Saturday, December 20, 2014

Queer Representation in American Children’s Television: A Timeline

SPOILERS below for the series finale of The Legend of Korra.


I’m so freaking psyched about the Legend of Korra finale. I mean, so psyched. Happy-crying, talking excitedly to my cat, reckless-blogging psyched. Plausible deniability or not, it takes a lot of stretching and assumptions to convince yourself that the final shots of the series were not meant to indicate a romantic relationship between Korra and Asami. (If you disagree, okay, but I’m not here to argue the point—others have already done so much better than I could.) And while some people are disappointed by the lack of 100 percent bulletproof evidence of that relationship—a kiss, or a line of dialogue, or something—I think that rather misses the incredible importance of what did happen.

With all of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters that currently appear on TV (and make no mistake, there are a lot of them—maybe not enough, but more than anyone could have imagined a decade ago) I think people forget that, in the world of children’s television, things have not progressed nearly so far. And while Korra aged up a lot in its final seasons, it was, ultimately, a children’s show. The series finale aired on Nicktoons. It’s rated TV-Y7.

To give people an idea of the context that makes the Korra ending so important, then, I’ve created a timeline of queer representation in American children’s television. It’s probably incomplete, and it’s definitely short. I have not watched every children’s show ever to air in America, so it’s possible that some of the “firsts” I’ve listed are not, in fact, the first of their kind. I welcome any additions or corrections you might have; feel free to leave them in the comments, preferably with a link to a source. My hope is that this timeline will show people the shoulders on which the Korra finale stands, show how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go, and explain to my sister why, exactly, I woke her up at 6 a.m. EST to flail and cry about some cartoon she’s never heard of.


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Define your terms, people! For the purposes of this timeline, I’m defining a children’s series as any series aimed at viewers under the age of 13, OR any series airing on Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel, or Cartoon Network. “Queer representation” is a little trickier; I’m including characters who are confirmed by writers/actors/executives as being not straight, characters in a same-sex relationship with intentional cues that the viewers should read as romantic, and of course any characters who explicitly describe themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or otherwise not straight. I’m not including “coded gay” characters with no romantic plotlines. Obviously there is a lot of blurriness in this area, and I’ve attempted to give as much context as possible for each example.


February 7: The Superman: The Animated Series episode “Apokolips…Now!, Part 1” airs on The WB during its Saturday morning block. In the episode, Maggie Sawyer is hospitalized, and an unnamed woman stands at her bedside. Co-creator Bruce Timm confirms in audio commentary that the woman is Toby Raines, Sawyer’s girlfriend in the DC Comics universe.

November 18: The Hey Arnold! episode “Arnold’s Thanksgiving” airs on Nickelodeon. In the episode, Arnold and Helga visit their teacher Mr. Simmons’ (voiced by out gay actor Dan Butler) house on Thanksgiving, and witness an argument between Simmons’ mother and a character called Peter that implies that Peter and Simmons are in a relationship. Peter tells Simmons’ mother that there are “a lot of things [she] wasn’t expecting,” to which Simmons’ mother looks affronted. She tells Simmons that he should take his friend Joy to the ballet over the weekend, and Simmons, after glancing at an extremely displeased Peter, says he has other plans. Later, Peter offers Simmons’ mother stuffing; she asks him what he means by that. Though nobody in the episode ever explicitly mentions that Peter and Simmons are romantically linked, nor is the possibility that characters of the same sex could be romantically linked mentioned, this is an unprecedented level of canon indication that two characters are in a same-sex relationship. Mr. Simmons’ relationship with Peter achieves approximately the same level of in-universe confirmation as Helga’s mother’s alcoholism.


Unknown Date: Greg Weisman, co-creator and producer of the 1994 – 1997 Disney/ABC cartoon Gargoyles, confirms in an interview that character Lexington was envisioned as gay, but that attempts to address this subject on the show would not have made it to air.


February 28: In an online chat, Hey Arnold! creator Craig Bartlett confirms that supporting character Robert Simmons is gay, and that his scenes in the episode “Arnold’s Thanksgiving” were an acknowledgement of that.

October 22/November 27: In the third-season episode “Game, Set Up and Match,” animated series Braceface contains a plotline in which the main character tries to set up her male friend Dion with another man, Houston. The set-up fails, as neither Dion nor Houston is interested in having a relationship at the time. Dion never explicitly confirms his attraction to men, but Houston references having an ex-boyfriend. The fact that Dion declines to date Houston not because he’s another man, but because Dion is happy alone at the moment (along with the many, many ways in which Dion is coded gay) has generally been taken as confirmation of Dion’s sexuality. The episode’s final shot is a pan up to a rainbow in the sky overhead. Braceface was set, created, and initially aired in Canada on Teletoon. In the U.S., the Disney Channel aired the first two seasons, but dropped the third. But, to my knowledge, all three seasons aired on ABC Family in the Saturday morning block. The episode is therefore the first overtly romantic plotline between two characters of the same sex to air on U.S. children’s television.


March 10: 2000 – 2004 WB animated series Static Shock co-creator Dwayne McDuffie confirms on his message board that Rich Foley (based on the canonically gay character Rick Stone from the comics on which the show was based) was envisioned as gay: “It'll never come up in the show because it's Y-7 but as far as I'm concerned, Richie is gay.”


