not want their children to watch any television that promotes homosexuality. My point for this article is to try and make the argument that we shouldn’t have a problem with this if we can accept it is natural,

      You also mentioned that it is okay to teach them about tolerance for other religions and races. and I’m sure some very religious people would also disagree with the promotion of other faiths in an equal standing to their own – I think this is also deplorable and we should teach our kids (whether through television or just through parenting) about the people in the world and to accept everyone.

      Now, your final point, although you say it has nothing to do with bigotry, it does come across that way. Sure, there is a genetic or biological difference between straight and gay people, but I don’t think it is of any consequence. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense in the way you put it as a natural/evolutionary sense in order to spread the seed and reproduce, but again – I don’t think that is of any consequence.

      You argue about the loss of “the value of a child growing up in a family where there is a man and a woman” – this comes across quite strongly as to suppose that two men or two women in a loving relationship cannot take care of a child and are in some way a lesser couple when it comes to bringing children up. I don’t really see anything to support that apart from speculation and thoughts of fear. Adopted and foster children will always find it hard to acclimate to a new environment, but I don’t see a problem with gay couples adopting them or having artificial insemination just because they are gay. There are plenty of terrible man and woman or traditional parents out there. Just as importantly, I have to make the point that there are some fantastic single mothers and fathers out there too who have raised fantastic children (including me). So I can’t see why having two loving parents would go awry.

      Maybe I’m overthinking the idea in the context of children’s television, that was my interesting hook to start thinking about the subject. But I think it can still be a strong argument if you consider it to apply directly to parents talking to their children.

      Like

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