November 5: Greg Weisman, co-creator of the 2010 – 2013 Cartoon Network series Young Justice, confirms that he considers some of the series’ characters to be not straight, but that he is unable to portray that on air: “I also believe we have differently oriented characters in the series, even though we're not allowed to mention it out loud. (And just to be sure, I checked to see if we were allowed, and got a no answer. Everyone seems to want to get there, but we're not there yet.)”


January 26: The Disney Channel series Good Luck Charlie airs the episode “Down a Tree,” in which parents Amy and Bob arrange a playdate for their daughter Charlie with a friend, Taylor, from preschool. Amy and Bob each claim to have met Taylor’s mother, but Amy insists the woman’s name is Susan, while Bob is sure that her name is Cheryl. When Taylor arrives, her parents are two women, Susan and Cheryl. Susan and Cheryl are the first same-sex parents ever depicted on American children’s television.

August 7: Olivia Olson, the voice actor for Marceline on the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time, states at a book signing that Marceline and Princess Bubblegum are ex-girlfriends, but that the relationship could never be addressed explicitly within the show. She later tweets, “I like to make things up at panels. Ya’ll take my stories way too seriously…” The tweet is deleted and nothing further is said on the subject by anyone on the Adventure Time creative team. Together with numerous small moments in canon (most notably the episode “Sky Witch,” in which Bubblegum sleeps in a shirt given to her by Marceline), this is taken by fans as indication that Bubblegum and Marceline are canonically romantically linked.

October 23: The Cartoon Network series Clarence airs the episode “Neighborhood Grill.” The episode contains a brief scene in which a woman (Ms. Baker, the titular character’s teacher) waits for her blind date to arrive at a restaurant. She sees a man enter and look around, and believes him to be her date. Instead, the man greets another man, kisses him on the cheek, and walks off with him arm-in-arm. Writer Spencer Rothbell explained on Twitter that the original plan for the scene was for the first man to show up with flowers, and for the two men to kiss on the mouth. Despite the censorship, Clarence is the first children’s TV show to air a romantic same-sex kiss of any kind.

 December 19: The Legend of Korra two-part series finale “Day of the Colossus”/”The Last Stand” airs on Nicktoons. In the show’s final scenes, main character Korra talks to her long-time close friend Asami, and they confirm their need to have each other in their lives. The two agree to go on vacation together, alone. The two women set off into the portal to the Spirit World (their destination of choice), and take each other’s hand. In the final shot of the series, they turn to each other, take both hands, and stare into each other’s eyes. The scene contains several overt parallels to the ending of Korra’s predecessor series, The Last Airbender, in which main character Aang and his long-term love interest Katara finally kiss: the characters are framed in the same way, and a refrain from “The Avatar’s Love” (the theme that played behind Aang and Katara’s kiss) plays over the scene. Though Korra and Asami do not kiss, and never explicitly mention that they are together, the framing, timing, and body language of the final scene heavily imply it. The majority of fans and news outlets consider this canon confirmation that Korra and Asami are romantically linked. Series co-creator Michael Dante Dimartino posts (without commentary) links to several news articles and blog posts that talk about Korra and Asami’s romantic relationship. Korra becomes the first main character on children’s television to have even a semi-canonical same-sex relationship.

Milestones Not Yet Reached

To my knowledge, only one character in all of U.S. children’s television has ever categorized themselves explicitly as something other than straight: Braceface’s Houston, when he mentions having an ex-boyfriend. On Braceface, Dion never says that he’s gay (or bisexual, for that matter), and on Good Luck Charlie, Susan refers to Cheryl as “Taylor’s other mom,” rather than “my wife” or even “my partner.” For some reason, even as it has become increasingly acceptable to portray gay, bisexual, and otherwise queer characters on children’s shows, and even to confirm same-sex relationships with just about every contextual clue possible, actually saying the word "gay" remains taboo.

There are two kinds of same-sex couples that have so far appeared on American kids’ shows: Long-term, developed couples whose romantic relationship is hinted at, rather than 100 percent confirmed (Korra and Asami, Marceline and Princess Bubblegum, and Mr. Simmons and Peter, in varying degrees), and one-off, ancillary couples whose relationship is more explicit (Susan and Cheryl, the Clarence couple). It seems that the next big step in children’s television is to have a recurring same-sex couple whose relationship is overtly romantic.

And of course, though we tend to talk about LGBT representation as one big, globular thing, there's been essentially no trans representation in children's television in the U.S. Given that gay and bisexual representation is lagging several decades behind adult television, I imagine that will remain the case for a while.

Overall, though, 2014 has been a big year for queer representation in kids' TV. When milestones cluster up like this, it's a good sign. It means that the successes we're seeing now are not one-offs, are not flukes, but are in fact a trend. Despite the censorship, the network demands, the general sense that gay and bisexual characters should be at most alluded to, children's TV isn't just running in place; it's taking real steps towards diversity and representation. And for that, we can thank creators like Michael Dante Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko, like Craig Bartlett, like Greg Weisman, like Melissa Clark, who are fighting against a huge wall of institutional inertia to bring that diversity to the screen.
Thank you, all of you, so much. You have no idea how much it's appreciated.